On March 11, the U.S. Department of State published its assessment of the human rights situation in Belarus for 2019. The report touches upon respect of integrity, political prisoners, unlawful interference of authorities into the private life of citizens, etc. The document emphasizes violations of rights of independent media, including Belsat TV.
Such papers are published annually and are of rather familiarising character. However, in the current context of normalisation of Belarus-US dialogue, the report might play a role in improving human rights situation in a country. Belsat asked Belarusian experts to comment on the situation with human rights in Belarus and its significance for Belarus-US relations.
The document mentions administrative punishments against independent journalists as well as denial to register independent media outlets, among others, Belsat.
“As of September 25, at least 17 journalists were fined in 38 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, freelance journalists received fines totaling more than 35,000 rubles ($17,200). Most of the fines were imposed on journalists working for Belsat Television”.
Besides issuing fines against journalists not loyal to the government, authorities also employed raids on the office of Belsat.
“The Investigative Committee press service indicated that the search was related to an unspecified defamation case. According to Belsat journalist Ales Zaleuski, the criminal case might have been connected to an article in which Belsat Television incorrectly reported that Andrei Shved, the head of the Committee for Forensic Examination, had been detained. Belsat Television issued a retraction and apology, and the committee returned the computer equipment on April, 11.”
According to the U.S. Department of State, Belarusian bloggers have also been at the authorotoes’ gunpoint. Syarhei Pyatruhin, a blogger from Brest, received $8000 fine for his critical social media posts. The report points to Belarusian journalists and bloggers’ increasing practices of self-censorship.
One of the important aspects covered by the paper from the US Department of State is academic freedom. Uladzimir Dunayeu, a member of Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, that regularly conducts monitoring of academic freedoms in Belarus, explains:
“International organisations rarely pay much attention to this topic [of academic freedom – Belsat]. If the assessment of academic freedoms are not only announced, but also taken into account by organisations and foreign governments in the framework of cooperation programs with Belarus, more progress in the field could be expected.”
According to him, the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to comply with the Bologna process even to a minor extent. Academic freedoms are not in the focus of state policy and the term ‘academic freedom’ was even excluded from the Belarusian legislation in 2009.
After the series of visits from the US government, Mike Pompeo has once more anchored the United States’ positions on human rights in Belarus. Despite open criticism towards the Belarusian government for violating human rights, the document will unlikely have any negative effect on bilateral relations, stresses Katsyaryna Shmatsina, a political analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
This report will make it harder to advocate for removing sanctions and reconsidering the Democracy Act – for those stakeholders interested in such changes – and would encourage U.S. decision makers to keep an eye on human rights issues and not to give up entirely to the pragmatic cooperation with the authoritarian government for the sake of geopolitical interests.
Andrey Kazakevich, director of the Institute Political Sphere, believes that the document is not to serve as a guideline for the US foreign policy. This is a regular report conducted by the Human Rights group of the US Department of State, notes Kazakevich.
“Whether such documents are taken into account when shaping the US foreign policy will depend on the specific situation. Let’s take, for example, the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. The human rights issue does not usually come first, but eighth or ninth. Something similar is happening in the Belarusian case. If earlier in the bilateral relations, human rights issues appeared at the fore, today they are partly left aside. This report can be topical again if the situation with human rights in Belarus begins to deteriorate. However, nowadays, the paper will not become an obstacle to the improvement of relations,” he said.
The promotion of human rights in Belarus remains one of the central aspects which the U.S. has been paying attention to since 2004 when the Belarus Democracy Act was released. Will the normalisation of bilateral relations happen? It depends on different factors, with the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus among them.
Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu