Valiantsin Stefanovich: "We did not just beat off the attacks in 2012 – we tried to act efficiently"
Valiantsin Stefanovich, Deputy
Chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", shares his professional
assessment of the year. Noting
the problems of the entire civil society, the deterioration of the authorities’
contacts with international organizations in the field of human rights, Valiantsin
Stefanovich stresses that the main task of human rights defenders for the next
year is the same – the release of political prisoners.
What were the challenges that the country’s civil society faced during the year?
Stefanovich: Speaking about the human rights situation, I can note that it is consistently poor. In a sense, the situation is stabilized, we cannot say that this year was marked by a new round of repression, but the previous one is not over yet. The consequences of the events of 19 December 2010, the policy of the authorities aimed at using repressive measures, control over civil society and the entire society – all this still remains.
Among the new challenges are the increased pressure on independent trade unions and attacks on the rights of workers, in general, as we have witnessed a number of social protests, local strikes, situations with dismissals of labor rights activists and defenders of workers' rights. And it all ended with the notorious Decree No. 9, which introduced forced labor in the country, worsening the situation with the contract system of employment. The practice of using forced labor is expanding – the media keep reporting about forcing so called “asocial persons” to contribute to clean-ups, e.g. cleaning the snow, things like that. That is, government officials tend to forget that under the Constitution our right to work is a right, not an obligation.
In parallel, there is a tendency to strengthen the repressive legislation. There were a number of high-profile cases initiated by the KGB during the year: the case of Surapin and Basharymau who were accused of aiding an illegal crossing of the state border over the incident with the Swedish aircraft, and now it is the case of Haidukou accused of treason. This is also a trend – the KGB has been engaged in a very loose use of some articles of the Criminal Code relating to crimes against the state. While we do not have full understanding of the latter case, however, we expressed great doubt and distrust of the official version of the investigation. And I think there is reason to regard this as a politically motivated prosecution, while Haidukou is therefore a political prisoner.
The problem of political prisoners remained most acute during the year. And in this respect, there have been some fluctuations: for example, Siarhei Kavalenka and Pavel Syramalotau were released in September, and later the others began to be transfer to stricter prisons. How can you explain such unequal behavior of the authorities?
Stefanovich: It's more of a situational reaction, associated with communicating with the EU. The problem of political prisoners is in direct relation to the foreign policy developments – hence such fluctuations in the authorities’ actions. And that the pressure on the prisoners is increasing, that they are placed to prisons of tougher regimes, is due to the desire to obtain their pardon applications required by the authorities to be able to maneuver. We have seen that the latest releases of the year – those of Sannikau, Bandarenka, Kavalenka and Syramalotau – were all related to clemency petitions. Unfortunately, this year we did not see the political will of the Belarusian state to address the issue of political prisoners, which obviously prevents restoring full relations with the EU.
How can you describe the relationship of the Belarusian authorities with international agencies this year?
Stefanovich: First of all, I would like to draw attention to the relations with the international organizations with Belarus’ membership (the country voluntarily joined the organizations and is committed to human rights obligations). These are the UN and the OSCE. Belarus publicly demonstrates, I would say, contempt for its own obligations.
As you can see, the authorities refuse to cooperate with the UN Human Rights Committee on a number of individual complaints of Belarusian citizens – in fact, it demonstrates its non-recognition of the HRC despite the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Belarus, thus recognizing the authority of the Committee. The same applies to the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus appointed by its supreme governing body – the Human Rights Council. Belarus said it would not recognize the mandate and the Special Rapporteur has not been invited to the country, as well as a number of other Special Rapporteurs – on arbitrary detentions, the independence of the judiciary, the protection of human rights defenders, the Committee against Torture. Thus, it demonstrates its disrespect for all the UN monitoring mechanisms whose jurisdiction was voluntarily recognized by Belarus.
