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Will a U.N. Human-Rights Expert Defend Belarus’s Dictator?

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes part in the celebrations of Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, July 3, 2020. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

As the international response to the August 9 presidential election in Belarus takes shape, one key international official might step in to lobby against the use of sanctions targeting the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko — a U.N. human-rights official.

The election, which resulted in an apparent victory for Lukashenko, has widely been regarded as fraudulent and illegitimate, with massive vote counting irregularities and the intimidation and disqualification of opposition candidates (there’s more on this in National Review’s tour de force editorial on the situation). It’s no secret that Lukashenko is guilty of egregiously abusing fundamental human rights, but this might not stop Belarusian academic Alena Douhan, who in March became the second U.N. Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures, a special human-rights office. By “unilateral coercive measures” the office’s creators, of course, meant sanctions — particularly, the kind of sanctions employed by Western governments to target chronic human-rights abusers.

That special rapporteur position was created by a 2014 resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council introduced by Iran on behalf of the non-aligned movement. According to the resolution, that official would be charged with collecting information on sanctions that allegedly contravene human-rights law. The list of countries that voted for it mirrors, unsurprisingly, the countries that are oft targeted by international sanction on human rights grounds — China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, and others.

Douhan’s role is receiving fresh scrutiny in the wake of an EU decision this morning to impose sanctions on individuals involved in manipulating the electoral process in Belarus. On Twitter, Hillel Neuer, the director of U.N. Watch, an NGO that holds the international organization accountable to its fundamental human-rights guarantees, said that Douhan could weigh in against the EU move.

“The UNHRC will condemn these EU sanctions against the Belarus regime as ‘unilateral coercive measures,’” he wrote. “They have a Special Rapporteur — @AlenaDouhan (of Belarus . . .) — dedicated to condemning all sanctions on dictatorships as ‘human rights violations.”

National Review requested comment from the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights but had not received a response at the time of publication.

During an interview on Tuesday with Truthside TV, an online video channel, Douhan argued against the use of sanctions, describing them as unlawful and against international human-rights legal instruments. She made a similar argument in April, issuing a statement that called on “the international community to take immediate measures to lift, or at least suspend, all sanctions until our common threat is eliminated,” referring to the coronavirus epidemic.

This is a common refrain repeated by the governments of authoritarian countries that are targeted by international sanctions. It’s a neat rhetorical trick that transforms enforcement action intended to stop human-rights abuses into a violation of the targets’ rights, and the sovereignty of the countries implicated in the sanctions. At the U.N. Human Rights Council, authoritarian regimes are provided a platform to make their case — and they’re vested with the institutional legitimacy of the U.N. to do it.

It remains to be seen whether Douhan will eventually speak out against the EU’s decision to impose sanctions on officials linked to the Belarus regime and any additional sanctions against Belarus that are put in place by the U.S government. If she does, this will be another testament to the brilliance of the international authoritarian investment in the U.N.’s human rights mechanisms. It’s a gambit that’s paid off before, and it will continue to pay dividends to the world’s dictators.

Update: Douhan responded to a request for comment with the following statement on August 20:

Regarding the decision taken by the European Union to impose sanctions against Belarus, I have not seen the document so far, but I should emphasize that my mandate as a Special Rapporteur is to focus on only one aspect of sanctions – the negative impact they sometimes can have on human rights. Therefore, my purpose is to ensure that human rights standards are not violated by the introduction of unilateral sanctions wherever it occurs. The rules of human rights protection are the same regardless of the names of the targeting and targeted countries.

I do welcome very much that the mass media is reporting about the phenomenon of sanctions more comprehensively, so I would like to explain my focus in more detail and to give it some perspective, in case it is useful for your article or in your future reporting. You may consider anything here to be on the record.

The UN Charter empowers the UN Security Council as the only entity that is legally able to take any enforcement measures in response to the use of force, the threat of force or an act of agression. The UN Charter does not provide any possibility for the application of unilateral sanctions. Today, however, the world community faces an enormous expansion in the application of various types, forms and means of them. While they started as targeted actions aimed to minimize the negative humanitarian effects of comprehensive UN sanctions, unilateral sanctions have now become more and more comprehensive, and thereby transform exceptions in international relations into the routine practice of many States. Their negative humanitarian effect can be enormous, especially when they target the broader population.

As the legal status of specific unilateral sanctions is not always clear from the standpoint of international law, it is necessary to address and seek to minimize the humanitarian consequences of their application, taking due account of the Charter of the United Nations, the fundamental principles of international law, including the observance of human rights and humanitarian standards, and the rule of law. The Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have repeatedly affirmed that people should not be deprived of their own means of subsistence, especially as concerns food and medicine, which quite often happens when trade embargoes or expanded sectoral sanctions are applied. Naturally, the negative humanitarian impact of targeted sanctions is much lower.

In the meantime, under international law, not every unfriendly act or application of pressure by a State is illegal. States are free to choose their partners in trade, economic or other types of international relations and they may decide to stop some sorts of relations, all in accordance with international law. International law also provides for the possibility of proportionate countermeasures in response to serious breaches of obligations under the most compelling norms of general international law like the bans on aggression, genocide and mass gross violations of fundamental human rights that shock the conscience of mankind, as long as the countermeasures do not violate these peremptory norms of international law as well as fundamental human rights. It is notable that the European Court of Justice has considered more than 360 cases related to sanctions and in a number of them it annulled the EU actions because human rights standards had not been observed.

If these rules are not observed, then unilateral sanctions will constitute unilateral coercive measures, and numerous resolutions of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have affirmed the illegality of these.

Therefore, the application of unilateral sanctions should reflect the principles of legality, legitimacy, necessity, proportionality and protection of human rights, especially the rights of women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable categories of the population. Regardless of the grounds and purposes for introducing unilateral sanctions, humanitarian concerns should always be taken into account. Sanctions, even when implemented for legitimate purposes, must comply with human rights standards, including the rights to life, to due process and the presumption of innocence, and shall include relevant humanitarian exemptions and procedural safeguards. A common reason for unilateral sanctions is to promote more respect for human rights in other countries, but human rights cannot be protected by the violation of human rights. This is precisely the kind of problem that I focus on through my mandate.

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