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Seen as contenders for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize: Climate, vaccines, press freedom and opposition activists

A gold Nobel Prize medal. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

The Nobel Peace Prize has been described as one of the greatest honors that anyone can receive. It’s bestowed on individuals and organizations for promoting peace and “fraternity between nations.”

Every year, speculation is rife over which of the hundreds of nominees will receive the award. (Last year, it went to the United Nations’ World Food Program.) The choice is often controversial, especially when it’s a sitting world leader, as happened in 2019 with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who went on to become embroiled in a civil war. The 2021 prize is to be announced Friday in Oslo. Here are a few people and entities seen as contenders.

The Covax vaccine initiative

As wealthy nations dominated the market for vaccines, the coronavirus vaccine Global Access initiative became one of the only ways for much of the world to get immunized. A venture backed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization, it aimed to distribute 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021 — a goal it failed to achieve.

The very vaccine inequity it aimed to avoid occurred: Wealthy nations are flush with doses, and the world’s poorest countries are largely untouched, as the initiative struggles to get 1.4 billion doses out by the end of the year.

A win for Covax, however, would fit the pattern for the Nobel committee to reward good efforts and symbols of hope — with an eye toward future achievements. Deeply intertwined with the Covax initiative is the WHO and its head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — although the prize was awarded last year to another United Nations organization, and it has rarely been given for work related to public health.

The WHO has kept up a relentless pace of high-level meetings and news briefings throughout the pandemic, acting as a global voice of conscience amid the stark inequities in vaccine access. It has also found itself at the center of great-power competition between Washington and Beijing and has been criticized for its pandemic response.

— Adam Taylor

Ilham Tohti, Uyghur activist

Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was jailed for life in China in 2014 on charges of separatism and has been an outspoken critic of the government’s ethnic policies in his native Xinjiang, where authorities have been accused of waging a campaign of cultural genocide against Uyghurs.

Tohti was chiefly known for his calls for dialogue and moderation at a time when ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese erupted into violence in the 1990s. He co-founded the website Uyghur Online at the end of 2006 to draw attention to discrimination faced by Uyghurs, as well as to provide a platform for exchange between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

He won the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014, the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom and the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2019.

— Lily Kuo

Israel’s B’Tselem and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights

The two organizations — one Israeli, one Palestinian — have worked for decades to document human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and promote a peaceful resolution to the long conflict.

B’Tselem has monitored the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and chronicled infringements on civil rights. In January, it released an explosive report declaring that Israeli actions and policies in restricting Palestinians’ freedom of movement and residency amounted to a form of racial apartheid.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, founded by Raji Sourani in 1995, has worked throughout the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem to document human rights violations, provide legal aid to victims of abusive government action and bring Palestinian legal standards into line with international norms — angering both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

— Steve Hendrix and Shira Rubin

Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition activist

Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading opposition figure, President Vladimir Putin’s sharpest critic and the country’s most prominent political prisoner. After narrowly surviving a poisoning last year, he returned to Russia in January and was promptly imprisoned for violating parole in another case because of his medical treatment abroad.

Navalny and his allies use YouTube and social media to air exposés of official corruption. A video posted just after his January arrest, “Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Largest Bribe,” alleged the Russian president benefits from colossal graft. Through his Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny has perhaps done more than anyone else to expose Russia’s systemic corruption and to challenge the Kremlin’s portrayal of Putin as a virtuous savior who rescued Russia from chaos and poverty.

Kremlin officials usually avoid speaking his name. Navalny estimates that the current raft of cases against him could keep him in prison for the next 23 years.

— Robyn Dixon

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the Belarusian opposition

The greatest opposition threat that Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko has faced in more than two decades was a woman who never intended to run for president. With her husband under arrest after announcing plans to run, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya took up his bid. She lost in a vote that was widely criticized and fled the country days after the election.

She has become the face of a movement challenging Lukashenko’s rule; she has presented herself as Belarus’s legitimate leader. Tikhanovskaya has spent the past year traveling to bring international attention to the situation in Belarus. She met with President Biden in July.

— Isabelle Khurshudyan

Nathan Law, Hong Kong activist

Nathan Law helped organize the 2014 Umbrella Movement calling for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. He went on to become a key figure in the 2019 protests for greater democracy and founded the Demosisto political party advocating for a referendum on Hong Kong’s fate after its official handover to China. He was elected to the city’s legislature before he was disqualified. His party was dissolved and he fled before the implementation of a draconian new security law.

Law was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, and he continues his advocacy work on democracy in Hong Kong from Britain, where he was granted asylum.

— Theodora Wu

Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists

The past several years have not been easy for journalists, with high-profile murders of members of the news media. At the forefront in the battle to safeguard them have been two organizations: the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

CPJ, based in New York, keeps a tally of journalists worldwide who have been killed, either on the job or in direct reprisal for their work. It brings attention to those who have been imprisoned or were victims of unsolved killings. In the summer of 2021, it was part of a major effort to evacuate Afghan journalists after Kabul’s fall to the Taliban.

Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, runs public media campaigns to draw attention to journalists at risk. In 2020, it received more than 500 requests for assistance from individual journalists and news organizations.

— Elahe Izadi

Greta Thunberg, climate change activist

Since her solitary protests outside Sweden’s parliament at age 15, demanding aggressive action against climate change, grew into a global movement, Greta Thunberg has been seen annually as a contender for the Nobel Prize.

The coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdowns pushed her global campaign and others like it into the virtual realm. But in recent weeks, the 18-year-old came roaring back by excoriating politicians in a recent speech in Milan, where she described promises by government leaders as “blah blah blah” and chided their lack of progress in combating climate change. “Words that sound great but so far have not led to action,” she said. “Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

Ahead of November’s COP26 summit on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland, the Nobel committee could turn to this teenager to deliver a message.

— Brady Dennis

Read more:

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Nobel Peace Prize goes to World Food Program for efforts to combat hunger

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