Speaking about OSCE, Lukashenka even said that the organization is not needed and should be disbanded. Although it is one of the few international organizations in which Belarus has membership. During the year we have heard a lot of criticism of the OSCE. And above all it had to do with its mission to monitor the elections in Belarus, when it was said that the OSCE enjoyed doubled standards, that the standards of free elections do not exist at all. Although there is the Copenhagen Document of 1990 on the standards of democratic elections, which was approved by all the OSCE countries, including Belarus. These statements by the authorities indicate that Belarus does not want to cooperate with international organizations to which it is party.
Throughout the year, you as a representative of "Viasna" took part in several activities of the UN and the OSCE, as well as various European institutions. What are your impressions about whether these structures feel any consequences of their actions against the official Minsk?
Stefanovich: As for the EU, it is obvious that there is a crisis of strategy in its relations with Belarus. Many say they were trying different approaches – involvement of Belarus in the overall European context (2008-2010), and establishing a full-fledged dialogue. After December 19, 2010, all of these processes were stopped, and sanctions were imposed against Belarus, which are still in effect. There is also a question about the effectiveness of the sanctions. And now, as I understand, they are working on new concepts and approaches. I think that's very important. You have to think ahead how to build relations with Belarus in different circumstances, for example, in a situation when political prisoners are released. The European Union is our neighbor, the country is member of the European Union’s "Eastern Partnership" program, so it's important to think about the alignment of the relationship. But this cannot be a one-sided process. It seems I heard such a remark about Belarus in PACE, they are not used to working with countries who do not want anything. That is, each country is interested in cooperation in various spheres, and Belarus today froze all contacts and does not want to work on any level. Although PACE has opportunities of training programs for judges and lawyers to study the European standards in the field of human rights, the experience of the Strasbourg Court, but Belarus does not want to participate in any of these programs. Of course, there must be a two-way process, as well as the European Dialogue on Modernization, launched on the initiative of the European Union. The idea is that a dialogue should be maintained with the authorities, but with the participation of civil society; however, it turns out that it only involves representatives of civil society – in the absence of the actor who has the power to enforce modernization. So it's hard to say how effective it is.
Still, were there any positive things in the work of human rights defenders in 2012 that you could mention?
Stefanovich: As for "Viasna", the year of 2012 was quite difficult for us. Pressure on the organization continued in various forms – restrictions on leaving the country, which lasted for five months, interrogations of members of Viasna’s Council by the KGB, financial checks. To us, the year ended up with the loss of office, which was confiscated as a result of the case of Ales Bialiatski. We did not just beat off the attacks, we tried to act efficiently.
I am personally very pleased with the participation of “Viasna” in the observation of the parliamentary elections as part of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections". This observation involved virtually the entire organization, our regional offices, and quite a lot of work was done. I am very pleased that the quality of our analytical materials was highly appreciated by experts, including international ones, and many of these documents were useful for the OSCE observation mission, with which we were in close contacts. And for me it is very important that in such difficult conditions the organization has maintained its capacity and in fact none of our programs has been stopped – we kept arranging Human Rights Schools, observing the elections, and helping to the repressed. I hope that we will continue to work like this.
I would like to note that “Viasna” was not the only NGO that faced difficulties. This year, the authorities closed down the human rights organization "Platforma" and put pressure on other members of civil society. The foreign travel black list included 17 people, many of them are our colleagues – Andrei Bandarenka, Aleh Hulak, Hary Pahaniayla, Zhanna Litvina.
Could you make predictions for the next year?
Stefanovich: Of course, it's hard to predict anything. The only thing is sure – is that next year there will be no elections. But “Viasna” has many other things to do, we are planning to resume the work of the Minsk office. Will the year of 2013 be the period of hopes come true – speaking first of all of the release of our fellow citizens who are in prisons for political reasons? We'll see. Too much depends on us in this situation, although, unfortunately, not all. But the release of political prisoners will remain for us the greatest challenge.