The Third Forum of Belarusian human rights defenders that took place on 26-27 October in Vilnius and was opened by a welcome speech of the President of the FIDH, Karim Lahidji. Here is the full text of his speech.
Dear colleagues and friends,
It is a great honor for me to be invited to open today the Third Forum of Belarusian human rights defenders.
It is a happy invitation and a sad one at the same time, but in any case very symbolic. It has been more than 10 years ago now since Ales Bialiatski, whose organization “Viasna” had just been integrated into FIDH and therefore was at the time little known to us all, suggested that FIDH supported the 1st Forum of human rights defenders. This immediately set the pace of our future cooperation with this extraordinary man.
He explained that almost all independent organizations had just been dissolved, that all hotels had refused to provide a room for the Forum, the donors were afraid to directly support such an event, which was, according to him, then needed more than ever in order to maintain the motivation and courage of local advocates and not to let erase the Belarusian society.
We still remember the debates that such a proposal raised inside FIDH. But the determination of Ales sparked the necessary support, and among the highlights of the history of the FIDH one can mention this forum that was opened by Ales and our then-Secretary General.
This was the first and last Forum held in Belarus, as dark as the time that the country lived in then. The defenders were to meet in the forest, in a cottage rented under the pretext of a family event, and the participants were led through byways, and the Forum was only discovered after the arrival of ambassadors and the press, in a poorly heated and lighted building, but still determined to defend the universal values.
Who would have thought at the time that almost clandestine meeting was only one step in a long series of new repressions, new deprivations of basic human rights by the regime: the right of association, assembly, expression.
The Second Forum was held in Vilnius in 2010 because the organizers had admitted that such a meeting could not take place in their own country.
You know the current situation better than me. The Center “Viasna”, our member organization in Belarus, shared the difficulties of the activists they have defended throughout all these years: numerous arrests, searches, and in 2011, as the climax, the arrest of Ales under shameful pretexts.
But “Viasna”, and their colleagues in other organizations defending human rights have continued their work, legitimate and necessary than ever for the Belarusian society, exhausted by all these years of injustice and arbitrariness. Your presence here is a proof of this.
But the price is expensive, and I know, I, who come from Iran, what it costs to carry on in a situation with so little optimism.
Those who do bear a double, a triple burden. In a situation where the media are also experiencing significant limitations, the results of your monitoring sometimes replace the free speech of journalists.
In a situation where lawyers lose their license to practice their professional duty of defending the victims of the regime, you organize or sometimes replace the defense.
You support political prisoners and their families. And most importantly, you keep the hope of all the victims of arbitrariness, but also of the international community, for a fairer, freer Belarus, the hope for human dignity that they are trying to trample at any price.
It is not a coincidence that today’s political prisoners, the critical situation of whom FIDH has repeatedly denounced, are victims of hardships and humiliation even in prison. Even locked, they are the symbol of a free country and its citizens fighting for their rights, be it human rights defender Ales, representatives of political parties or groups or young anarchists, all are victims of a well-designed process of court decisions ordered by the executive power.
In 2008, FIDH delegated its then-President, Souhayr Belhassen, to investigate the conditions of detention in Belarus. Ales is now writing in his letters that he considers himself being on a business trip to pursue this research.
In 2011, a month and a half after the presidential elections of 19 December, we came to investigate the crackdown that was only strengthened.
The next step was the observation mission of Ales trial and we were able to be present from the beginning to the end, despite five refused visas for members of the International Bureau and our general manager at their request to attend.
Faced with the inertia of Europe, despite its efforts that failed to bring relief to the Belarusian civil society and the people of this country, we conducted a mission in June this year on economic and social rights, with a particular focus on the widespread use of forced labor in the most diverse areas of people’s lives.
These remnants of the Soviet Union took such proportions that they appear as an absurd face of a government that claims to be the last “social paradise” of Europe.
We also opened a website freeales.fidh.net, trying to inform the world in three languages on a daily basis on the heavy battle waged by civil society in the country, the battle for human rights, justice and dignity.
Ales has always been convinced that only the universality of law and therefore the international solidarity can guarantee a harmonious and sustainable development of societies. It is this conviction that led him to Tunisia just after the revolution, to Egypt in crisis, to Cuba in order to support dissidents.
It is this certainty that was at the heart of its active participation in the work of the Federation in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia regions where he carried out missions, organized seminars and advocacy activities at the national level.
We are in regular contact with him, and the FIDH Congress, which gathered in Istanbul over 300 people from more than one hundred different countries, marked the confidence and support to our colleague, always present in our actions and thoughts despite his detention. He was re-elected Vice President of FIDH.
We are working more than ever with his great team and we are very proud to have Ales Bialiatski as Vice President and Viasna as an affiliated member. We will always be by their side when they need it.
It seemed important to come here as a new President of the FIDH, elected in the same Congress, to tell you all that FIDH is a network of members. We want to be with you all in the best of our ability, and that is why we immediately responded positively to the request to support the Forum, as we did in 2004.
We are driven by the same hope and the same outrage as you, and we sincerely hope that you can count on us to be loud and clear, and without fatigue, on the issue of human rights in Belarus in the international arena, on platforms that are at our disposal.
We know the limits of our actions. We know the names of all those who are still in prison despite our general mobilization and subject to vile pressures. But we also know that dozens of people outside prison are also deprived of their freedom of movement, hundreds and thousands – of their freedom of expression, association, assembly.
How do we best meet these challenges, how do we improve our work, and what tools do we need to further develop in order to achieve our goal – setting these specific goals, for me, is the purpose of our gathering here, but it is also for us to feel as a whole, to recharge our determination.
And it is with great enthusiasm that I look forward to hear from you and share with you.