Human rights in Belarus: Can dialogue work?
This July, the European Union and Belarus held their 4th round of bilateral dialogue on human rights in Brussels. The parties focused on civil, political, and social rights in both Belarus and Europe.
Belarus hopes to put human rights issues on the back burner in its relationship with the West. At the same time, the country’s authorities understand that avoiding any discussion of this subject could hamper the modest rapprochement between the two parties.
Meanwhile, the West continues to put pressure on Belarus in international human rights bodies, in particular the UN Human Rights Council. In late June, the HRC extended international monitoring of the human rights situation in Belarus for another year.
Only time will tell which of the two policies – dialogue or critical monitoring – will prove more effective in instigating democratic change in Belarus.
Dubious results of human rights dialogue
Belarus and the European Union held their first round of human rights dialogue in June 2009 in Prague. They discussed a range of problems in a ‘constructive and open atmosphere’. As Belarus objected to the inclusion of civil society activists to the debate at that time, EU officials met with representatives of Belarusian NGOs prior to negotiations.
The regime’s harsh crackdown on the opposition in December 2010 put the human rights dialogue with Belarus on hold. Meetings according to the previous formate resumed only in July 2015, at the instigation of the Belarusian authorities, following the thaw in Belarus-Europe relations.
The recent round of dialogue in Brussels focused on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; electoral rights, the death penalty, prison reform, anti-discrimination policy, gender equality, and the fight against violence in the family.
Representatives of Belarusian NGOs were able to speak during part of the meeting. The civil society delegation included the leaders of a human rights centre, a journalist association, and several social initiatives.
According to Aleh Hulak, the chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Belarusian officials made no promises and failed to elaborate on any plans for change. ‘They kept repeating: we’ve heard it, we’ll work on it, and we’ll answer this later. They did not challenge, did not refuse to talk, did not deny the problem’, Hulak said in an interview with the news portal TUT.BY.
Although dialogue may be a better alternative to confrontation, doubts remain about the efficacy of this method. So far, there have been no signs that the authorities intend to take any recommendations into account, in particular when it comes to civil and political rights.
Earlier in June, the EU and China held their 35th round of human rights dialogue. The dismal human rights record of the Chinese government may be a telling testimony to the value of this diplomatic tool.
Still a target for special mandates
Despite their engagement in human rights dialogue with Belarus, Western countries show no signs of going easy on Belarus when it comes to human rights procedures at the United Nations.
On 23 June, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus. Thirty-six European nations, as well as Canada, Japan, and the United States co-sponsored the document.
The HRC expressed its continued concern about the situation of human rights in Belarus, especially the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression. It also noted the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders, NGOs, and the mass media in Belarus.
The Council urged the Belarusian government ‘to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary’ and ‘to implement without delay the comprehensive reform of the electoral legal framework’.
Attempting to prevent the adoption of the resolution, a Belarusian diplomat claimed in Geneva that ‘the human rights situation in Belarus [was] not radically different from most countries of the world’ and it did not threaten anyone in Belarus or abroad.
Belarus’s line of argument is that country-specific UN mechanisms are meaningless and useless and direct dialogue with interested countries should be preferred . This argument found support from such human rights ‘champions’ as Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as well as a few other developing countries.
Despite Belarus’s efforts, the Council adopted the resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus by a vote of 18 in favour (mostly Western countries but also nations such as Brazil, Ghana, Panama, and Paraguay), eight against, and 21 abstentions.
The resolution extended the country-specific mechanism for Belarus for another year; it has been in place since 2012. This autumn, Belarus will have to face another debate on the human rights situation in the country at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York and the subsequent adoption of another resolution.
The authorities’ sworn enemy visits Minsk
Miklós Haraszti, whose mandate as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus was extended by the HRC, came off victorious after the last session.
The Hungarian human rights advocate was appointed Special Rapporteur for Belarus in 2012. Ever since, the Belarusian government has refused to recognise this mandate and stubbornly ignored Haraszti’s attempts to set up communication.
The Belarusian authorities have claimed that Haraszti’s reports on the human rights situation in Belarus are ‘politically motivated and openly biased’.
In fact, the Special Rapporteur has become one of the staunchest critics of the Belarusian government’s human rights record. In February 2016, a week before the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus, Haraszti made a point of stressing the absence of any change in ‘the dismal state of human rights’ in the country.
A persona non grata in Belarus, the Special Rapporteur had to meet human rights activists and representatives of civil society and the opposition outside the country. However, there were rumours about unofficial meetings between Haraszti and Belarusian diplomats in some European capitals.
To everyone’s surprise, Miklós Haraszti visited Minsk in early July. The Belarusian government allowed him to attend – as a ‘civilian’ –a human rights seminar, which was held as a side event of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Minsk.
Upon his return from Minsk, Haraszti singled out two key areas of concern regarding human rights in Belarus. The first is the systemic refusal of individual liberties – a permission-based regime of public life; the second is the cyclical recourse to mass repression.
Haraszti’s trip to Minsk two weeks after the HRC extended his mandate should not be perceived as a sign of change in Belarus’s position on the UN special procedure. The government remains determined to continue fighting international condemnation of its human rights practices rather than bring about noticeable improvements, which would make the special procedure obsolete.
