Arria-formula Meeting on the Situation in Belarus
Tomorrow (8 October), an Arria-formula meeting on the situation in Belarus will be held via videoconference (VTC). The meeting is being organised by Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US, and co-sponsored by 26 non-Council member states. Estonia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eva-Maria Liimets, will chair the meeting. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of the UN Human Rights Office in New York Ilze Brands Kehris will deliver the keynote speech. The expected briefers are Artyom Shraibman, a Political Analyst specialising in Belarusian politics, international relations and human rights; Jens Modvig, Head of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus; Victoria Fedorova, Co-Founder of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus; and Anna Maria Dyner, Political Analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
The meeting will be live-streamed on UNTV and the YouTube and Facebook channels of the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the UN at 9 am EST.
On 9 August 2020, Belarus held presidential elections in which the incumbent president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, claimed victory following an announcement by the Central Election Commission that he had won just over 80 percent of the vote. Mass protests erupted in the aftermath of the elections, as allegations of widespread electoral fraud were made public. There have been reports of violence by the Belarusian security forces during the protests, including numerous reports of torture of demonstrators. There have also been widespread reports of demonstrators being subjected to arbitrary detention and imprisonment.
In subsequent months, several countries rejected the election results as fraudulent, and many imposed targeted sanctions on Lukashenko and other government officials for their alleged role in the violence against protesters. During late 2020, opposition supporters continued organising regular peaceful demonstrations in the capital Minsk and in other cities. Since March 2021, however, there have been no reports of large-scale protests in Belarus.
To date, Security Council members’ discussions on developments in Belarus have been limited to informal meetings. On 18 August 2020, Estonia and the US initiated a meeting on Belarus under “any other business”. At the meeting, several Council members apparently expressed concern over election irregularities and reports of human rights violations committed by Belarusian security forces against protesters and members of the media. It seems that some members, including Estonia, called for preventive diplomacy and greater Council engagement in monitoring the situation. China and Russia, however, maintained that this is an internal matter with no effects on the broader stability of the region, and, as such, does not require the Council’s engagement.
It appears that several Council members sought to hold a formal Council meeting on the matter in early September 2020, but this initiative did not garner the necessary support. Therefore, Estonia, the UK and the US organised an Arria-formula meeting on 4 September 2020 focusing on the human rights situation in Belarus.
On 11 November 2020, Council members once again discussed the situation in Belarus under “any other business”, at the request of Estonia, France, the UK, and then-Council members Belgium and Germany. These Council members expressed concern over the continued reports of violent repression of peaceful protests in Belarus and the ongoing human rights violations against the opposition in the country. They also called for a peaceful and inclusive national dialogue on the disputed August 2020 elections.
On 22 January, Council members Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK and the US, together with 10 co-sponsoring non-Council member states, organised another Arria-formula meeting on media freedom in Belarus. The meeting coincided with Belarus’ classification as the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists by the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RWB).
On 26 May, Council members convened for a meeting on Belarus under “any other business”, at the request of Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US. The reason for the meeting was the 23 May diversion to Minsk of a Ryanair passenger plane by the Belarusian authorities and the subsequent detention of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega. The meeting’s organisers, together with former Council members Belgium and Germany, issued a joint statement condemning the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, demanding the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega, and calling for the International Civil Aviation Organization to investigate this incident. Since late June, Protasevich and Sapega have been under house arrest.
Tomorrow’s Arria-formula Meeting
According to a concept note circulated by Estonia, tomorrow’s Arria-formula meeting aims to “highlight the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and the aggressive behaviour of Belarusian authorities against neighbouring countries”. The briefers are likely to draw attention to the large number of protesters and journalists that have been detained and remain missing since the August 2020 presidential election. The concept note says that over 35,000 people have been sentenced and detained since August 2020 and that over 13,000 people have fled the country alleging fear of persecution.
Recent steps taken by the Belarusian authorities to restrict media freedom are another expected topic of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting. On 24 May, Lukashenko signed several legislative measures into law, requiring all mass events, including protests, to be approved by local authorities and prohibiting media participation in such events. According to RWB, Belarusian security forces carried out roughly 70 raids on media outlets and journalists’ homes on 8 and 9 July. On 27 August, the Belarusian Justice Ministry closed down the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an NGO which promotes the freedom of expression and independent journalism in Belarus.
Some Council members may raise their concern about tensions surrounding the passage of migrants and asylum seekers through the Belarus border into its neighbouring countries. Since August, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland reported an increase in migrants and asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq crossing into their territory from Belarus. According to media reports, over 4,000 people have illegally crossed into Lithuania this year, compared with 74 during 2020. Belarus’ neighbouring countries have accused Lukashenko of abetting migration across the Belarus border to pressure the EU to lift the sanctions that it imposed on Minsk following the May Ryanair incident. Numerous migrants have been refused entry, with many left stranded along the Poland-Belarus border in freezing conditions. At least five people who crossed into Poland illegally have reportedly died in recent weeks, including from hypothermia and exhaustion. Poland has since banned aid workers and journalists from its border zone. It has also initiated plans, together with Lithuania, to erect a fence along their border with Belarus.
At tomorrow’s meeting, several Council members may say that the migration issue between Belarus and its neighbouring countries is having a destabilising effect and has regional security implications. As such, they may urge the Security Council to hold a formal briefing on the situation in Belarus. Other members may reiterate their position that the situation in Belarus is an internal affair which is beyond the Council’s purview.