Will International Geneva mobilize for Belarus?

Belarusian musicians in a rally against police brutality and presidential results in Minsk on 16 August 2020. Keystone/ Tatyana Zenkovich

Tens of thousands of Belarusians went out on the streets to demand the departure of Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. For now, their mobilization seems to fall on deaf ears in Geneva, the capital of international humanitarian law. We zoom in on the causes of this apparent silence, and the levers available for Geneva and Switzerland to play a role in the current events.

Why is this important? Geneva is home to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The images from Belarus bear witness to serious police violence and other violations of the rights of peaceful demonstrators. Switzerland played a role in the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. Will it do the same this time?

Who has spoken out? In a press release issued on 12 August 2020, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the repression of demonstrations in Belarus. This was followed by UN human rights experts the day after.

Several human rights NGOs with offices in Geneva — notably Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — have also pointed out the violence. They have collected numerous testimonies of widespread torture and other ill-treatment.

Michael Ineichen, Advocacy Officer at Amnesty International:

"The massive rights violations taking place in the country have triggered a wave of alarm, including from Michelle Bachelet, and civil society. Amnesty International believes that it is now up to the Human Rights Council to make its voice heard, urgently and clearly."

Can we expect a Human Rights Council resolution? For a special session of the Human Rights Council, 16 member states must request one. The last special session was held on 18 May and concerned the deteriorating human rights situation in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

According to a source close to the case, talks are underway "within diplomatic circles in Geneva" to hold a special session of the Human Right’s Council for Belarus.

Davide Rodogno, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute Geneva and specialist in the history and politics of international organizations:

"It is also possible that under the radar pressure may be brought to bear by several UN (or non-UN) agencies or by discreet bilateral or multilateral diplomacy to ensure that the situation does not degenerate and that the rights of the demonstrators are respected in Minsk. If public decisions can take time to be made, it is also because they are limited by the way UN bodies operate and their structure."

Economic sanctions? Another possible lever from Switzerland is the freezing of bank assets. In the case of Ukraine, the Federal Council issued an ordinance in late February 2016 that froze the assets in Switzerland of Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych and his family. “Where safeguarding the interests of the country so requires, the Federal Council may issue ordinances and rulings,” says Article 184 of the Swiss Constitution. The Government was quick to act: Yanukovych had only been deposed four days before. The EU reacted within 12 days.

Having Yanukovych as precedent, can we also expect Swiss authorities to freeze the assets Lukashenko may have in the country? On the one hand, it depends on the presence of Belarusian money in the Swiss banks. On the other, it is also contingent on the developments in Belarus. When the accounts of Yanukovych and his clan were frozen, clashes between police and demonstrators had already left dozens dead and hundreds injured. The dictator, who was deposed by parliament, had already fled to Russia. This is not the case in Belarus, but the situation continues to change every day.

What about Belarusians in Switzerland? 160 citizens of this country of 9.5 million inhabitants gathered at Place des Nations on Friday, 14 August to demand the departure of their president. This mobilisation might seem feeble in the face of the crowds at the Black Lives Matter gatherings in Geneva. However, the stakes this time around are different. Davide Rodogno:

"In Genève Internationale, we see more mobilisation for transversal causes between local and international issues, which manage to bring together the different profiles of Genevans, rather than for causes specific to one country."