A speech by Adrian Severin, special rapporteur, to the 5th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the UN General Assembly in Geneva on the worsening human rights situation in Belarus in 2006 has caused fury in Minsk. Belarus’s permanent representative at the UN, Syarhey Aleynik, has called on the Council to annul Severin’s mandate and attacked his credentials.
Last month, the UN General Assembly turned down Belarus’ request for a seat on the HRC, offering the two seats available for East European countries to Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A report from Human Rights Watch, assessing the Belarusian bid for HRC membership, chronicled the wide gap between the country’s pledges and “the reality” of the human rights problems within Belarus. The analysis commented that the government of Belarus had failed to cooperate with the HRC, and the Special Rapporteur in particular, and that “all efforts to engage in constructive dialogue” have been futile (Human Rights Watch, May 17).
It maintains also that at least seven other “special procedures mandate holders” made assessments similar to those of Severin and sent several urgent appeals to the Belarusian government. Most received no response; others merited a peremptory reply. Special representatives on human rights and torture requested permission to visit Belarus but were not invited to do so. In spite of a pledge to observe international human rights, Belarus failed to live up to its commitments during the 2006 presidential elections, detaining activists, obstructing access to the state media for opposition candidates, and failing to ensure a transparent vote count. As a result, the HRC representatives declared that Belarus’ application for HRC membership was “nothing less than scandalous” (HR, May 17).
Severin elaborated on these criticisms in his subsequent report to the UN on June 12, noting that all the recommendations made earlier to Belarus had been ignored, and the government had once again refused to cooperate, even refusing him entry into the country. In 2006, he commented, the human rights situation in that country worsened. He is seeking an official legal inquiry into missing and presumed dead journalists and senior political figures and the extent to which government officials were involved in these events. His conclusions, he asserts, are supported by many European organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO (Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, June 12).
Belarus, through the figure of Aleynik, has responded to this devastating criticism by trying to undermine the credibility of the speaker, a reputable 53-year-old Romanian lawyer and politician. The report, according to Aleynik, is the product of an incompetent and politically engaged expert, desirous of creating a negative image of Belarus. Such a partisan attack constitutes interference in the sovereign affairs of the country, because it demands a change of political leadership, a revamping of the social-economic structure, providing technical and financial aid to non-government organs, andaltering the “national mentality.” Therefore the mandate of this political activist should be annulled and the fulfillment of such a request would determine whether the HRC is able to overcome a legacy of political confrontations (Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, June 13).
Ironically, the latest publicity on the human rights situation in Belarus comes after the release of two prominent political detainees ahead of their official sentences, namely Youth Front leader Paval Sevyarinets and erstwhile Social Democratic party leader Mikola Statkevich (Belorusskie novosti, May 30). However, other prominent figures, such as former rector of the Belarusian State University and 2006 presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin (detained on March 25, 2006), and Young Front activist Paval Krasouski (detained on October 5, 2006) remain incarcerated. Amnesty International considers the former to be a “prisoner of conscience” (Amnesty International, January 5) and his 5.5 year sentence under Articles 339 and 342 of the Criminal Code, particularly harsh.
The government has never explained satisfactorily the disappearances of prominent politicians Viktar Hanchar and Yuri Zakharenka, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and cameraman Dzmitry Zavadsky, in 1999-2000. Two presidential elections (2001 and 2006) and three referendums (1995, 1996, and 2004) have been subjected to very strong international criticism.
Severin’s report is particularly problematic for the Minsk government because it comes at a time when the regime is trying to revamp its image in European eyes. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stated earlier this year that he would welcome advice from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that either Germany or Switzerland might be suitable models for his state rather than a union with Russia (Die Welt, January 29). Yet Germany, which currently occupies the presidency of the Council of the EU, was notably supportive of Severin’s remarks. Outside Europe, the United States and Canada also expressed their concern over the violations of human rights by the government of Belarus (Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, June 13).
Such criticisms are not new, but they come during a difficult period for Belarusian-Russian relations, as illustrated by Lukashenka’s remarks about the problems of the Russia-Belarus Union (Interfax, May 29). Increasingly, the president’s visits to foreign countries as well as visitors to Minsk are limited to states that have shunned any pretensions to democracy: Iran, North Korea, China, and Venezuela. Official Belarus has few friends and for the moment the European avenue as a possible alternative to closer ties with Russia, has been firmly closed. A year into its third term the Lukashenka administration seems more isolated than ever.