Hundreds of individuals have been arrested or fined by police during Belarus’ presidential election campaign in recent weeks, but, unlike in other formerly communist-run European countries, Belarusians who believe they have been wronged have no recourse to international courts.
The reason is straightforward: Belarus has not signed or ratified the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, the international human-rights agreement interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the continent’s main judicial body for rulings on alleged abuses of individuals’ rights, including free speech and assembly.
Though Belarus cooperates to some degree with the Council of Europe, the 47-member human-rights body that acts as the chief advocate for the European Convention on Human Rights, little expectation exists that the country often dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" will soon become a full-fledged member of this mechanism for safeguarding human rights.
Rather, as the Belarusian government prepares for what President Alyaksandr Lukashenka terms potential “warfare” – unsanctioned street demonstrations in response to Belarus’ August 9 presidential vote – some observers fear the risk for abuses of human rights in Belarus could increase.
In June, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur for Belarus, Anais Martin expressed concerns that the government’s accusations against opposition members, human-rights workers, journalists, bloggers, and others could be used to stifle criticism of its actions.
Martin called on the Belarusian government to “create an atmosphere of pluralism” and to stop “systematically” pressuring those in civil society whose views do not reflect its own.
"The already dire human rights situation has deteriorated even further over the last year," she commented when presenting her annual report to the Council on July 10.
As of July 20, Belarusian police had arrested or fined 523 people at election-related events since early May, according to the Belarusian human-rights group Vyasna (Spring). It had recorded 1,140 reported cases of arbitrary detentions as well.
Roughly 16 journalists, including two RFE/RL reporters, were hauled off to jail on July 14-15 while covering unauthorized protests against the rejection of two opposition candidates’ registration for the 2020 presidential race.
With that in mind, the news outlet Naviny.by recently posted guidelines for readers about how to behave “correctly” if detained by police at a demonstration or rally.
Even passers-by walking by such an event can end up spending time in jail, it advised.
Officials, though, argue that these detentions were required to preserve law and order – particularly amidst what it considers attempts by the BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to “destabilize” Belarus. (RFE/RL, which leads Current Time in association with the Voice of America, has denied those accusations.)
The entire government is “focused on the preparation and conduct of the presidential election campaign taking place in full accordance with the law and with observance of human rights,” Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey commented on July 24.
“But the leadership of Belarus will not allow the situation in society, the country to be artificially destabilized or for this to lead to a loss of sovereignty, state independence.”
With no access to the ECHR, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council has become the international body to which Belarusians look for assistance if Belarusian courts, generally deemed dependent on the government, uphold a detention or fine for the reasons Makey gave.
But the Council does not have the authority of an international court that can order the government to pay compensation to victims of rights abuses or take other corrective measures.
It can simply make recommendations to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on “technical cooperation, capacity building assistance or advisory services” for the government concerned.
Though Belarus has ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Council defends, it does not recognize the authority of the organ’s special rapporteur for Belarus, Anais Martin.
Its record for implementing the Council’s recommendations appears mixed. While agreeing in 2015 to measures to investigate attacks on journalists, provide for their safety, and enhance media freedom, it subsequently introduced amendments to its media law that “even more seriously curtail these freedoms,” particularly online, Amnesty International reported.
“The Belarusian authorities believe that the decisions of the UN Council are optional and non-binding in nature …” commented Valentin Stefanovich, a lawyer for Vyasna and vice-president of the non-governmental International Federation for Human Rights.
No procedures exist in Belarusian legislation for implementing the Council’s recommendations, he noted.
Maya Abromchik can speak to that from experience.
In December 2010, a riot police officer broke Abromchik’s leg with a baton at a Minsk protest against the reelection of President Lukashenka; a vote the European Union and most international observers deemed fraudulent.
Abromchik, then a fourth-year history student at Belarusian State University, was detained with other demonstrators and thrown into a police van.
