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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Washington, DC, March 9, 2000

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Belarus

Mr. Chairman, fellow members of the commission, I am delighted to be with you this morning, both as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human rights, and Labor, as well as the Department of State's commissioner on the Helsinki Commission. Mr. Chairman, the situation in Belarus has markedly deteriorated since the spring of 1999, when you held your last hearing on this beleaguered country. Belarus is being left behind at a time when the rest of Europe is seeking to build a common foundation of democratic governance, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. The United States is deeply concerned about the situation in Belarus, and that is why I traveled to Minsk last November. Before describing that trip, let me outline how we see the democracy and human rights situation in Belarus.

There are many critical elements of democracy, but the key four are respect for the will of the people, civil society, the rule of law, and an informed citizenry. First, the will of the people: As we in the United States know from our own country's hard experience, democratization is a long and complex struggle, which does not come easily. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has noted, "[D]emocracy must emerge from the desire of individuals to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. nlike dictatorship, democracy is never an imposition; it is always a choice." In Belarus, the regime continues to try to suppress the will of the people. In addition to using unconstitutional methods in 1996 to rewrite the country's constitution, and replacing the legitimate 13th Supreme Soviet with a rubberstamp parliament, Aleksandr Lukashenko unilaterally extended his term of office by two years, until 2001. His legal term of office expired last July 20. As a result of these actions, as well as a pattern of abuse of fundamental human rights by his regime, Lukashenko has lost his democratic legitimacy and is shunned by leaders throughout most of Europe.

Lukashenko also recently approved a seriously flawed electoral law for upcoming parliamentary elections. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights examined the new law in detail, and concluded that it does not meet OSCE standards. Major problems include strict limitations on political activity which effectively prevent real campaigning from taking place and the lack of a provision for multi-party representation on election commissions, which is so vital for impartiality and public confidence in the electoral process.

Democratic legitimacy only can be restored through free and fair elections in which all citizens and candidates can participate on an equal basis and by restoring the necessary checks and balances among the branches of government. The Lukashenko regime's recent announcement of plans to resume the OSCE -- sponsored dialogue with the opposition must not impose pre -- conditions that will make it impossible for the opposition to participate. It instead must produce real results, including agreement on an electoral code that meets OSCE standards and provides an internationally acceptable framework for legitimate, free and fair parliamentary elections. Otherwise, the U.S. and other democracies will find it very difficult if not impossible to recognize the parliamentary elections planned for later this year as legitimate, and Belarus will not resolve its political and constitutional crisis or end its self-imposed isolation.

The second core element is civil society. Democracy means far more than just holding elections or referenda. The slow development of democracy in some states has demonstrated that elections must be regarded not as an end in themselves, but as the means to establish a political system that fosters the growth and satisfaction of its citizens by promoting and protecting their political and civil rights. Democracy also requires the full flowering of civil society -- the broad array of political parties, independent labor unions, independent media, non-governmental organizations, womens' groups, and societies and clubs that encourage political and social participation. Such groups serve as an important conduit by which individuals may freely express their dissatisfaction with "politics as usual." It is precisely because of the potential power of civil society that so many governments -- including the Lukashenko regime -- seek to limit or quash its influence.

In Belarus, those who have chosen to participate in civil society by speaking truth to power have done so at great risk to their freedom, and even their lives. Last year marked a new low in Belarus not only because of the expiration of Lukashenko's legitimate term of office, but also because two prominent opposition figures -- General Yuri Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar, along with his associate Anatoliy Krasovsky -- disappeared. A third -- former Central Bank Chair Tamara Vinnikova -- felt so threatened that she escaped the country by temporarily disappearing. Others, such as Semyon Sharetsky and Zenon Poznyak, also have fled abroad out of fear for their safety. Former Prime Minister and candidate in the opposition -- sponsored 1999 presidential elections Mikhail Chigir and 13th Supreme Soviet deputies Anatoly Lebedko, Valery Shchukin, and Andrei Klimov, are only a few of the many opposition figures who have been targeted, beaten, or imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their beliefs. Taken together, this series of disappearances, arrests, and exiles has greatly exacerbated the climate of fear that exists in Belarus and made clear that citizens expressing opposition to the government are in great peril.

The Lukashenko regime also has sought to repress civil society by restricting other fundamental freedoms such as freedom of assembly and of association. The regime's restrictions on freedom of assembly were manifested by its violent repression of the October 17 Freedom March, as well as of other peaceful protests. It has inhibited freedom of association through its restrictive law requiring NGOs, political parties and trade unions to re-register. Just last week the Ministry of Justice announced that it intends to disband 200 NGOs, that the regime refused to reregister.

Registration requirements also restrict the practice of religion, despite Constitutional and international guarantees of freedom of religion. This is especially true for non-Orthodox or "non-traditional" religions, which include some Protestant faiths. Mr. Chairman, sometimes we are asked by representatives of other governments whether the U.S. requires NGOs or religions to register. The bottom line is this: NGOs and religions may register in the U.S. if they wish to receive a specific tax status. But -- unlike in Belarus -- they are not required to register in order to function or hold a bank account.

The Lukashenko regime also has restricted freedom of association through harassment of free and independent trade union activity. Trade union organizations are refused registration and trade unionists are arrested for legitimate trade union activities such as distributing leaflets. Unionists and members of their families are arrested on trumped up charges or given unusually severe punishments for minor offenses. The failure to protect internationally recognized worker rights has led the United States to advise the Belarusian authorities that Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits are on the verge of being withdrawn.

