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'With its Security Council seat, Ireland has a unique opportunity to defend democracy in Belarus'

We must now take the lead in defending a European country in which democracy is under attack, writes Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan.

Jim O'Callaghan

IRELAND’S UPCOMING MEMBERSHIP of the United Nations Security Council presents us with both an opportunity and an obligation to stand up for democracy and the rule of law in Belarus.

All independent observers agree that a 37-year-old former teacher with no previous involvement in politics, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was the victor of the election held in Belarus on 9 August last.

Outgoing President Alexander Lukashenko suppressed the results of the election.  Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Unwilling to cede power democratically, his regime falsely claimed that he had received 80% of the vote and declared him the winner.

Tsikhanouskaya’s young children were threatened and she was forced to leave the country the day after the election.

The suppression of the election result provoked popular outrage and an inspirational display of peaceful people-power in the days immediately after the election which the authorities met with great violence.

europe-sakharov-prize Protest on 18 October Source: AP/PA Images

Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated every Sunday for the last 11 weeks against the stealing of the election.

The response of the regime to these popular protests has been to clamp down brutally.

Police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades and batons on peaceful protesters. Over 15,000 people have been arrested.

There are more than 600 documented cases of torture and several protesters have been killed.

Wholesale repression across every sector of society has taken place on a massive scale.

Union activists have been dismissed from their employment and striking workers arrested.

Lawyers for those detained have been refused access to their clients and some of them have also been arrested, fined and even disbarred. In the year to date, over 400 journalists have been detained or harassed.

Writers, academics and sportspeople have been jailed for participating in demonstrations while students have been intimidated on campus and are being systematically expelled from college.

Even protesting schoolchildren have been detained.

Ireland’s role

Tsikhanouskaya has strong links with Ireland. She first visited Roscrea as a teenager through the Chernobyl Lifeline charity and developed a close friendship with her host family.

Her strong command of English and ability to bond with visiting younger children led to repeat trips where she helped care for them and acted as a translator.

This blatant suppression of democracy and the rule of law cannot go unchallenged.

Belarus is right on the doorstep of the European Union and a victory for dictatorship there would put further strain on democratic principles within EU member states.

Ireland has a unique opportunity to defend democracy in Belarus, through our imminent membership of the Security Council. Having been elected on a platform that emphasised our commitment to the defence of human rights, we must now take the lead in defending a European country in which democracy is under attack. We must also continue to add our voice to those in the European Union who support practical measures to help the democratic opposition.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have already given strong leadership on this issue.

The Taoiseach tweeted on 17 August: “the people of Belarus deserve to have free, fair elections. People’s right to protest peacefully must be respected.”

In a prompt response to the post-election repression, the Minister for Foreign Affairs condemned the violence against peaceful protestors and arbitrary restrictions placed on the media.

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In a subsequent detailed statement he rejected the election results, urged an end to violence, called for the release of those detained and stated, “Ireland does not accept the election result as a true reflection of the democratic will of the Belarusian people.”

Ireland has since supported the imposition of targeted sanctions by the EU.

I have raised the plight of Belarus in the Dáil.

I and several Oireachtas colleagues heard from a panel from Belarus about the critical importance of international support at an online conference organised by the Belarus International Committee.

Chaired by Helena Kennedy QC, the Committee was formed with the help of Doughty Street Chambers along with the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.

It also involves human rights NGOs from Belarus, experts from the Belarus diaspora, representatives from the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

On a practical level, Ireland must work on the Security Council and within the EU institutions to deliver expanded sanctions against the leaders of the Belarus regime as well as those companies and individuals that are enabling the regime to suppress popular protests and undermine the rule of law.

The countries that voted for Ireland’s candidacy for the Security Council must see our principles –support for democracy and the rule of law – translated into action.

Jim O’Callaghan is a Fianna Fáil TD.

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