Human rights defenders met in Vilnius to discuss emergency strategy
Norwegian Helsinki Committee, in cooperation with Human Rights Center Viasna, convened human rights defenders in Vilnius on 20-21 January 2011. The meeting gathered more than 40 NGO representatives from 23 different NGOs from Belarus, Europe and North America.
orwegian Helsinki Committee, in cooperation with Human Rights Center Viasna, convened human rights defenders in Vilnius on 20-21 January 2011. The meeting gathered more than 40 NGO representatives from 23 different NGOs from Belarus, Europe and North America.
The meeting concluded with an appeal for increased support to human rights defenders at risk in Belarus in the aftermath of the 19 December 2010 crack-down on demonstrators protesting the results of the flawed Presidential elections. They called for the deployment of OSCE mechanisms, EU diplomatic, political and financial instruments, and UN mechanisms to the unprecedented repressions going on in the country.
Major conclusions and recommendations of the meeting were as follows:
• The meeting participants discussed the unprecedented repression that led to the detention of more than 700 people on 19 December, among which a number of participants in the Meeting. They condemned the brutality used by Belarusian security forces and asked for the unconditional release of all those who are currently detained in KGB prison facilities. They especially deplored the total disregard for the right to defense of the detainees, who are isolated in KGB prison facilities without access to the outside world, including their lawyers. They urgently asked the Belarusian authorities to allow lawyers to meet with their clients, and to refrain from violating the presumption of innocence of the detainees through the publication of incriminating articles in the state media.
• A climate of fear has spread throughout Belarus, and all those addressing the repression need help and international solidarity. Participants described the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders and their families; lawyers; journalists; students and other participants in the demonstrations. They reported more than 100 cases of illegal searches and confiscation of property targeting NGO activists, journalists, lawyers and other individuals who have e.g. been subject to administrative arrests in the past. They called for support from EU structures and missions to address the issue of the continued violations committed against human rights defenders in Belarus in their contacts with the authorities, and to protect them.
• The meeting participants deplored cases where citizens have been called by police to explain their participation in the 19 December demonstrations, on the basis of information from mobile phone operators, which allegedly show that they were present on the site of the demonstration. They condemned such practice by three major mobile phone operators, and demanded to put an end to the harassment of citizens.
In view of the above:
1. The meeting participants unanimously call for an independent Expert Mission investigating the events of 19 December and the acts of repression that followed.
2. They call upon the international community to use all political and diplomatic tools at its disposal to ask for the legalization of NGOs in Belarus, as well as for Art. 193.1 of the criminal code criminalizing non-registered NGO activity, to be abolished.
3. Welcomed the adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament on 20 January, addressing the situation in Belarus. They noted the call to re-apply visa bans and freeze the assets of leading Belarusian state officials, members of the judiciary and security officers who can be considered responsible for the vote-rigging and post electoral repression and support this call. They urged the EU Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers to make a decision to this effect at their meeting on 31 January.
Meeting participants insisted that the sanctions, if adopted, should not be lifted until the desired impact has been achieved, in particular the release of all those who were detained during the 19 December crackdown. They emphasized that the sanctions should not only be used as a punishment tool, but also as a means of promoting concrete action to remedy the current situation.
4. The meeting participants also discussed the issue of the list of officials who would be subject to the EU visa ban, which EU Foreign Affairs Ministers are expected to adopt on 31 January. They expressed the need to keep such a list open so that it can be revised and updated taking into account the results of an international inquiry into the 19 December and following events, which they are calling for (see par. 16 below).
5. They especially welcomed the European Parliament's clear support for civil society, including the call for financial support for independent media and NGOs promoting democracy, as well as scholarships for students. They look forward to proposals from the EEAS and Commission on how to make available increased, facilitated funding through the various instruments already existing, as announced by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and the Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, Stefan Fule. They also look forward to the donors meetings scheduled to take place in February in Vilnius and Warsaw.
6. They stressed the importance of channeling emergency assistance to Belarus, in particular in the form of support to human rights defenders; to lawyers who are working on politically-sensitive cases and independent media; legal assistance and medical support for victims of the repression; psychological support for civil society activists and independent journalists alike who suffer constant psychological pressure; replacement of equipment confiscated during searches conducted by security forces; possible humanitarian aid for families of victims left without bread-winner during their imprisonment; etc.
7. Regarding Belarus' participation in the Eastern Partnership, civil society groups asked that prior to allowing any possible participation of Belarus state representatives at the Summit in Budapest, clear and comprehensive conditions be put on the authorities, including:
- the release of political prisoners and all detainees held in the aftermath of the 19 December events;
- a total end to the wave of arrests of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists; in this view a 'zero tolerance' principle should be practiced by the EU;
In addition, full transparency should be established with regard to the use of funds by Belarus as part of the partnership, contrary to the secret currently surrounding this issue. Civil society should benefit from funding possibilities under the Eastern partnership in an increased manner, in consistence with the statement in paragraph 7 above. To this end, a clear message on how to access these funds should be sent to NGOs.
8. The issue of visas to European countries is of utmost importance for civil society activists and students expelled from Belarusian universities. They welcomed the statement made on 19 January by Catherine Ashton at the European Parliament, where she expressed the need for an “intensified dialogue with, and support for, civil society and citizens” and for “increased efforts to enhance [their] mobility”.
They welcome current discussions on easing visa procedures, and pressed for the facilitation of rapid and long-term visas that would enable human rights defenders at risk and students to go and stay safely on EU territory. Cheaper visas for ordinary citizens should also be put in place, in order to also encourage their mobility as expressed above.
9. The meeting participants recalled the conclusions of the OSCE, supported by the findings of independent local observers as the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, to the effect that the Presidential elections of December 2010 blatantly failed to meet international standards for free and fair elections. They generally asked international organizations to press for a re-run of the elections.
10. They called for the re-establishment of a fully-fledged OSCE Office in Minsk.
11. The meeting participants supported the call to initiate the Moscow Mechanism-- or as a minimum the Vienna Mechanism -- with regard to the serious violations of OSCE human dimension commitments by the Belarusian authorities in connection with the crackdown of 19 December.
12. They supported the proposal to establish an OSCE Representative on Belarus, to be nominated by the Chairman-in-Office, i.e. Lithuania.
13. They expressed appreciation for the essential work of ODIHR.
14. They welcome the announcement of a mission of the European Parliament, approved on 20 January 2011, consisting of 7 MEPs. They encourage co-ordination of efforts with other IGO and NGO to establish facts about the events of 19 December and its aftermath.
15. They called upon UN special rapporteurs to engage publicly in the crisis in Belarus. They also called upon a Human Rights Council resolution on the urgency of the human rights situation in Belarus.