Belarus tries to muzzle opposition leader at UN, but in vain

Updated 19 Sep 2020

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GENEVA: A video message of Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is being played at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday.—AFP
GENEVA: A video message of Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is being played at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday.—AFP

GENEVA: Belarus and several allies tried on Friday to block a video message from opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya at the UN Human Rights Cou­ncil, where she urged “the strongest” international response to Minsk’s abuses.

Tikhanovskaya deman­d­ed “immediate international attention” for her country as it reels from a brutal crackdown on protests over the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

But her short video message, in a rare urgent debate at the council, had barely begun before Belarus Ambassador Yuri Ambrazevich demanded it be switched off.

He repeatedly interrupted the screening, raising procedural objections and insisting her words had “no relevance on the substance... on the events that are taking place today”.

He was overruled by council president Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger.

The debate on the human rights situation in Belarus, requested by the European Union, focused on violations and the crackdown on the unprecedented demonstrations which broke out after disputed August 9 elections.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, claimed to have defeated Tikhanovskaya with 80 per cent of the vote.

The leader, who on Thursday warned of a possible “war” with some neighbouring countries, has refused to step down and has turned to Russia for support.

His security forces have meanwhile detained thousands of protesters, many of whom have accused police of beatings and torture. Several people have died.

Tikhanovskaya, who has taken shelter in neighbouring Lithuania, insisted that the country’s violation of its international obligations to respect “human dignity and basic human rights... means the international community has a right to react in strongest terms”.

“The scope and the brutality of the extensive force used by the regime is in clear violation of all international norms,” she said.

A long line of countries also voiced alarm. “We have witnessed a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests,” said German ambassador Michael Freiherr von Ungern-Sternberg on behalf of the EU.

He raised concerns at “reports of attacks on — and torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of — peaceful protesters as well as harassment, intimidation and detentions of opposition leaders.”

Minsk’s envoy Ambrazevich meanwhile slammed the “lopsided picture of reality presented by the losers in the election”, rejecting allegations of abuse by authorities.

Ambrazevich and his counterparts from Russia, Venezuela and China also voiced multiple objections to statements by the UN deputy rights chief Nada Al-Nashif and Anais Marin, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in Belarus, saying they had no place in the debate.

Marin told the council that more than 10,000 people had been “abusively arrested for taking part in peaceful protests”, and lamented that “over 500 cases of torture, committed by state agents, have been reported to us”.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020