Andrey Yurov, from the Moscow Helsinki Group, International Youth Human Rights Movement and Head of International Observation Mission in Belarus, talks to Adele Poskitt at CIVICUS during the OSCE Civil Society Parallel conference about the situation for civil society in Belarus.
What do you think will be the impact of the 4.5 year sentence recently given to Ales Bialiatski going to be in Belarus?
The situation with Ales Bialiatski proves that there is no right for freedom of association in Belarus. The case is evidence that there is no free trial and no standards of rights are being observed in the country. The international community should understand that Belarus is not willing to meet its international human rights commitments. This situation is very difficult for Viasna, the organisation that Ales headed, but his colleagues are not going to stop their work. Despite the difficult conditions the organisation is facing and the possible confiscation of the venue they use as an office, I have no doubts they will continue their excellent work.
Tell us about the restriction on freedom of association and the new NGO law that was passed in November in Belarus.
The new legislation in Belarus is draconian and not in line with international standards. There are three main problems with it:
- The ban on activities of non-registered associations. This means that any group of people – whether human rights organisation or a cultural organisation, can fall under this provision of the legislation and its members can be persecuted under criminal law. This legislation contradicts international standards allowing people to get together for any common activity, not just political and civil activities, but also cultural activities such as literature and arts.
- The existing legislation makes the registration of non-governmental organisations incredibly complicated and difficult. Viasna have tried several times to get registered but have been unsuccessful. In fact, any NGO that is not affiliated with the state cannot get registered. This second problem is related to the first one as it makes the situation for NGOs to operate very complicated. An NGO cannot operate without registration, and it also cannot register. This creates a situation whereby any NGO that is not initiated or supported by the state finds itself in a difficult legal position.
- The new legislation has made it more difficult for NGOs to obtain foreign funding legally. The government is able to prevent any organisation from receiving foreign funding and curtail its activities. The control of activities of public associations is overwhelming and beyond any reasonable limits.
What can the international civil society community do to support the people in Belarus?
In my point of view there are two approaches that people can take. The first way that is suitable for organisations that do not have the opportunity for long term engagement as they are distant from Belarus or have other priorities. They can follow our website and Twitter to participate in public campaigns and help raise awareness of the situation of Belarus in their countries. They can also help to collect funds in their country for Belarus. The second approach is for those organisations that have the capacity to be more engaged with the situation to participate in the Committee on International Control over the Human Rights Situation in Belarus, which is a wide coalition of NGOs, and support its work in a variety of ways.
There are no simple answers here but we are happy to discuss ways of collaboration with organisations that are interested. Working on the situation in Belarus requires long term commitment and sadly isn’t going to change overnight.