Belarus Comes Down Hard on Human Rights Defenders

In a world that boasts of a UN, an ICC, and a myriad international human rights declarations, conventions, and treaties, it’s the rare country that doesn’t at least pretend to at least care about human rights.  Still, there are a few holdouts, and they aren’t even necessarily on what used to be our “Axis of Evil” list.  Belarus, what Condoleeza Rice once deemed “truly still the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe” is actively cracking down on human rights defenders within its borders and denying access to those without.


Its biggest target so far has been Ales Bialiatski, founder of the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna and twice elected vice-president of the International Federal for Human Rights (FIDH), headquartered in Paris.  Bialiatski has received the Homo Homini Award and the Per Anger Prize for his efforts promoting human rights and democracy.  He often urged the EU to adopt stricter sanctions on President Lukachenko’s regime, which was known for repeated and flagrant human rights violations.  14 February 2011, he was warned that if Viasna, an unregistered organization, continued to operate, the government would seek criminal proceedings.  On 4 August 2011, he was arrested by Belarusian authorities on state-manufactured tax evasion charges.  He had been kept in a small room without windows until 24 November 2011, when he was sentenced to 4 and a half years of imprisonment, fined, and had his property, including Viasna’s offices as well as property registered with members of his family, confiscated by the government.  Even in the courtroom, he was kept chained in a cage.  His appeal will be decided in a month.  If the sentence stands, it is likely he will be sent to a work camp in rural Belarus, a particularly brutal punishment in the middle of winter.


All in all, this has been a great success for Belarus’ anti-human rights policies.  In October 2011, Belarus amended its laws to criminalize any human rights gatherings without the prior and explicit consent of the incumbent authorities.  Publicly calling for such gatherings and disseminating information, including through social media, without such permission is strictly prohibited.  Furthermore, the receipt of foreign grants or donations could result in criminal liability and storing NGO funds in banks outside Belarus is banned.  The Belarusian State has refused to issue visa to international observers and human rights defenders, especially in the wake of Bialiatski’s arrest.


Although his arrest and subsequent conviction has resulted in international condemnation, the US has not taken a stance on the issue, nor has the US media covered the incident.  Surprising?  Is this a long-term blight on European progressiveness or can the rest of Europe affect their stance?  How can the world better protect its human rights defenders?  Is that an international obligation?


  1. While the U.N. should certainly sanction Belarus, perhaps by instituting a trade embargo or something of the sort, if Belarus still refuses to cooperate, there is little that the rest of the world can do. International pressure only goes so far. If the dictatorship in Belarus has a strong-enough hold on power within their nation, they will in all likelihood be able to continue to violate the human rights of their people with little repercussions. Human rights abuses such as the ones here should serve to remind us that the world is far from free of human rights abuses, even in a relatively safe part of the world such as Europe. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the world community to provide any real deterrent effect to a sovereign nation. This in one of the problems with enforcing international law and one of the things that must be remedied in order to eradicate human rights abuses. Although the answers are far from clear, the conclusion is simple: The world community needs to find effective ways to deter rogue nations from violating the human rights of their people.

  2. It is truly hard to believe that human rights violations such as this are still occurring in the world today. Since I had never heard of Bialiatski or seen any media coverage of his story, I decided to google his name and see what came up. As of yesterday (Jan. 24, 2012), Bialiatski’s sentencing had been confirmed, thus he will be serving four and a half years of imprisonment for defending human rights. Mr. Bialiatski’s punishment is for “concealment of profits on an especially large scale in pursuance of prior agreements” under Article 243, part 2, of the Criminal Code. Bialiatski was represented by his lawyer at trial, however his entire trial only took 40 minutes and the verdict was reached only 1.5 hours later. Throughout the process leading up to trial, all of Bialiatski’s motions were denied by the judge, clearly showing the biased nature of the trial before it even began.

    The president of the International Federation for Human Rights described the situation in Belarus, stating that it had gone from bad to worse, and that the “sentencing sends the unequivocal signal that the authorities do not intend to make any progress to comply with their human rights obligations.”

    In an age where there is so much progress in the world, as so many countries are moving farther and farther away from their dark pasts of human rights abuses, it is a mystery to me to see the example that Belarus is setting with their backwards thinking policies.

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