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HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS THROUGH THE EYES OF THE POPULATION

As the IISEPS research proves, there is a rather mixed attitude towards human rights defenders in the Belarusian society. In many respects it is connected with the fact that official organizations (courts, militia, the public prosecutor’s office and other special services) called to stand sentinel over the law are not perceived by the population as human rights guilds. In addition, employees of some of them quite often neglect the law in order to please political interests of the people in power. On the other hand, attitude of the state to nongovernment civic organizations (NGO) upholding the rights of citizens possesses a clearly pronounced discriminatory nature. For instance, there are fewer than a dozen of human rights NGO in the ten-million-strong country, and there are almost no officially registered ones among them; however, virtually each one of them was subject to pressure or even to direct repressions on the part of the authorities at some point. Official mass media are also keeping up with the authorities: it is impossible to find any positive publications with respect to human rights defenders for the last years. It is enough to remember several “thousands of armed observers” who, according to the state mass media, were getting ready for the “power assumption” in the country on the threshold of the presidential elections.

Nevertheless, Belarusian human rights defenders do not yield much to their state counterparts, as far as the level of public confidence is concerned. The data of Table 1 gives us an idea of it. Simultaneously the data show that for the last years the public opinion has become well-established in relation to the institutions under discussion.

 

Table 1. Dynamics of confidence in human rights organizations and law-enforcement agencies, %

Institutions

10’06

12’07

10’08

06’09

09’10

Public defender’s office

50.9

44.6

46.9

45.5

49.5

Courts

50.4

49.9

48.5

47.9

49.3

Public prosecutor’s office

48.3

45.4

45.2

43.5

45.3

Militia

42.8

43.8

41.7

42.1

40.5

KGB

44.1

40.7

42.5

41.3

37.9

Human rights NGO

38.4

40.9

37.6

35.0

38.2

Along with this the authorities’ policy towards NGO, including the human rights ones, impedes their interaction with the society, to put it mildly. What kind of interaction can at all be at issue, if two thirds of Belarusians are not even aware of such organizations’ existence? The data of Table 2 particularly testify to it. By the way, these are answers to the close-ended question when respondents saw the list of human rights NGO. If it were an open-ended question, i.e. a question without such a list, the result would most probably be even more deplorable.

Table 2. Distribution of answers to the question: “Which human rights organizations do you know?” (more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%

I do not know any

64.9

The human rights center

15.6

“The Belarusian Helsinki committee”

12.8

“Aid in legal matters for the population”

8.0

“The protection committee of political repression victims “Solidarity”

6.2

“Viasna”

4.5

“The human rights alliance”

3.5

“The legal initiative”

2.6

Other

0.3

At the same time there is an obvious demand for such organizations activity. It clearly follows from the data of Tables 3-5. According to Table 3, almost a half of our fellow citizens do not feel protected from the arbitrary rule of various government institutions. At that violations of their socio-economic rights worry the citizens in the first place, although every fifth respondent mentioned violations of the political rights, too (Table 4). Only every seventh respondent does not worry about violation of any rights at all.

Table 3. Distribution of answers to the question: “Do you feel protected from the possible arbitrary rule on the part of the authorities, militia, the State Traffic Patrol Department, the internal revenue service, courts and other government institutions?”

Variant of answer

%

Definitely / more likely yes

46.7

More likely / definitely no

48.9

Table 4. Distribution of answers to the question: “If you do not feel protected from the arbitrary rule of the authorities, then violations of which rights worries you most of all?”

Variant of answer

%

Violation of socio-economic rights (to housing, work, education, medical care, social service and other)

39.1

Violation of political rights (to expression of one’s opinion, to peaceful meetings and associations, to freely receive and spread information, to elect and to be elected into bodies of state administration and other)

19.7

It does not worry me

15.4

Table 5. Distribution of answers to the question: “Who, in your opinion, violates the human rights in Belarus most of all?” (open question, more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%

Employees of various government institutions (state officials, employees of the law-enforcement agencies and so on)

36.2

Opposition politicians

5.0

Others

0.9

The data of Table 5 show that Belarusians consider employees of different institutions of the large state machine, including Presidential Administration and the president himself, the main violators of the citizens’ rights. In other words, the overwhelming share of citizens’ rights violations comes from the state, and at that from the “socially-oriented one” as it is written down in its Constitution!

Where do our fellow citizens address their complaints to, in case their rights are violated? For the sake of answering this question, let us refer to the data of Table 6.

Table 6. Distribution of answers to the question: “If the state violates your rights, where will you apply for help in the first place?” (more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%*

There is no point in defending oneself, the state is going to win anyway

29.0

To the law-enforcement agencies (militia, the public prosecutor’s office, courts)

21.6

To the Presidential Administration

13.8

To state officials (the city executive committee, the province executive committee)

6.8

To nongovernment organizations

5.0

To a deputy

3.9

Other

4.4

I will defend myself on my own

15.5

* Relative to 100%

As it can be seen, almost a third of respondents considers that there is no sense in defending oneself from the state, as it is going to win in any case. In addition, every sixth respondent is going to defend himself on his own. Almost all the rest of respondents try to solve the emerged problems in various government bodies, and only every twentieth person applies to an NGO. The data of Table 7 show what particular human rights NGO the citizens who have suffered from the arbitrary rule of the state apply to. One should bear in mind that the presented distribution of address directions cannot be considered representative taking into account the coverage error (3%).

Table 7. Distribution of answers to the question: “If your rights had ever been violated, did you apply for help to human rights organizations?” (more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%

My rights had been violated, but I did not apply anywhere

40.1

“Aid in legal matters for the population”

2.3

The human rights center

1.2

“The Belarusian Helsinki committee”

0.6

“Viasna”

0.5

“The legal initiative”

0.5

“The protection committee of political repression victims “Solidarity”

0.4

“The human rights alliance”

0.1

My rights had been violated, but I applied to other organizations

10.0

It is clear that people seldom apply to human rights NGO not only due to their insufficient awareness of these organizations, but because of their certainty they will not be helped there. Such perception of human rights organizations’ low value does not give respondents any grounds to assume any considerable support of them on the part of the citizens: as the data of Table 8 show, almost 70% are not ready to support the activity of the Belarusian human rights defenders.

Table 8. Distribution of answers to the question: “Are you ready to support the activity of the Belarusian human rights defenders?” (more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%

No

69.0

I am ready to sign an appeal to the government agencies

15.5

I am ready to take part in distribution of human rights information

10.2

I am ready to take part in the protest actions (meetings, pickets, etc.)

4.5

I am ready to support it financially

3.0

Table 9. Distribution of answers to the question: “What do Belarusian human rights defenders really want, in your opinion?” (more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%

To earn money

39.6

To help the victims of human rights violations

26.0

To help the opposition in its struggle against the authorities

13.2

In turn insufficient awareness of the activity combined with the feeling of low value and regular libel on the part of state mass media lead to the following: many respondents regard the activity of the Belarusian human rights defenders as a way to earn money (almost 40%) which is shown by the data of Table 9. Only every fourth respondent thinks that this activity is directed at helping victims of human rights violations. However, it should be mentioned that it is a good enough achievement for human rights defenders in Belarusian reality.