Belarus still hopes to avoid or delay any meaningful change in its human rights policy by instead promoting itself as a regional ‘donor of security’ and a reliable economic partner. In the existing geopolitical situation, the West has to put up with these futile ‘dialogues’ and Minsk’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ policy vis-a-vis human rights issues.
Nevertheless, full normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West remains impossible without significant progress in human rights and democracy in Belarus.
Why do the authorities persecute independent trade unions?
On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations detained the leaders of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union, filing a criminal case on tax evasion charges.
The few independent trade unions which have survived decades of restrictive policies in Belarus remain a strong oppositional force in the country.
As active participants in the mass protests against the social parasite law in Spring 2017, union leaders likely became targets of the authorities’ preventive action to deter future demonstrations. However, the police force asserts that all charges are of a purely economic nature to avoid criticism from western governments and international organisations.
A crackdown on independent trade unions
On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations arrested the head of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union (REP), Hienadź Fiadynič, and his deputy, head of Minsk the office Ihar Komlik, on tax evasion charges. The financial police also confiscated hard disks and paper documents from the organisation.
On the same day, searches took place at the offices of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union in Salihorsk, the heart of Belarusian potash industry. The apartments of activists linked with the movement were also searched, and the financial police have interrogated many trade union leaders. Fiadynič and other activists were released following the interrogation, but Komlik remains in custody.
The police claim that REP leaders opened bank accounts abroad, where they accumulated ‘hundreds of thousands dollars’ from foreign donors, even though they had no license from the National Bank of Belarus to open a foreign account. Allegedly, they were trying to obscure their financial deals and evade taxes at home. REP activists deny all accusations and claim that the account mentioned by the police was closed in 2011.
Leaders of the Belarusian opposition gathered shortly after the events to discuss a possible response and called on Belarusians and the international community to support a campaign of solidarity with independent trade unions. In the resolution’s own words:
‘We call upon the representatives of the international community to immediately put the release of political prisoners and the complete cessation of political repressions in Belarus as a condition for dialogue with the Lukashenka regime’.
However, the head of the Department of Financial Investigations, Ihar Maršalaŭ, argues that ‘this case has no political background. We are doing our usual job of uncovering tax evaders’.
The history of free trade unions in Belarus
Under the Soviet system, trade union were the ‘social pillars’ of the state. Nevertheless, they had no real power and served as an instrument of the Communist party. After the dissolution of the USSR, numerous independent trade unions and associations emerged in Belarus. However, there was a split regarding support for the Lukashenka regime following his 1994 election. Only after 2001 did the authorities manage to wrest control of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions (FPB) and purge it of oppositional elements. The authorities continue to persecute the most vocal unions.
As a result, the oppositional trade unions formed an alternative association: the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Over the past two decades, independent trade unions have faced constant pressure and struggle to meet bureaucratic requirements such as registration and legal address. Union members often face restrictions and punishments at their place of work. As a result, membership to independent trade unions has dropped to around 10,000, while the official FPB boasts 4 million members.
Despite formal membership numbers, FPB can hardly be regarded as a protector of workers’ interests. Governed by the political leadership of the country, it never challenges official policies. In contrast, independent trade unions actively struggle against violations of labour rights and criticise the government, for which they are hated by both enterprise bosses and the political leadership.
International actors frequently point to violations of labour rights in Belarus. For example, the persecution of independent trade unions has led to the exclusion of Belarus from the EU Generalised System of Preferences, resulting in hundreds of millions dollars of loss since 2006.
A strong organisational force with links to citizens
Following the arrest of the REP activists, human rights groups immediately recognised them as political prisoners. This differs from the White Legion case, when two dozen people were detained on charges of creating an illegal armed group. Activists were hesitant to step in because of the presence of weapons and other evidence. Valiancin Stefanovič, an activist for the human rights group Viasna, explains that this time, the state has clearly violated the right to free association, because trade unions cannot freely receive foreign aid in Belarus. For years, the authorities consciously complicated the process of receiving foreign aid for civil society, viewing it as support for political enemies and interference in the politics of a sovereign state.
Most commentators agree that it was REP’s active participation in the spring protests against the social parasite decree that has led to the organisation’s repression. The union gathered 45,000 signatures demanding the abolition of the decree and offered legal consultations to people who planned to contest their obligation to pay the tax.
REP also provides legal assistance for citizens on a daily basis and constitute one of the few real forces that actively works with the people. What’s more, many activists in the union participate in the Belarusian National Congress, headed by oppositional hardliner and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič. It seems that in the wake of the events of spring 2017, and fearing another wave of social unrest in the future, the authorities have decided to weaken potentially powerful actors.
Repressions without political prisoners?
Many noticed that the case of REP resembles the case of Alieś Bialiacki, who was arrested on the same charges in 2011 after the government of Lithuania handed over information on Viasna’s bank accounts to the Belarusian authorities. He spent three years in prison and was released in 2014 as part of the Belarus-EU rapprochement process. However, unlike seven years ago, it seems that this time around there will be no political prisoners.
The Belarusian authorities have drawn very clear lessons from their experience with the West. Imprisonment of political activists causes outrage, while criminal persecution without imprisonment earns a far more muted response. At the same time, it effectively decreases the power of the opposition.
The fact that those arrested during the White Legion case have all been released despite the fact that a criminal investigation continues confirms this assumption. The authorities are learning how to justify repressions with purely security (in White Legion case) or economic (in the case of trade unions) evidence, in order to avoid politicisation and criticism from western countries.