The latest report released by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 12 January 2017 sees no indications of improvement of human rights situation in Belarus. Human rights issues remain a traditional part of Belarus’ political image among western partners. According to the HRW, from year to year the Belarusian authorities fail to improve the situation with human rights.
The Belarusian government realises that human rights issues result in a big barrier to the diplomacy progress between the EU and Belarus However, the human rights lawyers state that the authorities constantly violate human rights of the citizens, civil society and organisations. Comparing to 2015 report there are no improvements in 2016.
Six key problems block the dialogue between Belarus and western colleagues: death penalty, the freedom of expression restrictions, the prosecution of human rights activists, the freedom of assembly violations, the freedom of association violations and the electoral process violations.
The Critical Report
Death Penalty is a core of the allegations as Belarus remains the only country in Europe that use the capital punishment. In 2016 Belarusian authorities executed three criminals (Siarhei Ivanou in April 2016; Ivan Kulesh and Siarhei Khmialeuski in November 2016). Meanwhile, court has sentenced to death and upheld on appeal Henadz Yakavitski (murder), Siarhei Khmialeuski (three murders) and Siarhei Vostrykau (rape and two murders).
The Human Rights Watch states that the authorities made no steps in 2016 to introduce a moratorium or abolish the death penalty. But, it is not an absolutely true statement. In 2016 Belarus in cooperation with the Council of Europe and UN held two meetings dedicated to death penalty discussions.
The sides organised conferences “Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide” and “Abolition of Death Penalty and Public Opinion” on 10 March 2016 and 13 December 2016 respectively.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Valiancin Rybakoŭ states that capital punishment is completely legal. The official explains that from the standpoint of international law, the death penalty is not universally prohibited. Rybakoŭ assures that in case the UN announces the moratorium on the death penalty Belarus will abstain immediately. In his turn the Director of the Council of Europe’s Political Affairs Directorate Alexander Gessel admits that the parties have recently established active cooperation on the issue.
Having analysed the September 2016 parliamentary elections the HRW has duplicated three key statements made by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and UN.
The OSCE/ODIHR international observers state that the “elections were efficiently organised but a number of long-standing systemic shortcomings remain”. The PACE also calls for reforms “to ensure a thoroughly competitive political environment.”
The EU confirmed all these concerns. In turn the UN concludes that “elections proved a clear lack of political will to promote and protect human rights in Belarus.”
Human Rights Activists’ Prosecutions and Attacks on Journalists
The HRW traditionally pays a lot of attention to violations of rights of activists and journalists. The human rights lawyers have estimated a lot of cases of violations of rights of the citizens.
Elena Tonkacheva, the Legal Transformation Centre human rights lawyer, received a three-year entry ban and was forced from Belarus in February 2015. The court rejected her appeals to lift the ban in January 2016 and October 2016. In January 2016 Maksim Pekarski, Vadzim Zharomski, and Viachaslau Kasinerau were found guilty and fined $300-500 for public graffiti in August 2015.
A founder of the prisoner’s rights group Platform Innovation Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, was sentenced in 2015 to six-and-a-half years imprisonment. Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Larysa Shchyrakova where fined $250-350 for cooperating with Poland-based Belsat television channel. In January, Minsk police beat and detained Pavel Dabravolsky as he filmed how police detained two activists outside a court.
However, according to the officials all the cases have no political context. Minsk Court considers the case about graffiti as criminal hooliganism. Zhamchuzhny suffered imprisonment for disclosing the information about police abuse he obtained from a police officer. In response to Belsat articles, authorities charged the journalists for insulting police. Dabravoslky was punished for the contempt of court and disobeying police orders.
Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Association
The HRW stresses that the government did not disperse unsanctioned assemblies or detain participants, but continued to levy administrative charges and heavy fines against them. However, according to the experts, the authorities continue to criminalise involvement in an unregistered organisation and deny registration to nongovernmental groups and political parties.
In March 2016 the Supreme Court announced the fourth refusal since 2011 to register the Human Rights Association For Fair Elections. In April 2016 the Supreme Court announced the sixth refusal to register the Belarusian Christian Democratic Party. At the same time the Justice Ministry refused to register an opposition political movement Tell the Truth for the fifth time. Besides, the HRW is concerned that no political party has been registered since 2000.
Despite the 2017 HRW report, the Belarusian government continues to improve the relations in human rights area in cooperation with international institutions.
Stavros Lambrinidis, the special EU representative for human rights, visited Belarus in March 2016 and had several meetings with officials, political party representatives, and nongovernmental groups. He called to end the capital punishment but did not condemn other human rights abuses.
In June 2016, Belarus in cooperation with EU held the third human rights dialogue. The sides discussed a wide range of human rights issues like electoral process, freedoms of expression, assembly and association, disability rights and others.
In September 2016 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development removed restrictions on support for state projects. The organisation has reviewed its strategy as Belarus has a “constructive role” in the region and authorities showed “more openness” to discussing human rights.
Will the HRW Criticise Belarus in 2018?
In 2017 the human rights lawyers pointed out the same human rights issues as they mentioned in 2016. Despite the concrete steps and actions of the Belarusian government, the organisation still sees no progress and finds allegations. It is obvious that in 2018 the critics of Belarusian will persist as progress in diplomacy is not a guarantee of positive assessment by human rights institutions.
However, step by step the authorities of Belarus proves its intention to implement common values and cooperate with international actors to remove all the barriers for sustainable and long cooperation with western partners.
By: Dzmitry Halubnichy
Dzmitry Halubnichy is an expert at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, Belarus.