WASHINGTON, D.C. | December 11, 2020 – Women leaders from Belarus joined international policymakers to discuss what can be done to advance a more peaceful and democratic Belarus at a virtual event hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) today.
“It doesn’t matter if they put us in jail: we’re still here and we’re still fighting,” said Belarusian basketball player and Olympian Yelena Leuchanka.
Women have been leading the pro-democracy movement in Belarus against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has refused to step down after a contested election in August, widely seen as rigged. He has responded with a massive crackdown on protesters, including police brutality; imprisonment of up to 30,000 Belarusians, according to opposition leaders; and torture.
“To the officials in Belarus, in Europe and around the world — if you attack one of us, you attack all of us,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the event. “If you stand with us, we can and we will make the world freer, more peaceful, and more just than it has ever been.”
From Olympian to Political Protester
Leuchanka was jailed for 15 days for protesting the elections.
“This is the 21st century, and in the middle of Europe we’re dealing with torture,” she said, describing being kept in an overcrowded cell for days with no heat, sanitation, or legal counsel.
But women are not backing down in face of oppression. Leuchanka says she has played in the Olympics but has never experienced such unity as displayed by women protesters in Belarus.
“Not one woman that I have been in a cell with said ‘I am regretting that I did this, I regret that I’m here.’ We will continue to fight and speak and raise our voices… Do you understand the strength I am talking about?”
Rapidly Deteriorating Situation
The situation is rapidly deteriorating as Lukashenko responds with increasing violence and widespread human rights violations.
“This year, fundamental freedoms were further restricted before the elections. Since then, human rights violations have become systematic,” said Dr. Anaïs Marin, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation with Human Rights in Belarus.
Marin shared examples of recent gender-based violence, including rapes and threats of rape in detention centers conducted by police officials or prison guards.
“We have seen an absence of any accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations and lack of justice for victims, which is something that all of us working for international organizations should take into account,” said Dunja Mijatovic, Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe.
“Systematic oppression has been a fact of life in Belarus for the past 26 years. Lukashenko and his gang have broken all moral boundaries since 1999 when they kidnapped and murdered their political opponents—among them was my husband,” said Irina Krasovskaya, President of We Remember Foundation, Seeking Justice for Enforced Disappearances in Belarus.
“But today human rights are violated on camera and in broad daylight wearing masks and using false names,” added Krasovskaya.
Standing in Solidarity with Women of Belarus
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen called for legislative action during the event: “I’ll continue to push Senate leadership to take up the House-passed Belarus Democracy Act. Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines. We must stand with Belarusians and support them in their fight against oppression.”
“I urge our own government to actively promote the Women, Peace and Security law and to advance policies that support Belarusian women and enhance their physical safety and dignity,” said Shaheen. “The US must also use its existing authorities to respond to the violent actions of the Belarusian police and security services, as well as those in Lukashenko’s inner circle.”
What Each of Us Can Do
“Today, we focused on what is happening in Belarus and what each of us can do to stand in solidarity with these extraordinary efforts of the pro-democracy movement,” said Ambassador Melanne Verveer, executive director of GIWPS, who moderated the event.
In addition to passing the Belarus Democracy Act, the US and other states must implement financial sanctions against the regime and entities associated with it; take related actions targeted to banking and money laundering; pursue international investigations of human rights violations; and increase support for activists and victims of abuse, among other recommendations, says Natalia Kaliada, Co-Founding Artistic Director, Belarus Free Theatre and Director, Creative Politics Hub.
“The dictatorship in Belarus has been entrenched for 26 years – it is a long period for modern history, and not surprisingly, cannot be easily overthrown in only a few months. Given the fact that Belarus is also a neighbor of Putin’s Russia, it is obvious that Belarus needs serious multi-directional support that will save it from becoming a long-term hot spot on the European continent,” concluded Kaliada.
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