Belarus is not a member state of the Council of Europe and should not even be considered a candidate until it releases all human rights defenders and opposition activists imprisoned for political motives, abolishes the death penalty and carries out far-reaching democratic reforms. This means that Belarus is not currently subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights or country reports by most monitoring mechanisms and my own office. However, this does not absolve the Council of Europe and its member states from taking an active interest in Belarus, abstaining from actions that can harm Belarusian human rights defenders, and seeking to support human rights in the country.
“Do No Harm”
The first principle to remember is “do no harm”. In other words, Council of Europe member states should not cooperate with the Belarusian authorities in any actions that may jeopardise the integrity and security of Belarusian human rights defenders. Unfortunately, various actors in Council of Europe member states have not always adhered to this principle. It should be recalled that the arrest, prosecution, conviction and detention of prominent defender Ales Bialiatski were possible thanks to information provided by Lithuania and Poland on bank accounts in Bialiatski’s name in these countries. It has also been reported that cooperation with Belarus through Interpol could imply risks to civil society actors.
Another way in which the outside world can do harm to the cause of human rights is by speaking inconsistently or in many voices with the Belarusian regime. While some outside powers have called for sanctions, others continue to do a brisk business with Belarus. Clearly, mixed signals and veering from a values-based approach to one based on Realpolitik permits the authorities in Minsk much room for manoeuvre and allows them to play various actors against each other, thereby doing a disservice to human rights defenders in Belarus.
Show Solidarity and Give Support
Council of Europe member states should demonstrate solidarity with human rights defenders who are facing difficulties not only by raising their cases in multilateral and bilateral contexts, but also by providing emergency visas, and if necessary, political asylum, to defenders and their families in need of protection from threats, intimidation and persecution by the Belarusian authorities. Consideration should be given to establishing a central contact point to which Belarusians under threat could turn. Logical locations for such a contact point would be in neighbouring countries.
Many Belarusian NGOs have established offices in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which is closer to Minsk than many Belarusian provincial cities. Vilnius is also host to Belarusian Humanitarian University, a centre of free-thinking, whose operation became impossible in repressive Belarus. Students who were expelled from universities for political activity in Minsk have been welcomed in Vilnius. Another good initiative is the Belsat television station, which is based in Poland, but broadcasts uncensored news and information into Belarus.
Other European countries should continue to support Belarusian human rights organisations and defenders by funding their activities and participation in various external events and trainings. Human rights defenders and organisations in other European countries should partner with counterparts in Belarus in joint projects. For example, the Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius, which is a network of Belarusian human rights NGOs, represents a good platform for joint activities of support to the work of human rights defenders.
The Council of Europe’s Role
The Council of Europe and its member states should intensify efforts to raise awareness about Council of Europe standards, instruments, and mechanisms, including by organising events in country if possible. Belarus wants to step up cooperation with the Council of Europe and some conventions are also open to signature by non-member states. Belarus has already acceded to the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption mechanism GRECO and is in the process of becoming a member of GRETA, the mechanism to combat human trafficking. A good place to continue would be through Belarus’ accession to the European Convention on the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which would allow the experts of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) regular access to places of detention in Belarus, including imprisoned human rights defenders.
It is also important that the Council of Europe’s expert body on constitutional law, the Venice Commission, continue to be involved in any future cooperation. The Venice Commission has already adopted opinions on Belarusian legislation restricting freedom of association and assembly. If Belarus wants to move forward on cooperation, the Venice Commission could provide additional opinions on Belarusian legislation pertinent to human rights. A good indicator of the seriousness of Belarus’ reform intentions would be the extent to which it complied with such opinions.
The Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have also played a constructive role in bringing the situation of Belarusian human rights defenders to the attention of European civil society and parliaments through hearings, reports and other activities. These initiatives deserve more attention and support from member state governments as well.
Looking to the Future
I look forward to the day when Ales Bialiatski and other unjustly imprisoned human rights defenders and opposition activists will be free not only from prison, but from the threat of re-arrest for merely expressing an opinion and peacefully advocating democracy. I look forward to the day when the human rights situation in Belarus has improved enough that its leadership can bring the country into the Council of Europe. Until that day comes, we still have a responsibility to do no harm and further human rights in Belarus in every way we can.