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.
No safe harbour: lifting the lid on a misunderstood trafficking crime
The crime of harbouring, in which victims of human trafficking are accommodated or forced to stay in a specific location, is not universally understood by courts around the world. A new UN study aims to address that issue, and improve protection for victims.
A journey of exploitation
Harbouring is one of five actions that constitute an ‘act’ in the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking, and is often used by prosecutors and judges for convictions of this crime.
The act can take place before and during exploitation, or between periods of abuse, encompassing a wide variety of settings, including brothels, private homes, factories, farms, or fishing vessels.
These locations can be dangerous, inhumane and unsanitary, and cn be controlled by criminals involved in the trafficking network.
In another case, victims who had been brought from Thailand to Australia were harboured during transit and at the place of exploitation: while being transported the victims were accommodated in hotels and accompanied by minders.
Once they were received by the offenders, the victims were either accommodated in the brothel where they were forced to work, or alternatively stayed at the offenders’ house, and were transported to and from the brothel each day.
Trafficking victims can also be subjected to harbouring once they arrive at the place of exploitation. In a case from the Dominican Republic, the offenders, a married couple, recruited a Chinese national to work in their business.
They promised to pay her and provide her with food. Instead, she was not paid, forced into domestic servitude and subjected to abuse.
A misunderstood concept
However, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that there is neither a uniform understanding of the act of harbouring, nor a consistent approach to this concept during court proceedings.
“Harbouring is one of the most frequent acts when committing human trafficking, but the concept is not interpreted in the same way throughout the world,” says Martin Hemmi, the UNODC expert who led the study.
“Some countries require the victims to be concealed or moved between locations for harbouring to be considered as an act of human trafficking. Others stipulate a minimum amount of time for the harbouring process,” adds Mr. Hemmi. “It is important to fully understand the concept to get justice for victims of this crime.”
The language barrier
Further findings show there are different meanings of the word ‘harbouring’ in the various language versions of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, which is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.
In French and Arabic, the word used for harbouring has a positive connotation in the sense of hosting, while in English, Chinese and Russian, it can be perceived as having a negative meaning in the sense of hiding or concealing.
“Due to these discrepancies, the same conduct is considered human trafficking in one country but not necessarily in another,” says Mr. Hemmi.
“This has wide consequences. For the perpetrator, it can have an effect on the sentence. For the victim, it has an impact on rights and protection measures. For the courts, it can hamper requests for legal assistance and international cooperation.”
Wherever and however it occurs, harbouring with the intent of exploitation is an act of human trafficking and a violation of the victim’s rights and dignity, says Martin Hemmi.
“We hope that our new study will be used by investigators, prosecutors and judges to lead to a better understanding of this terrible crime and support measures to effectively protect victims and punish traffickers,” he concludes.
Only ‘real equality’ can end vicious cycle of poverty
Although poverty and privilege “continue to reproduce themselves in vicious cycles”, it is possible to break the chain and shift the paradigm, an independent UN human rights expert told the General Assembly on Wednesday.
Presenting his report, The persistence of poverty: how real equality can break the vicious cycle, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Shutter, said that “with political will”, it is possible to end centuries of entrenched inequality and “move from fate to opportunity”.
“Investing in early childhood, promoting inclusive education, given young adults a basic income financed through inheritance taxes, and combating anti-poor discrimination are the key ingredients needed to break the cycles of advantage and disadvantage”, Mr. De Shutter said in his statement.
Acknowledging that many countries pride themselves on ensuring high levels of social mobility, the human rights expert stated that “the truth is that the persistence of privilege at the top, and deprivation at the bottom, are all too commonplace.”
“The top 10 percent of people living in OECD countries control 52 percent of total net wealth, while the bottom 60 percent own just over 12 percent, condemning the poor to a lifetime of poverty”, he said. According to the report, based on data from countries which are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it takes four to five generations for children in low-income households to reach the mean income in their country. In emerging countries such as Brazil, Colombia or South Africa, it can take up to nine or even more generations.
Tougher with time
Observing that children born in disadvantaged families were denied equal opportunity, the Special Rapporteur examined the channels through which poverty is perpetuated, in the areas of health, housing, education and employment.
“Children born in poor families have less access to healthcare, decent housing, quality education and employment than those in better-off households”, De Shutter said. “This dramatically reduces their chances of breaking free from the poverty trap”.
Describing the outcomes as “appalling”, the Rapporteur added that children born in a family experiencing poverty are more than three times as likely to be poor, aged 30, than those who were never poor.
The UN rights expert reminded that child poverty is not only “morally unconscionable and a human rights violation”, but also expensive. “In the United States, child poverty costs over one trillion dollars annually, or 5.4% of its GDP, but for each dollar invested on reducing it, seven dollars would be saved,” said the expert.
Calling for and end to the myth that inequality is an incentive that encourages people to work harder, Mr. De Shutter said that the facts point to the exact opposite: “Inequality lowers social mobility and entrenches advantage and disadvantage over decades. When we fetishize merit, we stigmatize those in poverty or with low incomes, and blame them for their own condition”.
Call for action
Stressing that “no child should be penalized for being born in poverty” in mind, and stating that, in fact, “poverty is a failure not of the individual, but of society”, Mr. De Shutter called on governments to act now, “before another generation is condemned to the same fate as their parents”.
Restore sexual, reproductive health rights lost during COVID, rights expert urges
Sexual and reproductive health rights, are human rights, the independent UN expert on the right to health reminded Member States in the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying that it was essential to restore services in the field, that have been eroded during the COVID-19 pandemic
“Millions of women globally had limited or no access to maternal and new-born healthcare, some 14 million women lost access to contraception, and specialized services for victims of gender-based violence became inaccessible, when they were needed most”, said Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng.
The Special Rapporteur pointed out that lockdowns, movement restrictions and diversion of funds due to COVID-19 have “jeopardized access to essential sexual and reproductive health services”.
In presenting her report on the effect of the pandemic on physical and mental health services, she also spoke of “new measures and laws in place across regions, further restricting access to safe abortion, a component of sexual and reproductive services encompassed in the right to health”.
Reversing a legacy
As part of the right to health, the UN expert called on States to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild and strengthen health systems for advancing sexual and reproductive health rights for all.
“Governments must remove obstacles and ensure full access to quality services, including maternal health care, contraception and abortion services, screening for reproductive cancers and comprehensive sexual education”, she said.
However, Dr. Mofokeng noted that many obstacles continue to stand between individuals and their exercise of their rights to health, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism, and others in structural and systemic inequalities.
“Patriarchal oppression is universal, permeates all societies and is at the very origin of the erosion of autonomy and the control of girls and women’s bodies and sexuality to the detriment of their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights”, she spelled out.
“Colonialism has permeated patriarchy across regions and its legacy continues today through laws, policies and practices that deny or restrict sexual and reproductive rights and criminalize gender diverse identities and consensual adult same-sex acts”, added the Special Rapporteur.
Rooted in law
She reminded governments that sexual and reproductive health rights are rooted in binding human rights treaties, jurisprudence, and consensus outcome documents of international conferences.
“I call on States to respect and protect key principles of autonomy, bodily integrity, dignity and well-being of individuals, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health rights”, she said.
“I pledge to engage with States and all relevant actors to uphold the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.
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