“Stopping more brutal affronts and violations” in Belarus
Reflecting on his six years as UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, as his tenure come to an end, Miklós Haraszti recalls “fighting an uphill battle” in the mandate, but how ultimately it has ensured international scrutiny of the human rights situation and provided a bulwark against some of the worst violations.
He also urges the new generation in Belarus to maintain hope, and to find new energy.
“This mandate was a classic example of fighting an uphill battle… It has stopped deterioration at least in certain domains, even if could not achieve real liberation and liberalisation… The mandate has helped in stopping more brutal affronts and violations.”
Six years ago, the Human Rights Council created the Special Procedures mandate on the human rights situation in Belarus, as a response to a pattern of serious human rights violations over a number of years.
“The mandate was established on the occasion of one of the crackdowns, in the absence of any international scrutiny. I believe the fact that the government returned to mass crackdowns but then released all of the taken political prisoners after a while is partly thanks to the mandate itself – in a great part maybe. [The mandate gave] the presence of the constant scrutinising eye of the international community and the constant connection of the human rights defenders inside the country with that international community.”
At the time of the mandate’s creation, it was acknowledged by members of the Human Rights Council that the mandate would be a temporary mechanism, only existing until such time as Belarus made meaningful and verifiable reforms to its domestic human rights situation. Speaking at the Council in June, Human Rights House Foundation warned that six years on there is still no sign of serious systemic reforms in Belarus, and that Belarus refuses to even acknowledge the mandate, despite repeated attempts at genuine engagement by Miklós Haraszti.
Motivated by experiences in Hungary
“My motivation to take up the mandate as the Special Rapporteur on Belarus came from my long experience with regimes that press human rights, and after the change in the late 80s early 90s, my experience with international cooperation on that issue.”
Haraszti participated in democratic changes in Hungary in the late 80s and early 90s, was a deputy to the first democratic parliament, and was the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media from 2004 to 2010, before taking up the mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus from 2012 to 2018.
“The whole life experience of Miklós Haraszti prepared him for the post of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus. Philologist, poet, he participated in his youth in an underground student organisation in “socialist” Hungary. For this, he was persecuted by the authorities, but he continued to act together with the Hungarian dissidents,” comments Ales Bialatski, Viasna, member of the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House.
Commenting on his past experiences, Haraszti explained how they equipped him with an understanding of the challenges faced by civil society in Belarus.
“The human rights defenders of Belarus would need a voice that understands the very special troubles that come from freedom lost from the inside. That’s a new situation: it’s not geopolitically lost freedom like we had during communism. It’s having an already existing base of human rights and democratic rules and then losing it from inside with a power that changes those rules on the go.
I believed I could use that very special knowledge. I am not daring to claim that I was extremely efficient. Not only because I couldn’t do it alone, but because the world in the meanwhile has moved into an unsupportive condition. We live worldwide in the resurrection of a spoilage of human rights and of the world based on the assumption that most new democracies – which they themselves had subscribed too –would provide constant progress. And the opposite is true.”
Haraszti contributed his knowledge and experience to the recent report Resisting Ill Democracy in Europe: a case study of Croatia, Hungary, Poland, and Serbia, which outlines the main trends within ill democracies and offers practices and strategies for civil society to resist. Writing the foreword, he outlines the “epidemic of anti-civil society laws hitting many new democracies”, and expresses hope that civil society can counter illiberal trends.
Haraszti has been the “voice of the international community in Belarus”
Ales Bialatski, a former political prisoner in Belarus, comments on Miklós Haraszti and his time in the mandate.
“The firmness and objectivity of Miklós Haraszti’s assessments made him the authoritative voice of the international community in Belarus, which was supported and respected by human rights defenders and with which the Belarusian authorities were forced to reckon.
Despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities did not recognise his mandate and did not let him into Belarus for a long time, the reports of Miklós Haraszti were very informative and understandable, and the statements and interviews were always open, truthful and sincere.
He always acted as an independent and objective expert who did not fall under the influence of a temporary conjuncture, although the period of his work fell into a difficult period of systematic and constant violation of human rights by the Belarusian authorities, the existence of political prisoners, the death penalty, and the persecution of human rights defenders and journalists.”
A message of hope
Asked what message he would offer to young people in Belarus, Haraszti heralded the value of bringing international human rights standards to Belarus.
“First, they shouldn’t give in to relativism that is the official ideology of such regimes: ‘Oh we have a special history, we have a special sociology, we have a special geography, what we call democracy is just another type of democracy.’ They should stick to the world of standards. They should believe in universalism and universal standards… the notion of the indivisibility of human rights. And second, they should not give up hope and should work actively and cooperate. The regime wants to discourage every new generation and to fight free media and free civil society. This is the place – civil society and media – where new energies, new realisations, new cooperations can come from. So maintain those fora and keep your hopes.”
