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.
Belarus human rights situation deteriorating further
A “systematic crackdown” against dissent in Belarus is continuing, months since the country’s disputed presidential election last year, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has told the Human Rights Council.
In comments to the Geneva forum on Thursday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights insisted that curbs on demonstrators had got worse since last August’s poll returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office.
Those protests had led to “mass arbitrary arrests and detentions” of largely peaceful demonstrators, along with “hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment”, Ms. Bachelet said, before noting that “not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment” had been investigated.
The High Commissioner highlighted concerns about Government proposals which would reportedly “enable harsher punishments” for those taking part in peaceful demonstrations from now on.
To date, nearly 250 people have received prison sentences on allegedly politically-motivated charges context of the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Bachelet said.
‘Unprecedented’ human rights crisis
The OHCHR report “covers serious violations” of rights between 1 May and 20 December last year. “The events that unfolded before and immediately after the election have led to a human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country”, added Ms. Bachelet.
All of the violations detailed “committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear”, she said, noting the further deterioration since December.
She said journalists were being increasingly targeted, “and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually. Just last week, large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna (A Minsk-based human rights centre) were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for ‘mass disorder’”.
Release innocent protesters
She told the Council it was “essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established. All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released.”
The rights chief called for “thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations” into all the allegations of serious violations, with perpetrators being brought to justice, as well as an “immediate end” to the Government policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.
“I further recommend comprehensive reform of the national legal framework”, she concluded. “Our report includes specific recommendations, which address key systemic issues, including with respect to fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw named latest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw was on Wednesday appointed a global Goodwill Ambassador with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
Ms. Mbatha-Raw highlighted the need to support refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to work in support of refugees and help amplify their voices. I am always amazed by their courage and strength in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds and it’s a real honour to play a part in sharing their stories”, she said.
“The Covid crisis has made us all aware of the fragility of the lives we build and the importance of doing all we can to support those who have had to leave the place they call home”, she added.
“The crisis has also taught us that, in this interconnected world, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable in society. Inclusion of refugees is vital in ensuring the wellbeing of whole communities.”
Advocacy and engagement
Ms. Mbatha-Raw is no stranger to UNHCR as she has been working as a High-Profile Supporter for the agency since 2018.
She has spent time in the field, including visiting Burundian and Congolese refugees in Rwanda and Uganda, meeting with women who survived conflict-related sexual violence and also with youth living with albinism.
The new Goodwill Ambassador has also taken part in UNHCR’s EveryOneCounts campaign, challenging xenophobia and advocating for stronger partnerships to find solutions to global displacement.
She also contributed to the agency’s COVID-19 awareness appeal and to Films of Hope, a partnership between UNHCR and IMDb, the online movie database, to raise funds for the Covid Solidarity Appeal.
The partnership continues
“We appreciate Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s heartfelt advocacy and support for refugees and welcome her to the UNHCR family. We look forward to continuing our work together to help raise attention on the issues and needs facing refugees”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.
“Now more than ever, in the context of the unprecedented impact of the COVID pandemic, the voices of refugees – some of the most marginalized and forgotten people on earth – need to be heard and amplified”.
Ms. Mbatha-Raw is known for her award-winning role in the 2013 film Belle, and has starred in other projects, most recently The Morning Show.
She will next be seen in Loki, the Marvel limited series set to premier in June on the Disney+ streaming service.
‘Belle’ and the slave trade
In 2014, the star visited UN Headquarters in New York to discuss her film role in ‘Belle’, as part of the organization’s commemorations of the devastating Transatlantic slave trade that year. Watch the video below for more details:
‘No place’ for coups in today’s world
On the opening day of a new UN Human Rights Council session on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his “full support to the people of Myanmar”, three weeks after the military takeover that has brought thousands out onto the streets in protest.
“Coups have no place in our modern world”, Mr. Guterres said in a pre-recorded video address at the Council’s 46th regular session, his comments coming after the forum held a special session on 12 February, in which it adopted a resolution expressing deep concern at the junta’s move.
“Today, I call on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately”, the UN chief continued. “Release the prisoners. End the violence. Respect human rights and the will of the people expressed in recent elections. I welcome the resolution of the Human Rights Council, pledge to implement your request, and express my full support to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.”
14-year old victim
Mr. Guterres’s comments followed his censure at the weekend of the use of “deadly force” in Myanmar, in which a protester – reportedly 14 years old – was killed in Mandalay, along with one other.
Also addressing the Council at the start of its month-long session, which is being held almost entirely remotely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, focused on the massive and negative impact of pandemic.
“I think we all realise that the use of force will not end this pandemic. Sending critics to jail will not end this pandemic. Illegitimate restrictions on public freedoms, the overreach of emergency powers and unnecessary or excessive use of force are not just unhelpful and unprincipled. They deter public participation in decision-making, which is the foundation of sound policy-making.”
Help for the most vulnerable
In another video message, President of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, underscored the need to focus on people’s basic needs – including new coronavirus vaccines – as the best way to recover from the pandemic.
“It is essential that all responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are centred around human rights, and promote the protection of our citizens, including the most vulnerable who need our care and consideration the most”, he said. “This includes ensuring the equal and fair distribution of vaccines for all. It is critical that civil society, the private sector, and all stakeholders are facilitated to participate and provide feedback throughout the planning and assessment of responses.”
Echoing the call for equitable vaccine access in a wide-ranging address that included a broadside against right-wing extremists becoming a “transnational threat” and the manipulation of personal digital data by Governments to control citizens’ behaviour, the Secretary-General described the fact that only 10 countries had administered “more than 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines” as “the latest moral outrage”.
Vaccine equity “affirms human rights”, he said, but “vaccine nationalism denies it. Vaccines must be a global public good, accessible and affordable for all.”
Taking up that theme, Ms. Bachelet insisted that the new coronavirus crisis had illustrated the “deadly realities of discrimination”.
Deep inequalities and chronic under-funding for essential services were to blame, she added, with policymakers largely responsible for ignoring these basic needs.
Pandemic rolls on
“Today, the medical impact of the pandemic is far from over – and its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people have only just begun”, she said. “The global rise in extreme poverty, accelerating inequalities; setbacks to women’s rights and equality; to education and opportunities for children and young people; and to the Sustainable Development Agenda are shocks that could shake the foundations of societies.”
Despite the scale of the challenges posed in this second year of the pandemic, the High Commissioner struck a positive note, insisting that “we have the possibility of rebuilding better, more inclusive systems, which address root causes and prepare us to meet the challenges we will certainly face”.
Among the many major problems facing people everywhere, the UN Secretary-General highlighted the disproportionate gender impact of COVID-19.
Crisis ‘has a woman’s face’
“The crisis has a woman’s face”, he said. “Most essential frontline workers are women — many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups and at the bottom of the economic ladder. Most of the increased burden of care in the home is taken on by women.”
Persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples had also paid a higher price than others during the first year of the pandemic. Mr. Guterres continued, before calling for “a special focus on safeguarding the rights of minority communities, many of whom are under threat around the world”.
Cautioning against “policies of assimilation that seek to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities”, the UN chief maintained that the diversity of communities was “fundamental to humanity”.
Extremists a ‘transnational threat’
And without identifying any specific countries, Mr. Guterres also spoke out against the rising and potentially international threat of right-wing extremist movements.
“White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are more than domestic terror threats. They are becoming a transnational threat”, he said. “Far too often, these hate groups are cheered on by people in positions of responsibility in ways that were considered unimaginable not long ago. We need global coordinated action to defeat this grave and growing danger.”
Under the presidency of Jordanian Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, the 46th Human Rights Council session is due to meet until Friday 23 March.
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