Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders: to promote and not to interfere with legitimate activities of human rights defenders
At the conference of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights held in Bern a few days ago, a special document – Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – was adopted. Belarusian human rights organizations – Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Center "Viasna" – participated in preparation, discussing and adoption of this important human rights instrument. Deputy chairman of the Human Rights Centre "Viasna" Valiantsin Stefanovich says about the necessity of the Guidelines and its essence:
– The need for this document arose because human rights defenders in the OSCE region are often subjected to harassment and attacks; state authorities interfered with their work, and sometimes even worse things such as murder happened. The tragic fate of Natalya Estemirova, who was killed just for her human rights activities, can serve as an example. Several years ago there was an idea of creation of a special document titled "Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders" in the OSCE ODIHR. This was preceded by adoption of the Dublin Declaration of intent to create such a document. The process begun during the Ireland’s chairmanship in the OSCE, and finished just now, when Switzerland presides over this European organization.
Guidelines themselves represent a certain compilation of best practices, based on the commitments of OSCE participating states which were adopted by them earlier within the UN and the Council of Europe. The Guidelines do not create any new obligations for the states. It's just a compilation with references to the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court that adopt decisions on individual complaints of citizens concerning violations of their rights to freedom of association, expression etc. And because the Republic of Belarus is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and first Optional Protocol thereto, so it should recognize the competence of the HRC in the application of the Covenant in specific cases.
We are very pleased that such a document was adopted. Previously, human rights defenders could rely only on one such an act – the so-called Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, or the "Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998. This was a consensus document approved by all members of the United Nations, including the Republic of Belarus.
The new document first of all contains a definition of human rights defenders, and this definition is very important for us, human rights defenders, because we used this definition in our practice already before. It is based on the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, except that in the new document it is more detailed. According to the new document, human rights defenders can be defined as individuals or groups of people who promote and strive to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, realize them at the local, regional, national and international levels, recognizing the universality of human rights for all without distinction of any kind, and defend human rights by peaceful means. We cannot say that human rights defenders may recognize some rights and deny the other. Human rights belong to everyone from the moment of their birth, regardless of their nationality, religion, race, gender identity or sexual orientation. This is the basic principle of human rights defenders, which we follow in our daily practice.
– How effective and efficient will be the document in different countries within the OSCE region?
– The document is finally adopted, and now the question of its implementation at the national level arises, how effective it will be in practice. Let me remind you that the conference was taking place in Switzerland which is now completing its OSCE chairmanship and therefore timed the conference to this time to put an end to the process, and it was attended by representatives of civil society, including human rights organizations from various countries of the OSCE region were present at the conference. Belarus was represented by representatives of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Center "Viasna" – our organizations had participated in consultations concerning the Guidelines two years ago in Kyiv where representatives of human rights organizations of the OSCE region (Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia) met. We shared our visions and opinions on this topic, the discussion itself was very lively, and representatives of different countries spoke. I was very surprised that in many countries special state structures for dealing with human rights activists and civil society were established at the national level. Representative of Serbia, Director of the Office of Communications with civil society under the Government of Serbia Ivana Tsyrkovich spoke at the conference. She described how her government works with NGO representatives, how it finances many programmes of the non-governmental organizations, including LGBT organizations. I was pleased to see that representatives of national delegations of many countries, mainly EU members, demonstrated complete understanding of the importance of human rights and of the role of human rights in a democratic society.
– But perhaps there were other views among different states concerning the Guidelines?
– There were, of course, different views, other approaches, mainly among delegations from the post-Soviet region. Delegation of Belarus did not take part in the conference at all. But official delegations of the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan took part. Representatives of Azerbaijan, for instance, took offence at the criticism against their government for the persecution of human rights defenders, including our colleague, Anar Mammadli, who was recently sentenced to five and a half years of imprisonment for the realization of a project on election observation. Representative of the Russian Federation spoke twice, strongly voicing the country's position that this document completely unacceptable, and that this is just "non-consensual brochure" published under the auspices of the OSCE ODIHR, and that it is unclear with what civil society representatives the document was discussed, and that the OSCE participating States did not vote for this document, and therefore its implementation is out of question and cannot be carried out. Although it was repeatedly clarified at the conference that there is no need in adoption of the document on the basis of the OSCE countries consensus (all OSCE decisions are taken by consensus) because it does not impose any new obligations. These are the commitments that have been made previously, including by consensus, implied by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of the UN General Assembly and other. Russia’s representatives emphasized the fact that singling out human rights defenders in a separate caste with the scope of rights larger than the rest of people have, is nothing but discrimination.
Although the need for adoption of such a document arose precisely because human rights activists, who are professionally engaged in human rights activities, comprise an extremely vulnerable group that is very often subjected to repressions, intimidation, and various restrictions imposed by the state in connection with its activities. And that is why there was a need for the adoption of the Guidelines. This document has not introduced any special rights for human rights defenders. It just reiterates obligation of the state to facilitate but not to interfere with the lawful and legitimate activities of human rights defenders. Strange enough that the representative of the Holy See took the position which was almost identical to that of Russia: he said that this document is not a consensual. A representative of the official Norwegian delegation could not resist the replica and said that the Bible is also a non-consensual document, and this caused a heated discussion among the participant. But speaking seriously, I am quite sure that the official position of Belarus on this document will also be expressed in the same style as the position of the Russian Federation.
The document, however, has been already adopted, and we now have an opportunity to refer to the obligations of the state to facilitate the activities of human rights organizations, but not to create impediments to them. It derives from the obligations that Belarus voluntarily committed itself to.
It is in this context, the name of the chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Bialiatski was mentioned repeatedly at the conference as an example of how Belarus creates all kinds of obstacles for human rights organizations. The example of "Viasna" in this sense is very emblematic. The organization was deprived of registration and pushed into field of illegal activity. Authorities ignored all the possibilities for a new registration; the organization's website is listed among the sites with limited access for users, chairman of the organization is in prison, members of the organization are repeatedly subjected to various forms of intimidation, including the restriction of the right to travel outside the country. These examples clearly demonstrate the acute need for adoption of such a serious document by the OSCE ODIHR.