Belarus has been rocked by mass demonstrations, and violent state crackdowns, since the disputed August presidential election that saw Alexander Lukashenko returned to power. In this blog, Joanna Kazana-Wisniowiecki, the UN Resident Coordinator in Belarus, explains what the unrest means for the Organization.
For the UN, as for all international partners of Belarus, the scale of protests and the level of repressions were a big surprise. This is the first time that the country, which has been very stable and where people are generally quite reserved in terms of expressing their political views, is seeing an election contested to this degree.
What is also unprecedented is the intensity of repressions against demonstrators and journalists. About 13,000 people were arrested over the last eight weeks, most of the detentions taking place in the first week after elections. This will go down in the history books as something that never happened before in Belarus.
Another unexpected phenomenon was the social mobilization and the use of technology that allows people to communicate and coordinate their protests in real time. Social media and mobile internet are changing the way political activism happens. More and more people are expressing themselves and organizing online.
Promoting human rights
The role of the UN is to promote international norms and standards, and advocate for the respect of universal human rights. The UN reacted immediately, to remind the state authorities of their international obligations: torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are absolutely prohibited and can never be justified.
From the beginning of the crisis, the UN Secretary General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and myself as the UN representative in the country, have issued a number of official statements and urged the authorities of Belarus to respect the right to peaceful assembly and expression.
Facing the mass detentions of over 7,000 people in the week following elections, and allegations of torture in prisons, the UN urged the authorities to release everyone who had been detained for exercising their human rights, to stop torture and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees, investigate all cases of human rights violations, and clarify the fate and whereabouts of any individuals reported as missing.
With time, we have been receiving troubling reports and of torture and other ill-treatment. It is important to ensure that these are well documented, also to allow investigation of and future accountability for such acts. Timely medical examinations are crucial in this regard, alongside the important work of human rights organizations gathering information on these cases.
In my capacity as the UN Resident Coordinator and together with the Senior Human rights advisor in my office, Omer Fisher, we conveyed these messages directly to our national counterparts, first and foremost through the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Belarus and to the Ministry of Interior and other state institutions responding to the crisis. We have also raised these issues in writing, especially the question of missing persons. I am encouraged by the fact that the MoI has responded to our letter and that we are gradually receiving more information from the state authorities.
In addition to dialogue with the State, we continue to discuss the current situation with civil society partners. Both human rights NGOs and the leaders of SDG Partnership Group have expressed concern about the violence of the security forces, the lack of action, and delays in the investigation of alleged violations, including torture and other ill-treatment)..
At the UN, we are also receiving complaints directly from the victims and their lawyers: the majority of them do not feel confident that submitting complaints to the authorities will result in proper investigation.
For several years now, the UN in Belarus has been supporting organizations which offer psychological and legal support to victims of violence. The demand for this kind of assistance has increased dramatically and we will continue to provide capacity support to the national partners and non-governmental organizations involved in addressing these problems.
Coping with COVID
Like everywhere in Europe, new cases of COVID-19 in Belarus are on the rise. And of course, mass protests and especially detention of demonstrators in overcrowded institutions without proper physical distancing and other prevention measures can lead to further spread of infection.
In the first half of 2020 we adjusted our priorities and the actual content of our work has changed. All together, we provided some $7.5 million to the national response, including supporting the health system, and addressing the socioeconomic impact, namely, helping SMEs to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills.
The UN never closed offices, although many of our staff have been working from home. While the focus has been and remains on COVID-19 response, we continue working on long-term development issues. For example, we provided policy advice and concrete suggestions on what should be included in Belarus’ long-term development strategy up until 2035, which is being developed this year.
‘The only path forward is one of dialogue’
From the UN’s perspective, Belarus should set more ambitious development plans, by prioritizing the needs of young people and the ageing population; strengthening the position of women in the economy; and embracing new technologies and opportunities that will support sustainable economic growth that benefits the poorer and most marginalized segments of the society. This is the vision of cooperation in the next five years of our presence in Belarus.
Amid COVID-19, climate change and political upheaval, Belarus finds itself in an extremely competitive global and regional environment. The only path forward for the country is one of dialogue, ambitious reform and an innovative development agenda, underpinned by true respect for human rights.
There is no sustainable development without human rights. The UN in Belarus will continue to work on addressing these needs even though it is a challenging and stressful time, especially for the Belarusian members of our team.
We are often asked “could the UN do more?”. I would say that we are trying to do our utmost in this complex situation for Belarus, with the tools that are at our disposal. With good will, new energy, a willingness to engage in dialogue, and professional effort on all sides, I am sure Belarus will continue to grow and develop.
Free press ‘a cornerstone’ of democratic societies
The United Nations Secretary-General on Monday urged governments to “do everything in their power” to support free, independent and diverse media, which the UN’s top human rights official highlighted as “a cornerstone of democratic societies”.
In a message on World Press Freedom Day, marked annually on 3 May, Secretary-General António Guterres underscored the importance of reliable, verified and accessible information.
“During the pandemic, and in other crises including the climate emergency, journalists and media workers help us navigate a fast-changing and often overwhelming landscape of information, while addressing dangerous inaccuracies and falsehoods”, he said.
“Free and independent journalism is our greatest ally in combatting misinformation and disinformation.”
Mr. Guterres also noted the personal risks journalists and media workers face, including restrictions, censorship, abuse, harassment, detention and even death, “simply for doing their jobs”, and that the situation continues to worsen.
The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has hit many media outlets hard, threatening their very survival, he added.
“As budgets tighten, so too does access to reliable information. Rumours, falsehoods and extreme or divisive opinions surge in to fill the gap”, the Secretary-General said, urging all governments to “do everything in their power to support a free, independent and diverse media”.
