Keeping the embers alive

We have rescued people from prosecution for more than 40 years.

In very concrete terms, with the help of the Norwegian authorities, we have transferred several individuals, in life-threatening circumstances, to safety in Norway. This may have saved the lives of exposed human rights defenders. Countless stories from people in many countries show, that although anti-democratic forces are strong, we make a difference.

Elenas fight

One of the strongest stories I know is about Elena Goncharuk, an ethnic Russian woman who lived in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya. In the winter of 2000, she was wounded during the shelling of the city by federal forces. Seeking refuge in the basement, together with her elderly Chechen neighbors, she was detained by Russian soldiers during a mop up operation. In the ensuing massacre, all her neighbors were shot and killed. Elena was wounded and left for dead under their bodies.

When the soldiers left, she managed to escape and get treatment in hospital. However, after she complained to the courts, she was threatened and had no option but to go into hiding. In 2004, we brought her to Norway with the aid of the Norwegian Immigration Directorate. She applied to Strasbourg, and in 2007 the Court ruled against Russia in the landmark case.


In Elena’s case, protection was a prerequisite for justice. The ruling is an important record highlighting the grave crimes that occurred during the Second Chechen war. In this case, I think our work has had an impact, even though the human rights situation in Chechnya remains profound.

Unfortunately, the human rights struggle never ends. We will never arrive in a utopia where there is justice and freedom for all. Although it is often hard to measure the results of human rights monitoring, advocacy and education, that does not mean that our work is fruitless.

Do we have impact?

Looking back at the history of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and of the global human rights movement, I think there are moments when we have made a difference.

The fight on facts

In an age of polarized opinions and manufactured news, the role of an independent and factual arbiter is important. Sometimes in Norway, and especially in other states, we have played that role. 

In the spring of 2011 NRK and SVT showed a documentary about the massacre at Srebrenica, which was neither factually accurate nor balanced, and went a long way in denying that genocide took place. After a lively public debate and a complaint from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Media’s professional boards (Pressens faglige utvalg og Granskningsnämnden för radio och TV) of Norway and Sweden, both stated that the documentary violated the ethical and professional code of journalists.

Personally, I recall that we made the choice not to remain silent after observing a rigged election in Albania in 1996. When the OSCE’s permanent council would not issue a statement on behalf of the international election observation mission, of which we were a part of, we went public with our findings together with British observers. 

Our statement, although based on facts, provoked massive condemnation by the then Albanian authorities, but – I think – also contributed to their losing legitimacy at home and abroad, and ultimately their power a few months later. 

Strengthening civil society

The main result of our work is the strengthened civil society in the states that emerged from Soviet oppression a generation ago. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s model consists of two components: We are both donor and professional partner. One example shows that this role is both appreciated and loathed: Ivar Dale, our representative in Central Asia was in 2008, declared persona non grata in Kyrgyzstan by the security police. Two years later, after the Kyrgyz revolution, one of the first decrees of the new president was to allow Ivar back into the country. 

Although the wounds from the wars in the Western Balkans during the nineties have still not been healed, I notice that some of the young people who took part in the human rights schools organized by us, in cooperation with the Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Kosovar Helsinki Committees, have later become civic leaders, speaking up for human rights and reconciliation. That gives me hope. 

In an era where human rights are under pressure, I remember a quote attributed to our old colleague and Nobel, laureate Sakharov: “At night it is important to keep the embers alive until the next morning.” Supporting our brave partners in the global human rights movement  is like that: Keeping the embers alive. 

– Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General

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