In the midst of the euphoria brought on by the “Arab Spring,” it is easy to forget that freedom struggles are oftentimes hard-fought battles with few wins and more losses.
For every young person who witnessed the toppling of Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Ben Ali, there are countless human rights veterans around the world who carry on their struggle against the seemingly invincible forces of repression. From Belarus and Cuba to Burma and Iran, dissidents around the world continue to challenge dictatorships built on fear, reminding us time and again that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
If we are to be “eternally vigilant,” the Atlantic community must not only support those who have recently won their democratic victories, but also keep watch over the brave individuals who press for freedom in the most repressive environments and put pressure on those regimes who seek impunity from the international community.
Among those paying the steep price of freedom is Ales Byalyatski. Wednesday, Byalyatski’s trial restarted in Minsk after a week hiatus (the trial has been postponed again until November 22), in an 80-seat courtroom packed with the heads of the US and European diplomatic missions, scores of opposition leaders, and many young activists. A renowned human rights leader in Belarus, Byalyatski has become the latest victim of President Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on the democratic opposition. He is accused by the authorities of tax evasion for foreign funds he received to conduct the work of “Viasna” Human Rights Center. The offense carries a penalty of three to seven years in prison. But his real crime is his relentless efforts over the past 15 years to build a nationwide network of human rights advocates in “Europe’s last dictatorship.”
Just two months before his arrest, Byalyatski received one of the Atlantic Council’s 2011 Freedom Awards, on behalf of the people of Belarus, and in recognition of his long-time struggle for human rights in Belarus. Launched in 2009, the awards recognize extraordinary individuals and organizations that defend and advance the cause of freedom around the world. Since its founding, the Freedom Awards present a unique opportunity to bring the likes of Javier Solana, Jerzy Buzek, John McCain, and other global leaders together in solidarity with those who are on the front lines of freedom, like Byalyatski. These leaders remain staunch advocates for their fellow awardees, as in the case of John McCain and Jerzy Buzek, who were among the first to call for Byalyatski’ release upon his arrest in August.
When we chose to honor Byalyatski, it was clear to us that this was a man of conviction. Upon receiving notice of the award, Byalyatski’ only request was simple: whether he could travel by train rather than by air in order to bring two of his colleagues to receive the award with him. Soft-spoken and gentle, Byalyatski carried the calm yet fearless demeanor that is so familiar to those who have worked with dissidents in closed societies. This was a man committed to resist the forces of violence and repression with peace and reason.
Later that month, when we learned that Byalyatski was threatened by the Belarusian authorities with alleged proof of bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland, accounts that he kept in order to fund the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (which was registered abroad after being denied registration in Belarus), it was clear that Byalyatski had no intention of leaving Belarus even if it meant going to jail. Tragically, information from these accounts was leaked by authorities in the Justice Ministry of Lithuania (despite warnings from the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs against sharing data on human rights defenders with Belarusian authorities). However, this blundering is not unique to Lithuania. This is just one example of the collective failure of the international community to adequately protect the sensitive work of human rights defenders like Byalyatski. From mounting bureaucratic hurdles posed by donors (including onerous partner vetting requirements that threaten to undermine grassroots efforts, particularly in the Middle East) to the failure of government agencies to adequately protect sensitive communications (evidenced by Wikileaks), the international community has consistently carried out foreign assistance programs that can inadvertently endanger activists on the ground or render our foreign assistance obsolete.
As we grapple to formulate an adequate policy response to Belarus and other dictatorships, one thing remains clear. Byalyatski and countless like him will continue to pay a high price for our lack of vigilance and ineffective policies that fail to adequately protect and empower activists who are taking the biggest risks on the ground. Today, dissidents around the world, including some of past Freedom Awardees, face increasingly difficult environments and need our support more than ever.
In Cuba, we have been saddened by the recent death of Laura Pollán, the founder of the Ladies in White, our 2010 awardees. She struggled tirelessly to unite the wives, daughters, and mothers of Cuba’s political prisoners to advocate jointly for the release of their family members, including that of her husband, Hector Maseda. Her death was one of the cruelest of ironies, coming just shortly after her husband’s release from jail. As he noted, “The toll on our private lives has been that after eight years of forced separation, we didn’t even get eight months together. So I had one month of happiness for every year of separation.” Few are willing to make the sacrifices they endured to achieve freedom in Cuba. Meanwhile, the majority of Cuba’s political prisoners have been forcibly exiled to Europe, and those courageous individuals who remain on the island are struggling to resist a regime that has cleverly rid itself of dissent through emigration.
The sad reality is this: the road to freedom in places like Belarus and Cuba will not be easy or short. It will require the endurance of a few fearless individuals like Ales Byalyatski and Laura Pollán. But we cannot sit and enjoy our own freedoms contently without adequately supporting and protecting those who answer the call to freedom in the most repressive parts of the world. That is why a coherent and proactive transatlantic approach is necessary to enshrine support for democracy as a guiding principle in our foreign policy, not just an afterthought in the face of changing realities on the ground, as it was in Egypt and Libya.
First and foremost, US and European governments must realize that closed societies like Belarus, Cuba, Iran, and others present very unique challenges. We cannot apply the same bureaucratic formulas to human rights organizations operating in these environments. Donor flexibility and policies that prioritize discretion, limited information sharing, and the protection of activist identities (even if it means bending the rules on partner vetting and other criteria) is necessary if the few funds that remain in our limited foreign assistance budget are to go towards credible and innovative efforts to support the few but worthy and courageous individuals who are struggling for freedom against the world’s most repressive regimes. We must also find ways to learn from our common mistakes and share best practices between governments and independent foundations to mitigate risks and maximize gains in democracy support efforts around the world. Technology will also play a key role in new wave democracy movements. We need to empower activists with a greater IT know-how to combat government surveillance and share smart tactics virtually around the globe.
At the Council, we will play our small part by shining a light on courageous individuals who continue to pursue the long and arduous struggle for freedom. However, if the Atlantic community is to truly lead on global values, we must start an urgent policy debate for a smarter and proactive approach to support democrats in closed societies. We owe that much to individuals, like Byalyatski and Pollán, who have paid the high price of freedom.
Cynthia Romero is Associate Director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council, where she manages programming on democracy promotion and Euro-Atlantic integration in Europe’s East, the Caucasus, and the Western Balkans.