The mandate is needed on many accounts
In a joint letter with international human rights organisations, published in June 2018, HRHF urged delegations at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC38) to support the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus. The Council renewed the mandate for another year, and a new mandate holder, Anaïs Marin, was appointed by the Human Rights Council in September.
“We need the mandate on many accounts, as the only connecting tissue for the society of Belarus… as the very notion of keeping up standards and not rewarding a failure to cooperate. The actual success non-cooperation hopes to achieve is to give up scrutiny. And most importantly, the mandate maintains the only tool the international community inside and outside the European Union has vis a vis such situations – namely systemic violation of human rights.
The case-by-case handling of individual violations always plays to the hands of the violators, even if they get reprimanded. Because it remains isolated from the holistic picture. It keeps them in the domain of hope while they are basically lacking the political will to improve human rights. The mandate enforces the notion that what we need is political will and not just case-by-case handling of individual complaints.”
With regard to individual complaints, Belarus has for years ignored the interventions of the UN Human Rights Committee, particularly with regard to complaints about the use of and conditions around the death penalty. In October 2018, the Human Rights Committee reviewed Belarus for the first time in 21 years.
Belarus says it does not accept mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, given that the mandate is a “clearly political mission” to meddle in its internal affairs. It does not mention that the Rapporteur raises challenges voiced by Belarusian civil society. #HRCommittee
Human rights developments should never be mixed up with geopolitical expectations and advantages
“The fact that the situation has remained unchanged is also due to the geopolitical situation around Belarus, which the President has carefully used to warn society inside that Russian tanks – sorry for my bluntness – could roll at any moment if they criticise power, shake the boat, or demonstrate too much. On the other hand, the President’s cautious independence from outspoken support of aggression against Ukraine did help his status with the Western international community.
Recalling my past experiences, in the 70 and 80s, a similar situation to Belarus developed with Romania, which did not take part in the Warsaw pact aggression against the Prague Spring. That imbued hope with the Western Community that the country may finally decide to detach itself from the Warsaw Pact Community. This not only was not realised, but the country suffered the only violent revolution. The ruler was – I’m sorry – put to the wall and shot dead. All the rest of the countries were able to manage a peaceful transition to democracy.
My point is nevertheless that hope allowed Romania to enjoy a special status, nominally a special status in terms of economy, and the illusion remained until the very change. I don’t condemn the efforts at geopolitical rapprochement and the reestablishment of relationships and economic offering, but this particular experience warns us that human rights developments should never be mixed up with geopolitical expectations and advantages. A two-track approach should be maintained. Independent international scrutiny of human rights should be maintained while efforts are being made toward engagement.”
Increased dialogue between the EU and Belarus in recent years has not led to real openings by the authorities. Some 35 MEPs from the European Parliament sent a letter to the European Commission in March of this year, laying the grounds for an April resolution raising concerns about the lack of progress on human rights and demanding that the European Union sets clear benchmarks in its engagement.
HRHF warned at the time: “Belarus continues to operate on a ‘permission-based system,’ with the enjoyment of human rights depending absolutely on the will of those holding power… Miklós Haraszti has documented what this permission-based system means in practice: you can associate only if the government can tolerate you; assemble only if it is to support the government; and enjoy other freedoms only if the government permits.”
At the General Assembly in New York in October, Haraszti presented his final report to the UN. He reported that no substantial improvements in the human rights situation have been realised in Belarus during the past decade, and warned that “true and lasting stability never comes with complete contravention of human rights.”
Achievements and future plans
Haraszti further spoke of what he is most proud of in his time as mandate holder, pointing to his work in support of political prisoners and with civil society.
“I think the liberation of Ales Bialiatski and the fact that while political prisoners are taken again and again, their term is terminated sooner and sooner and never do they have to go to the very end – which is the force of international scrutiny. Even though the government is proud of not acknowledging this mandate, I think it did have its effect.
Let me expense thanks to the Human Rights House [Foundation]. It was a marvelous hub. It was really important internationally in terms of continuing support, despite the fact that one of the main aims of the regime was to build a new Berlin wall out of legal measures against international help for the cause of human rights. And to the local chapter, the Vilnius chapter [Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House]for organising our meetings. I think it was international civil society movement at its best. So congratulations and please keep going on with the good job.”
He also offered thanks to staff at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and said he was very blessed with friends who assisted in his execution of the mandate. He set out what is next for him.
“I am quite engaged in my country [Hungary], which right now even as a member of the European Union is a good and better friend of Belarus, and actively hampering the happiness of Ukraine with its chosen path, shamefully cooperating with the worst enemies of human rights on the continent. And so that gives me a job again: thinking, writing, and cooperating – as much as the need, because there are wonderful new people there.
These illiberal regimes start at the moment when the parties are already done and squeezed into the cage of the parliamentary agenda dictated by the ruling power. So civil society and free media is as much the name of the game in Hungary as in Belarus. Surprisingly and sadly, it is similar.
I’m going back also to my desk as a writer. I have a huge backlog in terms of non-fiction, in terms of memoirs. So I would like to be done with that before sunset.”