Contributing to humanity’s well-being
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also highlighted the importance of free, uncensored and independent press as “a cornerstone of democratic societies”, conveying life-saving information, improving public participation, and strengthening accountability and respect for human rights.
“Around the world, people have increasingly taken to the streets to demand their economic and social rights, as well as an end to discrimination and systemic racism, impunity, and corruption”, she said.
However, journalists fulfilling their fundamental role of reporting on these social protests have become targets, with many becoming victims of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, arbitrary arrests, and criminal prosecution, Ms. Bachelet added.
In addition to dissuading other journalists from critically reporting on relevant issues, such attacks weaken public debate and hamper society’s ability to respond effectively to challenges, including COVID-19, she said.
World Press Freedom Day
Marked annually on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom. It is also an occasion to evaluate press freedom globally, to defend the media from attacks on their independence, and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
The date marks the adoption of the landmark Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press at a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference in the Namibian capital, in 1991.
This year, the World Day focuses on the theme of “Information as a Public Good”, affirming the importance of information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, as well as to improve transparency and empowerment.
Helping platforms become more transparent
The theme ties in with UNESCO’s work to ensure the long-term health of independent, pluralistic journalism, and the safety of media workers everywhere, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN agency tasked with defending press freedom, said.
“As part of these efforts, we are working to create more transparency on online platforms in areas such as content moderation, while respecting human rights and international freedom of expression rules”, she said.
She also highlighted the agency’s work to equip people globally with the media and information literacy skills they need to navigate this new information landscape, so they can avoid being duped or manipulated online.
“As we mark World Press Freedom Day, I call on everyone to renew their commitment to the fundamental right to freedom of expression, to defend media workers, and to join us in ensuring that information remains a public good”, Ms. Azoulay added.
155 million faced acute food insecurity in 2020, conflict the key driver
At least 155 million people faced crisis levels of food insecurity in 2020 because of conflict, extreme weather events and economic shocks linked in part to COVID-19, a UN-partnered flagship report said on Wednesday.
It’s been five years since hunger levels were this bad across 55 countries under review, according to the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC), which noted that 20 million more people went hungry last year than in 2019.
Countries in Africa remained “disproportionally affected”, it said, adding that conflict pushed almost 100 million people into acute food insecurity, followed by economic shocks (40 million) and weather extremes (16 million).
Vicious cycle: Guterres
“Conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing. We need to tackle hunger and conflict together to solve either…We must do everything we can to end this vicious cycle. Addressing hunger is a foundation for stability and peace”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, writing in the report.
Basing its assessments on the IPC scale for Acute Food Insecurity, the GNAFC network – which includes the UN World Food Programme (WFP) – revealed that the worst-affected countries were Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen.
Across these countries, around 133,000 people were at IPC5 – the highest level of need – and they required immediate action “to avert widespread death and a collapse of livelihoods”, the Network’s report said.
At least another 28 million people were “one step away from starvation” – IPC4 – across 38 countries and territories, where urgent action saved lives and livelihoods, and prevented famine spreading.
Close to 98 million people facing acute food insecurity in 2020 – or two out of three – were on the African continent.
Not only Africa
Other parts of the world were not spared, with countries including Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Haiti featuring among the 10 worst food crises last year.
The authors of the report – the United Nations, the European Union as well as government and non-government agencies – also noted that 39 countries and territories had experienced food crises in the last five years.
In these countries and territories, the population affected by high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC3 or worse) increased from 94 to 147 million people, between 2016 and 2020, the global network said.
It added that in the 55 food-crisis countries and territories covered by the report, more than 75 million children under five were stunted and at least 15 million showed signs of wasting in 2020.
While conflict will remain the major driver of food crises in 2021, COVID-19 and related containment measures and weather extremes will continue to exacerbate acute food insecurity in fragile economies.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of the global food system and the need for more equitable, sustainable and resilient systems to nutritiously and consistently feed 8.5 billion people by 2030.
“A radical transformation of our agri-food systems is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”, said the European Union (EU), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) – founding members of the Global Network – together with the US international development agency, USAID, in a statement.
In March 2021, UN chief Mr. Guterres established a famine-prevention task force, led by UN emergency relief chief Mark Lowcock, along with FAO and WFP and with the support of OCHA and other UN agencies as well as NGO partners.
The Task Force aims to bring coordinated, high-level attention to famine prevention and mobilise support to the most affected countries.
Human rights experts demand UAE provide ‘meaningful information’ on Sheikha Latifa
United Nations independent human rights experts on Tuesday demanded that the United Arab Emirates provide “meaningful information” on the fate of Sheikha Latifa Mohammed Al Maktoum as well as assurances regarding her safety and well-being, “without delay”.
Sheikha Latifa, the daughter of the Emir of Dubai, and Prime Minister of the UAE, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was reportedly abducted while attempting to flee the country in 2018. In February, footage was released that reportedly showed her being deprived of her liberty against her will.
Independent rights experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women voiced concern that since the February video, and subsequent official request for further information on her situation, “no concrete information has been provided by the authorities”.
“The statement issued by the Emirates authorities’ merely indicating that she was being ‘cared for at home’ is not sufficient at this stage”, they added.
The rights experts also said they were troubled by the allegations of human rights violations against Sheikha Latifa, and of the possible threat to her life.
Evidence of well-being ‘urgently required’
According to the information received, she continues to be deprived of liberty, with no access to the outside world, they added, noting that “her continued incommunicado detention can have harmful physical and psychological consequences and may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
“Evidence of life and assurances regarding her well-being are urgently required”, the human rights experts urged, calling for independent verification of the conditions under which Sheikha Latifa is being held, and for her immediate release.
In addition to the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the call was made by the members of the working groups on enforced or involuntary disappearances; and on discrimination against women and girls; as well as the Special Rapporteurs on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution.
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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