The officers did not respond to the detainees yelling for a doctor, she alleged. Only at the pre-trial detention center did a paramedic call an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
Abromchik claims her leg, after two surgeries, still has not completely recovered.
After she was released from the hospital in 2011, Abromchik filed a complaint about the police’s actions with the prosecutor's office of Minsk’s Moscow district.
A forensic examination, performed at the request of the prosecutor's office, concluded that the recorded injuries could be caused by an object similar to a police baton.
Abromchik also found witnesses to support her case: a young couple who had been beaten by riot police not far from her and an elderly woman who had been in the police van with her.
In April 2011, a criminal case was opened, but against unidentified persons. The riot police were not named.
It turned out, Abromchik said, that the police who had beaten her had not signed her detention protocol. “This is such a Belarusian system: some people take you away, but others sign the protocol.”
The investigators did not press for the identity of her alleged assailant. The case was suspended.
As a result, in 2012, Abromchik filed a complaint about the case with the UN Human Rights Council, which concluded that the police beating of the young woman had violated her human rights.
It recommended that the Belarusian authorities conduct a full investigation, bring those responsible to justice, and provide the victim with an official apology and financial compensation, including the reimbursement of her legal and medical expenses.
The Council stated that it expected to hear from Belarusian officials within 180 days about how it would respond to the decision, but, eight years later, the Belarusian government still has done nothing.
Nonetheless, Abromchik’s lawyer, Alvina Mingazova, believes that the complaint to the UN Human Rights Council “was important from a moral point of view.”
“As a lawyer, I think it is important for our citizens to have an additional resource for protecting their rights at the international level,” Mingazova said.
Vyasna lawyer Stefanovich agrees. A Human Rights Council decision is “actually like a decision of the [Belarusian] Supreme Court,” he said. “They explain the application of this or that provision of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Vyasna itself has appealed to the UN Human Rights Council in its attempt to reinstate its official registration as an organization and in its investigations of death-penalty cases and sudden deaths in prisons and police stations.
The results have not been encouraging. When the Human Rights Council has requested a stay of execution while it deliberates about a death-row case brought to its attention, the executions have proceeded, Stefanovich noted.
Nothing suggests that, with a presidential election afoot, Minsk now intends to reevaluate its relationship with the Council or the ECHR and welcome closer outside scrutiny of its human-rights situation.
"I think the government is not interested in taking on some additional obligations, participating in the monitoring mechanisms of the human rights situation, paying monetary compensation to the victims of human rights violations," Stefanovich said. "I think our state is not much interested in this.”
In recent speeches, President Lukashenka has hinted broadly that the government may opt to use the armed forces to quash any “Maidan” – a reference to the 2014 uprising in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
But the president and senior officials present such intervention as necessary to preserve law and order.
“You shouldn’t think that someone said that the army will be against the people,” Security Council Chairman General Andrey Raukou said on July 16. Law enforcement, the armed forces, Interior Ministry troops, “and other security structures” have the task, he said, “of not allowing the state to perish, not allowing bloodshed among the people.”
In its May report to the UN Human Rights Council, Belarus asserted that the state guarantees the right to demonstrations, protests, and “street events” that do not violate “law and order and the rights of other citizens of the Republic of Belarus.”
It denounced the concept of a state monopoly of media, claiming that independent media outlets outnumber those of government-run media, and stressed that the law supports freedom of speech.
Responding to the Human Rights Council’s 2019 criticism of the country’s protection of the rights to freedom of speech and assembly, Belarus’ UN ambassador, Valentin Rybakov stressed that the Council’s work “should be aimed at the real questions about human rights.”
He did not elaborate about his meaning.
-This article contains reporting from Current Time's March 23, 2020 article Ну, тогда мы будем бить тебя: Почему жители Беларуси не могут обратиться в ЕСПЧ и куда жалуются на государство by Alena Shalayeva. With additional reporting by BelTA and TUT.by