The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting.
The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky.
Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power.
Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.”
Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases.
Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation.
Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017.
Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.”
In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.