Should Belarus Join the Council of Europe?
On 24-27 February, Andrea Rigoni, rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), visited Minsk for the first time since 2009. Rigoni has a reputation of being especially friendly toward the administration in Minsk, for which he is criticized by the Belarusian opposition.
Belarus remains the only country in greater Europe that is not a member of the Council of Europe. President Aleksandr Lukashenka has never shown much interest in joining. Being an organisation of values, PACE does not offer its members financial rewards, but requires them to commit to democracy and human rights.
However, Belarusian authorities need to improve their international image, and gaining a special guest status in PACE would help. The problem is that allowing Belarus to obtain this status effectively legitimises its "puppet parliament" and provides Belarusian authorities with an additional platform to disseminate their views abroad. Importantly, PACE is approaching Belarus at a time when the Russian delegation's rights in the organisation have been restricted because of Moscow's intervention in the Ukraine conflict.
A Hole in the Map of Europe
The Council of Europe is an international organisation formed in 1949 uniting all European states, Russia, Turkey and the Caucasian republics. The organisation works to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Although its decisions carry only advisory power, the European Court on Human Rights, one of the bodies under the Council, has jurisdiction over human rights protection in all of the Council's member states.
The Parliamentary Assembly is one of the two statutory bodies of the Council, where Members of Parliament (MPs) from the national parliaments work together.
Belarus obtained special guest status in PACE in September 1992 and later applied for membership. However, in 1997 the organisation suspended the special guest status “because the way in which the new legislature had been formed deprived it of democratic legitimacy.” This happened after Lukashenka had dissolved a parliament that included some of his staunchest opponents, and appointed a new parliament loyal to him.
In 2004 rapporteur Christos Purgurides presented to PACE his report on the disappeared politicians, which led to a break in contacts between PACE and the Belarusian parliament. But the 2007-2010 period saw a warming in diplomatic relations. This happened to coincide with Rigoni's appointment as PACE rapporteur to Belarus. Despite the improved relationship, Belarus did not obtain special guest status, because Minsk refused to fulfil PACE's only remaining demand – a moratorium on the death penalty. Nevertheless, Belarus joined a number of the Council's conventions during this time.
Another “Normalisation Visit” from the West
PACE special rapporteur visits have become a rarity for Belarus – the last one took place in 2009. The subsequent worsening of Belarus-EU relations brought cooperation with this organisation to a halt. In September 2014 Belarusian MPs suggested Lukashenka re-engage with PACE in order “to promote the national interests of Belarus through parliamentary diplomacy." They received a positive response from the Belarusian leader.
During his recent visit, Rigoni met a number of high-level officials, including speaker of the parliament Uladzimir Andrejčanka, head of the Council of the Republic Michail Miasnikovič, Minister of Information Lilija Ananič, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makej and others. Afterwards, he also talked to opposition and civil society leaders.The visit occurred in the context of improving relations between Belarus and the EU, and on the heels of several visits by other western officials to Minsk.
“We have come to Belarus to resume and renew the dialogue," Rigoni said upon his arrival in Minsk. "Our cooperation should be continued. We are ready for it and expect return moves from Belarus.” During the meetings, Belarusian officials repeatedly credited Rigoni for his important role in promoting diplomatic relations. This unusual praise of a foreign official has a particular background.
The Opposition is Concerned about Rigoni
In 2014 Rigoni was appointed PACE rapporteur to Belarus for the second time, following his first tenure in 2007-2010, the period of rapprochement between Belarus and the West. Both times, he took over from Estonian MP Andres Herkel, who had a more critical stance towards the Lukashenka regime. Rigoni has gained a reputation within the Belarusian elite as a pragmatist.
In 2009 Rigoni recommended that PACE restore Belarus’ special guest status without the country's fulfilling any of the conditions imposed by the Council. He almost succeeded, as PACE left only one condition on the table – that Belarus terminate the death penalty. This de facto legalisation of the Belarusian authorities’ undemocratic conduct obviously irritated the opposition and civil society, who came to view Rigoni as an undesired appointment.
