Concrete action on Belarus human rights violations needed now

Thousands of people have been detained and many of them have been beaten by Lukashenka’s security forces, their faces often obscured by masks, balaclavas, or riot helmets. Here, a riot police officer detains an opposition supporter in Minsk on August 30

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

On September 17 François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that: “In response to the flawed election process and the violent response by the authorities following the vote, Canada and 16 other Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe [OSCE] states have invoked the OSCE Moscow Mechanism to initiate a fact-finding mission of experts to investigate and report on allegations of human rights violations.”

“Canada will continue to work toward a peaceful and inclusive resolution to this crisis while holding Belarus to its OSCE commitments to human rights and democracy,” he added.

The other 16 nations are: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The following day, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) passed a resolution introduced by Germany on behalf of the European Union, to look into the situation of rights in Belarus and report back by year-end. The 47-member body rejected 17 amendments proposed by the Russian Federation (which does not have voting rights but does have observer status) to water down the language.

Still, even this resolution was not supported by the majority. Twenty-three member nations voted in favour: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, Germany, Italy, Japan, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine and Uruguay. Only two, Venezuela and Eritrea were opposed, but there were 22 abstentions: Angola, Armenia, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Libya, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Togo.

The Council’s Member States are elected by the majority of members of the General Assembly of the United Nations through direct and secret ballot. Membership is based on equitable geographical distribution. Seats are distributed as follows: African States: 13 seats; Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats; Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats; Western European and other States: 7 seats; Eastern European States: 6 seats.

On the surface, both these events sound impressive, but the key words are “on the surface”. Really, all they are doing is investigating, and then reporting back. But even that is not much. According to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, so named because it came out of an OSCE conference on human rights held in Moscow between September 10 and October 15, 1991, “the OSCE] rapporteur(s) will establish the facts, report on them and may give advice on possible solutions to the question raised”.

Meanwhile, Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s storm troopers will continue to inflict unrestrained violence and torture upon peaceful protestors.

What will any new investigations reveal that we don’t already know? Within four days of the fraudulent August 13 elections, the highly respected human rights advocacy organization, Amnesty International issued a scathing report on human rights abuses in Belarus.

“For days the world has watched in horror as police in Belarus fire rubber bullets and tear gas, into crowds of peaceful protesters. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the bloody scenes on the streets of Belarus are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“Former detainees told us that detention centres have become torture chambers, where protesters are forced to lie in the dirt while police kick and beat them with truncheons. They described being stripped naked and subjected to sadistic beatings while listening to the screams of other victims. These are people whose only ‘crime’ was to take to the streets in peaceful protest. What we are seeing in Belarus is a human rights catastrophe that demands urgent action.”

What is really needed are not more investigations, and more reports, but concrete action. That means severe sanctions that will hit Lukashenka and his cronies hard.

Quite ironically, Belarus was sanctioned by Canada and our allies from 2006 to 2016 when the situation was not nearly as bad as it is today. On May 16, 2016, Global Affairs Canada issued a media release which stated: “Pursuant to the Government of Canada’s commitment to diplomatic re-engagement with the international community, and in response to recent positive developments in Belarus, Global Affairs Canada will initiate the regulatory process to remove Belarus from the Area Control List (ACL), thereby lifting sanctions that have been in place since December 14, 2006.

“This announcement is consistent with actions taken by the United States and the European Union since October 2015. It also reflects Canada’s acknowledgment that the Government of Belarus has made progress in key areas in recent months, including the release of political prisoners and conducting a presidential election in October 2015, which demonstrated greater adherence to international norms and was not marked by the levels of violence and intimidation seen in past elections.”

Well, what about August 2020?

It should be noted that these sanctions were in place even before Canada enacted the Magnitsky Law which strengthened our ability to sanction specific individuals involved in human rights abuses.

The Belarusian community has called for sanctions. The Ukrainian community has called for sanctions. Opposition leaders have called for sanctions. Even Liberal Members of Parliament have publicly called for sanctions. To quote from the letter sent by Yvan Baker, Liberal MP for Etobicoke Centre and Chair of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group, to participants at the rally for Belarus democracy held at the Alberta Legislature on September 3: “The international community cannot recognize the results of the fraudulent August 9 election, and the highest consideration should be given to implementing targeted sanctions against those who are responsible for committing human rights violations in Belarus.”

Canada and our allies cannot sit back and wait for investigations and subsequent reports while Lukashenka and his cronies continue to inflict torture upon peaceful demonstrators. The facts are clear and the time has come for concrete action. The perpetrators of these abuses have to be hit with sanctions and hit as hard as possible.