After more than a year of criticism and sanctions imposed by the EU, Belarus remains one of the most repressive countries in Europe
Zhanna Litvina, chairwoman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, has a big black stamp planted right in the middle of a page in her passport, reading: "Travel temporarily restricted." She is just one of many journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers caught up in the most recent cycle of government repression in Belarus. United Nations diplomats are about to tackle human rights abuses in Belarus, again.
Exactly a year has gone by since the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 expressed concern over an unprecedented wave of human rights violations in Belarus, and asked the UN high commissioner for human rights to monitor the situation. Now, with the country still teetering on the brink of a human rights crisis, the council will consider in its session starting on June 18 what, if any, new action to take. A pattern of serious violations "of a systemic nature" exists in Belarus, according to an April 2012 report to the council by the high commissioner. The Minsk government has taken many steps "clearly aimed at curtailing the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and the right to fair trial," the report adds.
There is sadly no shortage of human rights abuses for the council to discuss. Government harassment campaigns have targeted human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers. Opposition activists are regularly subjected to arbitrary arrests and sentenced to detention for "hooliganism" and other misdemeanor charges; often as a preventative measure to stop them from participating in protests or performing their activities. Defence lawyers hesitate to take on "political cases" out of fear of getting disbarred or losing their license. Nearly all non-governmental organisations that are critical of the government operate under a constant threat of either being shut down or having their members jailed.
The country's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has gone in cycles in his responses to increasing international pressure, releasing political prisoners one day - only to crack down on civil society another. "Preventative" arbitrary arrests, new legislation restricting freedoms of assembly and speech and allegations of torture and mistreatment - in detention - all indicate that the degree of repression remains high. More than a dozen foreign human rights activists have been expelled or barred from entering the country over the last year. As a final touch, a number of Belarusians - predominantly opposition activists – as well as human rights defenders, and journalists have been barred from leaving Belarus during the last two months. The authorities have not even tried to offer credible reasons for these travel bans.
Litvina's calendar for the next few months is filled with speaking engagements in various European and American cities. Instead, with the border guard's stamp on her passport, she will be staying in Minsk - trying to navigate the maze of confusing and contradictory governmental replies that contain no logical explanations as to why a prominent public figure has suddenly been banned from international travel. Aleh Hulak and Harry Pahanyayla of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the prominent human rights defender Aleh Vouchak have also been "blacklisted" - apparently because of their involvement in mysterious court cases that none of them are aware of. Their attempts to find out more information so far have led to a flood of Kafkaesque responses, with the Justice Ministry blaming the Interior Ministry and vice versa.
Valiantsin Stephanovich from the Viasna Human Rights Centre was informed by the migration and citizenship service that his "evasion" of military service is to blame for travel restrictions imposed on him. Stephanovich is 12 years older than the maximum draft age of 27. In September 2011, during a debate on the human rights situation in Belarus, the Belarusian delegate told the United Nations Human Rights Council: "In the free world, one could not tell other people how they should live and where they should go." The delegate suggested that the European Union should not "participate in political power struggles in other countries".
Yet international partners can and should attempt to pressure repressive governments to change their ways, by means of international mechanisms designed for such purposes. Another resolution by the Human Rights Council, this time calling for a stronger monitoring mechanism, such as a country-specific special rapporteur, could be instrumental in monitoring and curtailing some of the violations that occur in Belarus on a daily basis. The very existence of a special rapporteur could help empower civil society in Belarus and make people like Hulak, Pahanyayla, Stephanovich and Litvina feel less vulnerable to state persecution. It would also allow for regular interaction with human rights defenders and victims of human rights abuses.
After more than a year of sharp and consistent international criticism and targeted sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States, Belarus remains one of the most repressive countries in Europe. Clearly, more, not less, pressure is needed. International partners should remain true to their human rights commitments and to local civil society activists in Belarus, and not give in to fatigue on this issue. Belarus is a tough challenge but one that the international community should continue to address - including through key global human rights instruments such as the UN Human Rights Council.
Yulia Gorbunova is a Europe and Central Asia researcher at the Human Rights Watch campaign group