Opposition leaders expressed their concerns during their recent meeting with Rigoni. Anatoĺ Liabedźka, Siarhej Kaliakin, Paviel Seviaryniec and others opined that the authorities only want Belarus to gain special guest status in PACE and make no further moves, because this status does not impose any serious obligations but allows them to participate in the organisation's work. The activists advised Rigoni not to make any major concessions to Lukashenka before the Belarusian elections, as the nature of the elections will demonstrate whether Minsk is truly committed to European values.
The rapporteur assured the opposition that the Council of Europe will not compromise its values, and that Belarus will have to assume certain obligations if it wants special guest status.
Is Belarus Interested in PACE?
Minsk seems to have little interest in Council membership. On one hand, membership does not confer any financial assistance or other economic support, while on the other, it imposes precisely the type of political obligations that the Belarusian leadership finds so deplorable. Minsk has also learned from the example of Russia, which has had to pay substantial sums to people who sued the state in the European Court on Human Rights.
However, according to Ihar Hubarevič, a former senior diplomat at Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belarusian authorities pursue several objectives in their relations with PACE. First, they seek to legitimise the Belarusian parliament and to reward the handpicked Belarusian MPs with respectable status and foreign travel. More important, they want full access to the Council of Europe's lobby, meeting rooms, and microphones, which can act as a powerful tool for promoting the government's views among European parliamentarians and other officials.
PACE's renewed interest in Belarus fits into the latest trend of normalising relations between Belarus and Europe. This particular track of diplomacy is a dead-end, however. Europe will gain nothing from legitimising the Belarusian "parliamentarians." Unlike the executive branch, they have no real leverage in the government and no say in Belarus' domestic and foreign policy. At the same time, in order to integrate Belarus into pan-European structures, Europe will have to turn a blind eye to the country's many domestic issues.
Belarus Uncovers Human Rights Abuses in the West
On 27 February, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry (MFA) released a report provocatively titled “The Most Resonant Human Rights Violations in Certain Countries.”
The report criticises human rights violations in 25 democracies, ranging from ethnic discrimination to miscounting votes. It includes a section on the United States, which routinely excoriates Belarus in its own human rights reports.
No, Belarus did not suddenly become concerned about human rights. Minsk wants to drive home the point that democracies also violate rights, and in so doing, counter the criticism of its own deplorable record by the United States, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organisations.
Even though the incidents it mentions are true, the report will not have the desired effect until the human rights situation in Belarus improves. If anything, the report serves to highlight Belarus’s own deplorable rights record.
Preaching Non-Interference and Acceptance of Different Developmental Paths
The report focuses on democracies, several of which imposed sanctions on Belarus for human rights violations in the past. In Eastern Europe, the report targets only the states that joined the European Union (EU). It omits post-Soviet countries and Belarus itself.
This is the third such report disseminated by Minsk. Igar Gubarevich, a senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre who held senior positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, notes that "Belarus delayed the report's publication significantly" this year in order not to interfere with the normalisation of relations with the EU and the United States that has gathered momentum in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis.
the state and society are in “perpetual” conflict in all states, regardless of their "political system[s]" Read more
The West is also stirring up less controversy around the report. In the past, several states mentioned in the report denounced Belarusian criticism as hypocritical. This time around, the majority of countries on Belarus’s “list of shame” did not bother to respond.
According to the report, the state and society are in “perpetual” conflict in all states, regardless of their "political system[s]" or "the level of social and economic development." It calls for appreciating “the diversity of development paths.” Wittingly or not, these and other sections of the report read as attempts to normalise human rights violations.
The report also reminds readers of the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, the "golden rule" of Westphalian thinking that Minsk routinely mentions when communicating with the Kremlin and the West alike.
