The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Listens to Human Rights Defenders

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will tie its investment activities in Belarus to the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners.

In mid-March 2013, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) published its new strategy for working with the Republic of Belarus over the next three years. It is noteworthy that the Bank invited a wide circle of representatives of Belarusian civil society to consult on developing this approach paper.

Among other things, the strategy notes that, in light of recent political and economic events and continuing its policy of constructive engagement to promote reform, the Bank will limit its investments with state-owned enterprises in the areas of trade finance, energy efficiency credit lines, and private equity funds.

As it implements its strategy, to EBRD will consider the following criteria:

- progress toward meaningful political accountability, including the strengthening of checks and balances in the political system;

- removal of impediments to NGO and opposition parties’ active engagement in political life and even-handed application of the rule of law;

- the state of media freedom and freedom of expression.

Significantly, it was cooperation with Belarusian human rights defenders and international human rights organizations that monitor human rights in Belarus that resulted in the inclusion of release and rehabilitation of political prisoners in the list of benchmarks the Bank uses to evaluate the situation in Belarus. The Strategy highlights “Progress in enforcing the human and civil rights protections guaranteed in the Constitution, including freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the release and rehabilitation of those recognized by the EU and other members of the international community as political prisoners” as one of the benchmarks that will be monitored over the next three years to determine the extent of the Bank’s investments in the Belarusian economy.

Belarusian NGOs consulted on the strategy include the Viasna Human Rights Center, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Legal Transformation Center, the Lev Sapegi Foundation, the Belarusian Organization of Working Women, and about three dozen other well-known social organizations and institutions. The final document describes and summarizes the process of consultations with these groups and provides a detailed analysis of the proposals made by Belarusian NGOs. It also describes the extent to which certain recommendations were considered by the Bank.

The positions of authoritative international organizations like Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, and others were also incorporated into the strategy. Recommendations made by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) specifically noted the main features of repression of the Belarusian regime that must be monitored closely, including violent and intense crackdowns on Belarusian democracy activists since 19 December 2010, increasing social control, continuous intimidation of the public and the media, and the persecution, intimidation, detention, harassment and muzzling of human rights defenders, opponents, and activists. FIDH also noted that civil society as a whole faces permanent pressure and harassment as the economic and social rights of Belarusian citizens are increasingly violated and workers are deprived of basic labor rights. As an example, FIDH cited the prosecution of the Ales Bialiatski, president of the Viasna Human Rights Center, whose detention since August 2010 has been found illegal by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In its comments on the benchmarks developed by the EBRD, FIDH highlights the necessity of considering specific top-priority benchmarks. In the case of Belarus, FIDH highlights the necessity of ending the harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, and civil activists and withdrawing article 193(1) from the Belarusian Criminal Code, which penalizes participation in unregistered organizations, de facto criminalizing the members of hundreds of associations that have lost their registration. FIDH believes that an environment must be created in Belarus where NGOs can register without impediment.

See the full text of the EBRD document “Strategy for Belarus.”

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