A call to action for human rights
Globally speaking, 2020 has been a challenging year for all.
Events that most peaceful and materially secure societies and governments are used to watching only on television, began to occur on our own doorstep – a new virus, closed borders, unusually high number of deaths.
Belarus is not immune from these global trends. What we have seen in Belarus this year, starting from the first wave of COVID-19 in the spring, through the renewed awakening of political activism, marks a step-change in how a growing part of society sees its role and place in shaping the future of the country.
Working with international partners and donors, the UN Country Team in Belarus reacted immediately to provide support to the national response to COVID-19. In the first months of the pandemic we provided some $7.5 million to the national response, including supporting the health system, and addressing the socioeconomic impact by helping small- and medium-sized enterprises to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills. We delivered assistance through partners and NGOs working with the most affected people. In the second half of the year, we worked out a Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19 strategy and mobilized additional funds to implement it.
And then came the summer and fall of 2020 and Belarusian events which we all know and which were reported in detail to the Human Rights Council by the UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in her statement on 4 December 2020
At the UN we are acutely aware how mass popular protests have multiplied around the world and gained intensity in recent years. They have occurred in developed and developing countries. While each context is different, common drivers of protests include inequalities, limited access to social services and shrinking democratic space. In many countries they reflect an erosion of the social contract between people and their governments, and a general discontent and lack of trust and faith in political elites and institutions to address the major issues of our times – inequalities and climate change. Young people and women have played an active role in all protests. Another finding is that globally protests are by and large peaceful. What is also new, globally and in Belarus, is how social media and new technologies allow people to communicate and coordinate their actions in real time and how technologies can be disrupted to repress the protests.
Facing the situation in Belarus, the UN reacted immediately, to remind the state authorities of their international obligations: torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are absolutely prohibited and can never be justified. The UN Secretary General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and myself as the UN representative in the country, have urged the authorities of Belarus to respect the right to peaceful assembly and expression. We conveyed these messages directly to our national counterparts, first and foremost through the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Belarus and to the Ministry of Interior and other state institutions responding to the crisis.
The role of the UN is to encourage a constructive dialogue and keep an eye on the long-term horizon and global common priorities. In addition to working with the State, we continue to discuss the situation with civil society partners. Both human rights NGOs and the leaders of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Partnership Group have remained our close partners every step of the way.
Less visibly, in 2020 our experts provided policy advice and concrete suggestions on what should be included in Belarus’s long-term development strategy up to 2035 as well as the National Program "Health of the Nation and Demographic Security of the Republic of Belarus", National Plan of Gender Equality and Migration Action Plan. Many other programmes are being developed and we are ready to offer additional support and analysis of lessons from implementing past programmes. We are also offering access to best practices from international experience in helping the government to set new priorities for the next five years. Among the programmes that we are particularly interested in supporting is the development of the Green Economy action plan 2021-2025 as a way of advancing the global response to the Climate Change crisis.
In all countries, institutions are key. For cross-sectoral coordination and participation, the national SDG Council and the position of National SDG Coordinator are essential. Equally important are partnerships for SDGs. Working with civil society, supporting their capacity and leveraging their experience and expertise while being open and respectful of their position is something that the UN will continue to prioritize and demonstrate daily. Engaging with international donors who are funding our programmes has been and will continue to be instrumental in this process.
Realizing the vision of a modern and prosperous Belarus requires a “Leaving no one behind” mindset. Prioritizing the needs of those who have less voice and participate less in decision making -- young people and the ageing population, women’s groups, businesses that offer new technologies and the civil society organisations which support sustainable economic growth that benefits the poorer and most marginalized segments of the society. This kind of values-based partnership is ever more important in an extremely competitive global and regional environment.
Dialogue, ambitious reform and an innovative development agenda offer a way to ensure true respect for human rights.
And rights are at the core of sustainable development. When we take a human rights-based approach, development outcomes are more sustainable, powerful and effective. This is why human rights permeate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 SDGs are underpinned by economic, civil, cultural, political and social rights, as well as the right to development. In their universality and indivisibility, as well as their strong emphasis on equality and inclusion, these Goals echo the spirit as well as the letter of our human rights commitments. They not only imagine a world in which the material conditions exist for people to attain their rights but also a world in which people are empowered to participate actively in decisions that affect them. Moreover, when everyone has equal access to opportunity and choice, and can claim their human rights, no one is left behind. This is the key message of the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights that was launched earlier this year and explains in detail how human rights underpin work on sustainability.
The Secretary-General has put the full weight of his office and the United Nations family behind this Call to Action, supporting the vital work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He also underlines that human rights are the responsibility of each and every UN actor, in particular the UN Resident Coordinators.
As international partners of Belarus, as the UN family of agencies based in the country, we will continue to play our part, with the focus on values and the highest human aspirations enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.