Why does Belarus suddenly care about the state of human rights? The MFA does not hide its primary motivation: to highlight "violations in those countries that traditionally represent themselves as ‘developed democracies’" and "to illustrate by concrete facts their failure to comply with international legal obligations.”
Seeing the Mote in our Neighbour's Eye
The report draws on the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review and other open sources.
It faults the United States for racial discrimination and excessive use of force by the police, drawing attention to last year's events in Ferguson, Missouri. The report also mentions the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and to prosecute persons involved in torture, as well as the deportation and detention of migrants.
In the section on Poland, the report notes the discovery of a secret CIA prison. MFA faults Warsaw for anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, as well as the excessive use of force by the Polish police. The report also mentions the “inadvertence in counting the votes” during the 2014 European Parliament election. Belarus’s neighbour Lithuania is criticised for the pressure on the Russian-language media.
The report notes that the Netherlands leads Europe in the dissemination of child pornography and has a major human trafficking problem. Human trafficking is a sore point for Belarus; despite its attempts to curb trafficking, it remains on the Tier 2 Watch List of the US Trafficking in Persons Report.
MFA also draws attention to the rise in neo-nazism and racial discrimination vis-à-vis refugees in Austria and to the excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies in Belgium.
The report contains a high number of references to the rights of refugees. Refugees are indeed a growing problem for Western Europe. It also happens to be an area in which Belarus believes its own record is solid. President Lukashenka has been especially welcoming of late to Ukrainian refugees.
Practise What You Preach: Why Belarus's Report Does Not Matter
Perhaps the MFA wanted to get across that human rights violations occur everywhere and that state identity or coercive power should not blind us to human rights violations. This message gets lost on the reader, however, because Belarus itself is excluded from the report. For comparison, the US Trafficking in Persons Report has a section in which it examines the problem of trafficking in the US as well as all US-allied countries.
Unlike Belarus democratic states have the independent media and NGOs to publicise offences, as well as independent courts to punish transgressors Read more
MFA acknowledges that it did not attempt “a complete picture of the situation of human rights in the countries in question” but simply focused on “the most egregious human rights violations.” Such selective focus undermines the MFA’s potentially valid point, however.
Democracies mentioned in the report hardly needed the MFA to remind them about domestic violations of human rights. The key difference between democratic states and Belarus is that the former have the independent media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to publicise offences, as well as independent courts to punish transgressors. Neither civil society nor the judicial system functions particularly well in Belarus. Ironically, the many European NGOs whose information the MFA draws upon in the report would not be able to do their work in Belarus.
Political scientists Judith Kelley and Beth Simmons show that international rights reports and other performance indicators can indeed serve as a powerful international tool of social pressure. Using the example of US human trafficking reports, they demonstrate that negative evaluations and rankings can motivate states to implement costly policies.
But social pressure works only when exerted by nonstate actors and international organisations on “highly respected or hegemonic state actors.” Not only is Belarus a small, economically and militarily weak state, but it also lacks international credibility on most issues, above all human rights. Human rights reports carry no power when disseminated by the state that refuses to cooperate with the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, suppresses civil society and independent media, and keeps political prisoners.
Until Belarus respects human rights domestically, its criticism of violations abroad will mean as much as a corruption index produced by Somalia or North Korea, two of the world's most corrupt countries.
"The report stands little chance of being taken seriously or even getting noticed by the international community," said Gubarevich. "This collection of isolated incidents – all of them freely reported by national media in the countries concerned – pales in comparison to systematic human rights violations in Belarus that the government-controlled media fails to mention."
Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, an international NGO conducting research on human rights since 1978, Belarus’ human rights record remained poor in 2014. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights, Belarus helped "ease the tensions and human rights crisis" in neighboring Ukraine, yet failed to address the violation of human rights at home. Domestic rights NGO "Viasna" would agree with these international assessments, especially because its registration was cancelled in 2003 and its rights defenders are routinely detained in Belarus.