||Focus: Human Rights||
This report examines restrictions on academic inquiry and academic life in Belarus that violate internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Many of the violations stem from a revival of discredited authoritarian policies and practices of the Soviet era. In the field of history, there has been a literal return to Soviet-era policies, with suppression of research into Belarusian independence movements, restrictions on the use of the Belarusian language, and pressure to present a sanitized account of historical relations with Russia. Institutionally, there has been increasing centralization of academic decision-making, as well as resuscitation of institutional forms characteristic of the Soviet era. Most notable in this regard is the ban on political activity on campus accompanied by the emergence of the ostensibly apolitical but manifestly pro-Presidential Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth as an omnipresent feature of campus life.1 These developments have been accompanied by a systematic crackdown on expressions of political dissent on campus and, indeed, any form of intellectual inquiry that strays from government-approved orthodoxy. Outspoken students and lecturers are routinely targeted. Pressures to toe the line, moreover, are present not only in state universities but increasingly in private institutions and academies as well, and opposition groups of all kinds, including civic organizations that attempt to conduct seminars in democracy and human rights, have been harassed, denied facilities, and shut down.
The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that "every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for [human rights]." To this end, the declaration specifically provides for the right to education, mandates that access to educational institutions and to the cultural and scientific resources of society shall be available to all, and provides that "education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." Human Rights Watch believes that educational institutions cannot fulfil their mission of strengthening respect for human rights when the basic rights of educators and students themselves are not respected. Objective criticism is the basis of social progress; it is difficult to imagine how that progress can be achieved without uninhibited research and dialogue.
The freedom to pursue research and scholarship unfettered by censorship and persecution cannot be separated from freedom to exercise basic civil and political rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a human rights organization, it is not our intention to support or dispute the opinions, ideas, or research findings of the academics and students whose cases we discuss. It is, however, a central feature of our mandate to defend their right to express their views and to study, research, teach, and publish without interference.
As set forth in article 19 of the ICCPR, freedom of expression "shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers." This freedom is essential to academic excellence. A university fulfills its mission when academics are not forced to support an official line, an economic agenda, or a political ideology, but rather are free to use their talents to advance human knowledge and understanding. Freedom of expression is also a core civil and political right essential to citizen autonomy. There can be no liberty and no meaningful citizenship where individuals are denied the basic right to ask questions and seek information about what is going on in society, and to share their ideas and views with others. To date, international attention to this basic right has understandably emphasized artistic freedom and freedom of the press, essential attributes of a free society. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the crucial role played by academic institutions, dedicated to inquiry, information, and ideas, in preserving and giving meaning to the right.
In principle, the university is an institution open to all on the basis of merit, and should serve as an important intellectual resource not only to governments and industry, but also to individuals and interests independent of the state. In practice, attacks on campus-based critics and politically motivated government interventions often threaten to turnthe university into an institution that exclusively serves the interests of state power holders. Because the great majority of universities around the world are public institutions or are dependent on government funding, and because such institutions typically are viewed by governments as "prime instruments of national purpose," governments have considerable power to influence what takes place on campus and an incentive to wield that power.
A wide range of governments abuse their power. In Belarus under President Aleksandr Lukashenka, politically motivated attacks on dissident faculty and students have been accompanied by damaging ideological and institutional constraints. Political assaults on the academic community thus not only claim individual victims, they also serve as a crucial component in broader government efforts to limit citizens' basic rights and as an important barrier to the development of independent institutions and a dynamic civil society.
There is another reason why we have chosen to focus on the academic community: Compared to other professional groups, including doctors, scientists, journalists, writers, and lawyers, academics worldwide have been slow to campaign against human rights abuses, and slow to take action aimed at addressing the plight of colleagues overseas. Higher education is fast becoming a global concern. As barriers fall, there is increasing opportunity to assist those who have been arbitrarily targeted by their governments, and increasing need to articulate principles for the defense of academic freedom worldwide. By visiting or attempting to visit students and scholars in prison, keeping in touch with their families, colleagues, and unions, raising money for their legal defense and medical needs, and expressing concern over their cases with governments and international organizations, academics ensure that their colleagues are not forgotten. By speaking out when students and scholars are censored, constrained in their exercise of basic rights as citizens, or targeted for imprisonment and torture, academics fulfill an important part of their mission as educators.1 In Russian, Belarusskii Patrioticheskii Soyuz Molodezhi.