The United Nations long has spoken of human rights in theory. But the international body does little to promote human rights in practice. An organization made up of governments doesn’t like to be hard on its members.
Yet the largely toothless United Nations Human Rights Council recently approved a resolution, filed by the European Union, for appointment of a special rapporteur to monitor human rights, or the lack thereof, in Belarus. Only five votes were cast against the measure, including by Russia.
The step is long overdue. Although the Baltic States quickly developed liberal, Western-style political orders, others, such as Ukraine, struggled. Some, including Belarus, chose full dictatorship.
The State Department’s human rights report on Minsk runs 55 pages. Alyaksandr Lukashenka took power in 1994 and since then “has consolidated his power over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees.” Political opponents are imprisoned or simply “disappear.” Moreover, the security forces have “beat detainees and protesters, used excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrators, and reportedly used torture and/or maltreatment during investigations and in prisons.”
None of this is new, but the situation is growing worse. According to Freedom House, a New York-based human rights organization, a year ago “the regime responded with extreme force to a new series of demonstrations that adopted deliberately innocuous tactics like wordless clapping.” By the end of 2011 human rights advocates had been driven underground.
Belarus figured prominently—and negatively—in the new Freedom House report, “Nations in Transit 2012: Fragile Frontier, Democracy’s Growing Vulnerability in Central and Southeastern Europe.” On various measures of freedom Minsk never rises above six on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the worst. Belarus dropped in measures of civil society, corruption, democracy, and judicial framework and independence. Overall, the country comes in number 27 of 29, ahead of only Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Admittedly, there is little the UN can do to move Minsk toward political reform. However, increased attention to repression in Belarus is welcome. We can only hope that some day the people of Belarus will enjoy their own “Arab Spring.”
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