Photo credit: By PVLGT/Shutterstock
As the migration crisis provoked by the thuggish President of Belarus subsides on its border with Poland, pro-Democratic leaders in exile along with the underground artists of the Belarus Free Theatre are still working feverishly to draw international attention to the ongoing human rights abuses under Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. The regime’s atrocities and valiant efforts to combat them were featured in the award-winning documentary, Courage. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on democratic leaders worldwide to press for negotiations to ensure fair and free elections in Belarus, and for the release of more than 800 political prisoners.
International Human Rights Day is December 10. On this symbolic day, the United States, which has been working to restore its international position on democracy and human rights, must stand boldly against the Belarusian regime’s unconscionable, ever-escalating abuse of human rights.
In October, under President Biden’s leadership, the United States was re-elected to serve on the United Nations Human Rights Council following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal in 2018. In returning to the Council, we stand in the aspirational legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission, which first convened in 1947.
Nominated for chair by the only other female member of the Commission, India’s Hansa Mehta, Roosevelt oversaw an arduous collaborative process, including heated arguments, that led to the 30 Articles of the Declaration of Human Rights the UN adopted in 1948.
In her famous speech before the UN General Assembly that year, Roosevelt highlighted the basic human rights agreed upon by drafters from the independent states of Lebanon and Philippines alongside China, Chile, France, and the U.K. The Human Rights Commission had unanimously adopted the declaration with eight abstentions, among them: the U.S.S.R., Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia.
Still, one key collaborator from the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) delegation had a significant impact on the final version of the Declaration. As a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Evdokia Uralova of the BSSR contributed to two articles advocating for women’s equality and human rights regardless of geographic region or government type. Roosevelt wrote of Uralova, whom she first met in 1946, “I have a real feeling of friendliness as a result of our few opportunities to talk together.”
Uralova, who held the highest office in Education in the BSSR, knew firsthand how a disregard for human rights could lead to far-reaching atrocities. She had been responsible for evacuating nearly 15,000 children from Minsk when the Nazi’s invaded in 1941, an occupation that killed one in five Belarusian citizens. Uralova oversaw the re-establishment of educational facilities and cultural organizations like the Belarus Theatre Arts Institute to rebuild morale and civil society, according to Emanuel Ioffe of Belarusian State University.
Today in Belarus under Aliaksandr Lukashenka, hundreds of non-governmental human rights organizations have been liquidated. None remain to protect the most vulnerable.
Human rights defenders and cultural workers, alongside journalists, political leaders, lawyers, teachers, students, and retirees, are indiscriminately detained or forced into exile for participating in peaceful pro-democracy protests, defending political prisoners and human rights, or even performing in plays.
As a cultural historian who has written on theatrical performance in Belarus and the former U.S.S.R., I have been watching in shock as this extensive and brutal attack on civil society in Belarus has escalated over the last year.
In its renewed commitment to the UN Human Rights Council and international human rights, the U.S. is positioned to condemn the escalating human rights abuses in Belarus and call for increased support for exiled human rights defenders, journalists, and cultural workers and press to restore independent journalism and humanitarian organizations in the country.
New U.S. sanctions targeting officials and government businesses that have enabled abuses in Belarus are set to take effect in December. The U.S. must go further still, and implement the 2020 Belarusian Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act, passed last year, and press the UN to aid the political prisoners and thousands of migrants ensnared in the country.
Noting the renewed international commitments of the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “We will work hard to ensure the Council upholds its highest aspirations and better supports those fighting against injustice and tyranny around the world.”
If we don’t commit ourselves to fighting for the rights of those trapped in unlawful regimes, who rely on corrupt judicial systems, unlawful search and seizure, violent policing, and vigilante justice, what’s to keep us from accepting a decline of human rights at home?
Valleri Robinson is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Affiliate of the Russian, East European, Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois. She is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.