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Attacks on academic freedom in Belarus: impossible to remain silent

The ongoing widespread government repression in Belarus is targeting both academics and students.

June 11, 2021 - Peter Van Elsuwege - Articles and Commentary

The Belarusian State Pedagogical University in Minsk is one of the oldest universities in Belarus. Photo: S.Tatiana / Shutterstock

Almost ten months after the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, the Lukashenka administration continues to intimidate and violently repress peaceful protesters. The forced diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 in order to detain journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega is only the latest attempt to silence opposition voices. The list of repressive measures is unprecedented, ranging from a ban on reporting about protest actions to the prosecution of citizens for wearing red and white socks – the colours of the opposition movement.

Reports from the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights paint a very bleak picture. The high commissioner’s office has spoken of “an unprecedented human rights crisis” and “a systematic crackdown” against dissidents. Minsk’s policy of harassment and intimidation also resulted in mass detentions and criminal cases against peaceful protesters, as further made clear in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Civil society organisations and the UN estimate that since May 2020 government authorities have detained well over 30,000 persons on politically motivated grounds. According to human rights defenders, more than 2,300 criminal cases have been initiated against peaceful protesters that could lead to up to ten years imprisonment. No legal action has been taken against the security forces.

The crackdown on academic freedom

Whereas government repression is widespread in Belarus, it has particularly affected the most critical voices in civil society, such as journalists, academics and students. On October 27th, Lukashenka publicly called for the expulsion of students and the termination of employment of professors who participated in the protests or simply voiced their views. The consequences are very visible. Following multiple incidents of politically-motivated persecution, many Belarusian academics and students have been forced to flee the country.

The Belarusian Students’ Association and the Student Initiative Group have collected evidence of at least 480 cases of student detentions, as well as 154 cases of students being expelled from universities since September. In total, 49 students have become subject to criminal investigations. Some of these students were sentenced to extremely severe terms of imprisonment for speaking out and participating in peaceful demonstrations. On November 12th a group of student activists (including members of the Belarusian Students’ Association) and one professor were detained and placed in KGB detention facilities. They are now being charged with organising and coordinating “Student Marches”. Currently, 13 students are recognised as political prisoners by Belarusian human rights defenders, out of a total number of 354 in the country. All of these figures face criminal charges under article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, which relates to organisation or participation in group actions that grossly violate public order.

The past ten months have shown a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions, prosecutions, expulsions and wrongful dismissals. Pressure has also been placed on Belarus’ higher education sector. According to the Academic Freedom Index, these acts quickly resulted in the country suffering one of the largest declines in academic freedom in the world this past year.

The situation at Belarusian universities

A new position of “vice-rector on security matters” has been introduced in almost every Belarusian university, in order to run the mechanisms of repression inside academic institutions and monitor the staff. The candidates reportedly hired for these positions are directly affiliated with state security and special services. A further point of deep concern is the participation of law professors in repressive procedures against lawyers. For example, the dean of the law faculty at the Belarusian State University Tatiana Mikhaliova, and the director of the university’s law college Oleg Starovoitov, are members of the Ministry of Justice Commission, which is now punishing lawyers for participating in political cases. This practice has been strongly condemned by the international community, including the American Bar Association and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. The fact that university officials, who are responsible for legal studies, are participating in such a mechanism without disclosing the illegal and discriminatory character of its current activities is unacceptable. Overall, this devalues the university’s law programme and the rule of law in the country.

The role of the international academic community and the European Union

Universities are supposed to be safe havens, where students can develop their ideas and researchers can freely discuss fundamental societal issues. This presumption clearly no longer applies in Belarus and several other countries in the world. It is the responsibility of the international academic community to respond to this unacceptable situation. The European University Association (EUA) of the European Students’ Union (ESA) has already expressed its solidarity with the students and staff of Belarusian universities. In this respect, the granting of scholarships for students and academics under pressure is of particular significance. Initiatives such as the Scholars at Risk Network provide necessary support. Unfortunately, however, there is sometimes a lack of funding for placements.

It has been suggested that the European Commission establish a dedicated fellowship programme for students and academics at risk. This programme would be of particular interest for those in Belarus, as it could take into account the suspension of official contacts following last year’s rigged presidential elections and the introduction of restrictive measures against Lukashenka and his government. Whereas sanctions have been one of the EU’s key tools in recent weeks, engaging with civil society and a critical mass of Belarusian citizens is equally important in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. A dedicated programme focusing on the support of academic freedom should be a key pillar of such an approach.

Finally, individual universities also have responsibilities as part of their ‘internationalisation’ policies. Respect for human rights in general and academic freedom in particular are central to a university’s role in democratic societies. It is, therefore, crucial that universities pay special attention to their relations with Belarusian academic partners. This is needed on both an institutional and personal level, in order to make sure that these institutions are not associated with repression and violations of academic freedom. In Flanders, for instance, the Flemish Inter-University Council (VLIR) recently adopted “recommendations for implementing a human rights assessment”. This is a form of self-regulation that will help ensure that universities do not engage in projects with partners responsible for violating human rights.

The state of academic freedom in Belarus is now so bad that it is impossible to remain silent on the matter. A strong and practical answer from the European Union and the international academic community is urgently needed in order to support academic freedom in solidarity with Belarusian students and staff.

See also: An open letter published on the Good Lobby Profs website.

Peter Van Elsuwege is Professor of EU law and Jean Monnet Chair holder at Ghent University (Belgium). He is also a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin campus).

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