Belarus Retains Death Penalty, Promotes UN Reform - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Lambrinidis meets human rights activists in Minsk

In the first half of March, the EU’s top human rights official came to Minsk to talk President Alexander Lukashenka into introducing a temporary moratorium on the death penalty.

The Belarusian authorities are very willing to discuss human rights with Europe but remain reluctant to take specific action.

At the UN, Belarusian diplomats continue to promote greater inclusion of rank-and-file UN members in the decision-making process, this time by advocating a stronger role for them in selecting the next UN head. These actions are at odds with Russia’s position on this matter.

Lukashenka meets the EU human rights head

On 9-11 March, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, visited Belarus. The EU official met ministers for foreign affairs, the interior, justice and information. His agenda also included meetings with opposition and civil society leaders, independent journalists and human rights activists.

Lukashenka received Lambrinidis on the first day of his visit in Minsk. The Belarusian leader sounded reconciliatory and constructive. He expressed satisfaction with the fact that Belarus and Europe had “abandoned [their] head-on confrontation”.

Lukashenka spoke in favour of a “permanent dialogue, permanent contacts”. However, he claimed Belarus’ right to have its own understanding of human rights issues.

Lukashenka and Lambrinidis agreed that trade and human rights are interrelated but disagreed on cause and effect. The Belarusian president stressed that, with the development of trade and economic relations, human rights issues would disappear on their own.

The EU official, in his turn, believes that the improvement of the human rights situation in the country will result in more trade and foreign investment.

Belarus retains death penalty as a bargaining tool

Lambrinidis came to Minsk to persuade Lukashenka to introduce a temporary moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus. Belarus is the only country in Europe where capital punishment is still applied.

The issue of the death penalty remains at the top of Europe's demands vis-a-vis Belarus. When lifting the sanctions in February, the European Council “condemn[ed] the application of the death penalty in Belarus … and urge[d] the Belarusian authorities to set up a moratorium as a first step towards its abolition”.

On 10 March, the Belarusian foreign ministry and the UNDP office in Minsk organised an international conference titled The Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide. Speaking at the conference, Lambrinidis urged Belarus’ highest authorities to show their political will by abolishing capital punishment.

The Belarusian authorities continue to shelter themselves behind public opinion. Opening the conference, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov pointed to the fact that most Belarusians still support the death penalty. “We cannot and will not ignore this fact, including in the context of dialogue with our much esteemed European partners”, Rybakov stressed.

Abolition of the death penalty would be one of the easiest steps for the authorities to take in order to please Europe. Unlike concessions on freedom of speech or assembly, such a decision would hardly undermine the regime’s grip on society. Public opinion on this subject can be easily ignored or tweaked.

Abolition of the death penalty or even a moratorium would improve Belarus’ image in Europe. It would help the European bureaucracy to rationalise the need for more cooperation with Minsk. Belarus would finally be able to join the Council of Europe.

However, one should not expect the Belarusian authorities to take such a step in the near future. They realise fully well the bargaining power that retention of the death penalty provides. Thus, they will likely choose to play this card at a more crucial moment, as they did with the release of political prisoners.

A temporary moratorium on the death penalty can hardly be an option. Lukashenka realises that nothing is more permanent than the temporary. Once the moratorium is in place, it will be difficult to withdraw it without damaging the country’s reputation.

At this stage, the maximum Europe may expect from Belarus on the death penalty is more dialogue and a lot of talking. The same also applies to other divisive issues between Belarus and Europe.

Belarus reforms the UN

By the end of 2016, the United Nations will appoint its new Secretary-General for the next several years. An informal regional rotation arrangement provides that the next head of the UN Secretariat should come from among Eastern European countries.

This factor makes the forthcoming selection process an important exercise for Belarusian diplomacy.

On 29 February, speaking at an informal brainstorming session, Belarus’ ambassador to the UN Andrei Dapkiunas insisted on the appointment of the UN’s chief through a secret ballot. Though the existing rules require such a procedure, in practice, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) always rubber-stamps the candidate recommended by the Security Council.

Belarus also wants the UNGA to withdraw its own recommendation (made in 1946) to the Security Council to “proffer one candidate only” for the appointment.

Throughout the UN's entire history, the UN Secretary General has remained a product of consensus of the Security Council’s permanent members. Submitting more than one candidate to the UNGA would mean effectively letting the wider international community have the final say on the matter.

Even if the UNGA adopts the Belarusian proposal, it is highly unlikely that China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States would agree to relinquish their control over who will head the organisation.

Nevertheless, this year the process of selection and appointment of the Secretary General promises to be more transparent and inclusive for member states. The process starts in April when Belarus will chair the UN’s Eastern European Group (EEG). The country’s mission at the UN seeks to organise a high-level EEG event with participation of potential candidates.

A UN official told Belarus Digest that Belarus favoured the candidature of Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian politician and UNESCO's Director-General. Bokova visited Belarus in April 2014 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s UNESCO membership.

Belarus’ activity in reforming the appointment process has been frowned upon by Russia, which does not welcome any change that could undermine its role at the UN. Belarusian diplomats have taken this into account by softening their reforming zeal. However, they are still pressing ahead with their agenda.

Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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