Thomas Hammarberg, Commissionner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe: Human rights defenders need solidarity from all parts of Europe when repressed by their governments

September 13, 2011 – The clampdown on human rights defenders in Belarus continues unabated. In early August, Ales Bialiatski, the chair of the Human Rights Centre Viasna and vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), was arrested. He is still being held in pre-trial detention. Activists who have demonstrated for his release have been summoned by the police and one of them is awaiting trial.

Viasna has been at the forefront of human rights defence in Belarus for years. The detention of Ales Bialiatski and the current criminal investigation process are seriously jeopardising the organisation’s activities to the detriment of victims of human rights violations, who have come to depend on the assistance provided by Viasna. 

Another sad example has been reported from Azerbaijan. In mid-August, bulldozers demolished a building in Baku where several human rights organisations were located, including the Office of the Institute for Peace and Democracy led by Leyla Yunus. This demolition took place in the evening, despite a court decision temporarily prohibiting the destruction of the building.

As the house was torn down without any prior notification the persons who worked there were unable to salvage any papers, computers or other working materials. It is generally believed that the action was directed towards Leyla Yunus, who has been vocal in denouncing corruption and forced evictions in Azerbaijan.

Rights that protect and enable the work

The importance of the work of human rights defenders is recognised in international conventions. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders lists several fundamental rights necessary for the work of human rights defenders, such as freedom of association, peaceful assembly, expression and opinion, the right to be protected and the right to effective remedy. Many of these rights are also enshrined in other binding human rights treaties of the UN, in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the OSCE commitments.

Yet reports about breaches of these standards continue to reach me. Authorities can obstruct the work of human rights defenders by making it difficult to register organisations or by creating burdensome reporting and financial requirements. Hindering access to funding through excessively cumbersome procedures is another method which is frequently employed.

Viasna, for example, was dissolved in 2003 and has since then been denied the possibility to re-register. Belarusian legislation outlaws the operation of unregistered organisations and criminalises the activities of their individual members – a clear breach of international standards. In 2007, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Viasna’s dissolution was a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 22).

Denial of right to receive funding

The Belarusian authorities are now accusing Ales Bialiatski of “concealment of profits on an especially large scale”. They are using information provided by official institutions in Vilnius and Warsaw about bank accounts established in the name of Bialiatski, to which foreign donors have been able to send contributions.

The right to access funding is protected in international and regional human rights treaties. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states that everyone has the right “to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means”.

I know that the governments in Vilnius and Warsaw regret that the protection of human rights defenders’ integrity and work was not taken into account when information was provided to the Belarusian authorities and that they are now trying to limit the damage.

Sadly, this unintended mistake is being used in the case against Ales Bialiatski who is threatened with a long prison sentence. And he is not the only victim of policies to prevent voluntary solidarity efforts for those who suffer human rights violations.

Governments have a primary responsibility

It is therefore particularly important that the protection of the safety of human rights defenders be reaffirmed as a crucial standard. Whenever this universally agreed undertaking is abrogated in one state, governments in other countries – including Council of Europe member states – must react.

Thomas Hammarberg

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