FIDH statement on new passport restrictions targeting democratic opposition and human rights defenders
The recent restrictions imposed on renewing passports for Belarusian nationals residing abroad violate the rights of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians and place additional risks on members of the Belarusian civil society. FIDH, with its member organisation in Belarus HRC Viasna, raises alarm about the impact of these new measures on the Belarus human rights community, democratic opposition, and all critical voices who have sought refuge abroad to escape the repression in Belarus.
A decree signed by the de facto President of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, on 4 September 2023, effectively bars Belarusians living abroad from renewing their passports and other essential documents outside of Belarus. To acquire new documents, Belarusians will now be compelled to return to their home country, instead of doing so at Belarusian embassies abroad, placing all regime opponents at risk of state persecution.
Thousands of Belarusian human rights defenders, members of the democratic opposition movement, and all critics of the Lukashenka regime have fled Belarus in the recent past due to threats, harassment, and imminent risk of prosecution by the authorities. Requiring them to return to Belarus to obtain documents exposes them to almost certain arrest, detention, or other forms of repression upon their return. In the alternative, all regime opponents whose status has not been regularized abroad will face travel restrictions, increased administrative burdens when their passports expire. In addition to increasing the vulnerability of civil society actors and dissidents, the new measure also gives rise to fears that all those living abroad may be regarded as stateless persons by foreign authorities when their passports expire.
Additionally, the new measure violates the rights, notably the freedom of movement, property rights, among others, of hundreds of thousands of Belarusian citizens abroad, by imposing additional administrative and financial burdens associated with traveling back to Belarus to renew their passports. And yet, the underlying aim of the new law is to target human rights defenders and all opposition activists who are at risk of persecution by the state once in Belarus. It therefore represents one of many repressive measures deployed by the Lukashenka regime to target the opposition, as outlined in the recent report by the Observatory (FIDH-OMCT).
Civil Society Actors among the Most Targeted Groups
Since the start of the protests against electoral fraud in Belarus in August 2020 and the subsequent crackdown by the state, civil society actors have been among the most heavily targeted groups in the country. As of August 1, 2023, at least 93 human rights defenders, including members and employees of human rights organizations, trade unionists, lawyers, and journalists, have been unjustly detained in Belarus on fabricated charges. Prominent figures like Ales Bialiatski, the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and chairperson of Viasna, along with his deputy and FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovic, and other Viasna activists including Uladzimir Labkovich, Marfa Rabkova, Andrei Chapiuk, and human rights defender Nasta Loika are currently detained. All independent human rights organizations, media outlets, and trade unions have been forcibly closed, and their activities unjustly labeled as extremist and criminal offenses. On August 23, 2023, Viasna was declared an extremist organisation, and its activities were banned in Belarus.
Given these potential consequences of the new law, it is imperative for the international community and human rights organisations to closely monitor the situation and extend support to civil society actors affected by these restrictions. FIDH and HRC Viasna call upon the Belarus authorities to rescind the law, for EU member states to provide assistance and support to Belarusian human rights defenders, democratic opposition, and all those adversely impacted by this measure, including assisting them with temporary travel, residency, and other essential documents, as well as non-refoulement guarantees.