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?