The ILO’s condemnation of Belarus is unequivocal – but so is China and Russia’s support for Lukashenko

The ILO's condemnation of Belarus is unequivocal – but so is China and Russia's support for Lukashenko

A worker poses for a photo during an opposition rally in Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, on 17 August 2020. Since that time, thousands of people have been persecuted, violently attacked and arrested for calling for an end to the almost 27-year regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

(AP/Evgeniy Maloletka)

During its annual International Labour Conference (ILC) held in June, the International Labour Organization (ILO) strongly criticised the blatant violation of international labour standards in Belarus. In its report, the ILO Committee of Experts, like the Committee on Freedom of Association earlier, referred to the serious violations of fundamental workers’ rights in Belarus.

Many workers have been persecuted, beaten up, arrested and dismissed for participating in peaceful demonstrations against the rigged presidential elections in August last year. Unprecedented police brutality was used against tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. Student union members have been expelled from universities. Members of independent trade unions have been systematically intimidated to leave their trade unions or lose their jobs.

Workers have been imprisoned for minor incidents to prevent any further protest actions. In February, three young steel workers were sentenced to between two-and-a-half to three years in prison for taking part in a strike at the Byelorussian Steel Works (BMZ). Meanwhile, that same month, the offices of the Belarusian Radio and Electronic Industry Workers‘ Union (REP) were raided by the police and the chairperson was forced to flee the country.

Based on the report, the Committee for the Application of Standards (CAS), which brings together government, trade union and employer representatives from the 187 ILO member states, discussed the situation in Belarus. The majority decision of the highest international monitoring body on compliance with international labour standards is crystal clear. Referring to the “the numerous allegations of extreme violence to repress peaceful protests and strikes, and the detention, imprisonment and torture of workers while in custody following the presidential election in August 2020”, the ILO urges the government to:

• Restore without delay full respect for workers’ rights and freedom.
• Guarantee adequate protection or even immunity against administrative detention for trade union officials in the performance of their duties or when exercising their civil liberties (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc.).
• Take measures for the release of all trade unionists who remain in detention and for the dropping of all charges related to participation in peaceful protest action.
• Refrain from the arrest, detention or engagement in violence, intimidation or harassment, including judicial harassment, of trade union leaders and members conducting lawful trade union activities.
• Investigate without delay alleged instances of intimidation or physical violence through an independent judicial inquiry.

The ILO also strongly condemned President Alexander Lukashenko’s demand – announced during a meeting with Mikhail Orda, the head of the state pseudo-trade union, the Federation of Belarussian Trade Unions (FPB) – that all private enterprises must establish a trade union within their companies or face liquidation. This is not only a blatant violation of the principle of freedom of association, but it also shows that the subservient official trade unions do not exist to truly represent working people but are state-controlled bodies to be used by Lukashenko to monitor workers, as well as employers, in the private sector.

Not surprisingly, the Belarusian government representative at the ILC rejected these allegations. The head of the state trade unions, as a faithful servant of the regime, justified the arrest of demonstrating and striking trade unionists by saying that political strikes are also banned in Germany and other countries. The ILO experts, however, had clarified earlier that there is a fundamental difference between trade unions operating in a democratic society and trade unions fighting for democracy itself. They emphasised that political strike action to defend and enforce fundamental democratic freedoms is a fundamental right under ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association.

The Lukashenko regime was, however, absolutely intransigent. The government representative went on the attack, accusing the independent Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) of “taking steps against the interests of the state and the government” and accusing them of “destructive lobbying” against Belarus.

At the same time as the negotiations in Geneva were taking place, the regime decided to tighten the criminal law, which, among other things, de facto completely abolished freedom of assembly. The “discrediting of the Republic of Belarus” and the insulting of state officials have become new criminal offences. According to a letter written to the ILO by Aliaksandr Yarashuk, president of the BKDP: “The right of citizens to participate in peaceful assemblies is practically cancelled, as well as the right of workers’ organizations to freely carry out their activities. Such law-making by the authorities further removes Belarus from the implementation of the recommendation of the ILO Commission of Inquiry to bring legislation on public events in line with Article 3 of Convention 87.”

Support from China and Russia

In Geneva, Lukashenko could also rely on the cartel of freedom enemies who support each other in the UN system. The Chinese government claimed that the government of Belarus “is firmly committed to the fundamental principles and rights of labour, adopts an open attitude to social dialogue and cooperates constructively with the social partners”.

Belarus returned the favour in the debate on trade union rights in Hong Kong by stating: “Belarus has noted the systematic and positive approach by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to strengthening social and labour relations in the SAR of Hong Kong. We believe that the Chinese Government is carefully monitoring and complying with its obligations under the Convention [87].”

Russia went one step further, not only defending Belarus but criticising those who denounce human rights violations: “The Russian Federation fully follows the argument of our Belarusian colleagues with regard to the implementation by Minsk of the provisions of the Convention[...]. In conclusion, the intentional fuelling of anti-Belarusian rhetoric, including in the UN, is worrying.”

The ILO’s findings not only demand clear action by Belarus to respect international human rights, but they also establish a moral imperative for the international community not to stand idly by. The people of Belarus are showing great courage by continuing their peaceful protests. Over 30,000 people have arrested, countless protesters have been beaten and tortured, and every day, people are harassed by the KGB, their homes are searched, others lose their jobs or fear for the safety of their families.

In view of the continuing repression in Belarus, international solidarity with the people and a clear policy towards the regime are needed at the same time:

• Personal sanctions should be extended to a wide circle of senior state officials in the security organs, the judiciary, the media, the presidential administration and the government.
• In addition, all appropriate instruments should be explored to increase political and economic pressure.
• Independent media, civil society organisations and trade unions in Belarus or in exile need unbureaucratic and generous support.
• EU borders must be open for people who want or need to leave Belarus for political reasons. Those who no longer want to live under Lukashenko should be given study, research or work opportunities in Europe.