A third element of any true democracy is the rule of law. Genuine democracy requires that democratic institutions and officials be guided by and constrained by the law -- that is, a government accountable to the law, not above it. Governments committed to the rule of law respect individual rights, rule through a body of laws that are transparent, predictable, based on popular will, and fairly and equitable applied. Mature democracies have a fair and efficient legal system led by an independent and professionally competent judiciary that acts as a final arbiter of the law and is not subject to pressure by the Executive Branch. They respect international human rights standards.

Absent an independent judiciary and the rule of law, democracies seldom remain democratic for long. History shows that a strong rule of law helps to assure sustainable economic development, to combat corruption, to support social stability and peace, and to carve out necessary space for individual political and economic activity. It also provides the average citizen with the capacity to hold leaders and institutions -- in both the public and private sector -- accountable.

But once the rule of law begins to crumble, accountability withers and along with it democracy. In Belarus, those in power have sought to undermine democracy and end accountability by attacking the rule of law and stifling the independence of the judiciary. The legal system has become little more than a tool to advance Lukashenko's agenda. Laws have been passed not to protect, but to restrict human rights and democratic governance. The judiciary has been used to reward loyal followers, to rubber stamp decisions, and to silence peaceful, democratic opposition. Over the past few months, for example, the Lukashenko regime has been conducting show trials against Mikhail Chigir and Andrei Klimov because they oppose Lukashenko's authoritarian rule. Such actions represent the rule of might, not the rule of law.

In genuine democracies, executive overreach is checked by a fourth key element of democratic society: an informed electorate. Only free media -- whether print, broadcast, or electronic -- can guarantee that citizens have access to the information they need to make political decisions. If a government can control information or limit press freedom, it can usually preordain elections, stunt civil society and manipulate the judiciary. In Belarus, the regime continues to combat its critics by placing extensive restrictions on the media.

The regime has increased harassment of the independent press. In September, through a questionable libel suit by the Minister of Interior, the independent newspaper "Naviny" was forced out of business. That same month, the regime attempted to pull the registration for 10 other papers. In January, it closed the daily "Kutseyna" in Orsha. The successor to "Naviny", "Nasha Svaboda", only on its second day of publication had its press run stopped just last week. State -- controlled Belarusian television and radio maintains a monopoly as the only nationwide television station. Even internet access is limited to government -- controlled service providers. However, such measures have not stopped the courageous efforts of independent reporters and journalists such as Pavel Zhuk, the fearless editor of "Naviny" and "Nasha Svaboda.".

In light of the seriousness of the situation in Belarus, I visited Minsk on November 10-11, with two members of the Helsinki Commission staff, Ron McNamara and Orest Deychakiwsky, following the OSCE review conference in Istanbul. My purpose was to give moral support to democracy and human rights advocates, and to convey the U.S. government's. While in Belarus, I participated in an NGO -- sponsored rule of law conference, the focus of which was human rights protection and the protection of human rights lawyers. I was very impressed by the participants at the conference, especially the enthusiastic young lawyers. I also met with Members of the 13th Supreme Soviet, wives of the disappeared and detained, democratic opposition leaders, human rights activists, the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group head of mission Ambassador Wieck, independent journalists, and Foreign Minister Latypov and Deputy Foreign Minister Martynov, whom we pressed for concrete actions including the release of Mikhail Chigir and opposition media access.

Shortly after my trip to Belarus, I returned to Istanbul for the OSCE Summit. I met first with the Belarus opposition, and then with the official delegation, including then -- Presidential Advisor and OSCE liason Sazanov, who subsequently left this position and was replaced by Igor Velichansky, and Deputy Foreign Minster Gerasimovich. Since then, I have given special focus to the Belarus issue: I participated in Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott's meeting with Semyon Sharetsky, Stanislav Shushkevitch, Ludmila Grazyanova, and continued the meeting with them in my office; I have met with lawyers, NGO reps, and dissidents, and continue to follow the situation in Belarus closely.

My trip was but one of the ways in the U.S. Government has sought to buttress our support for democracy and human rights in Belarus. We also have put in place an assistance program designed to support democracy and human rights advocates and the independent media in Belarus. In FY 1999, we provided over $8 million in democracy-related assistance to Belarus, out of a total country budget of $12.4 million in FREEDOM Support Act funds. In other words, over two-thirds of our assistance consisted of democracy-building programs, while the remaining one-third consisted of programs designed to promote civic empowerment through the private sector, as well as U.S.-Belarusian hospital partnerships and humanitarian assistance for the victims of the Chernobyl accident.

A central component of our democracy-building efforts has been the U.S. Embassy's Democracy Commission, which in FY 1999 awarded over $1 million in small grants in support of print and electronic media, independent trade unions, youth and women's groups, human rights groups and other democratically oriented organizations. An additional $1 million in small grants was awarded by the Eurasia Foundation in FY 1999, with funding from the U.S. Government as well as from private foundations. Other types of ongoing U.S. Government -- funded democracy programs include NGO development programs, legal assistance and education programs, political party training programs (focusing especially on women and youth activists), and academic and professional exchange programs. I will do my utmost to ensure that United States core democracy programs are preserved to the fullest extent possible in Belarus in FY 2000, and I will seek to identify some funding from my own Bureau as well.

Let me close by thanking you for the opportunity to participate in your hearing. I have been deeply moved by the courage of the Belarusian civil society members whom I have met, and I am deeply committed to giving them sustained and meaningful support. The U.S. is well -- represented by Ambassador Dan Speckhard in Minsk who is doing an outstanding job promoting democracy and human rights, and it is a pleasure to have a strong collegial relationship with Steve Sestanovich and Ross Wilson on Belarus. We welcome your thoughts on what more the U.S. Government can do to promote democracy, human rights, and rule of law in Belarus

[end of document]

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