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New campaign highlights free expression abuses in "Europe's last dictatorship"

(Norwegian PEN/IFEX) - "Changes in Belarus will have to come from the civil society," said Secretary general of the Council of Europe, Mr. Thorbjørn Jagland at the March 22 Action on Belarus! conference in Oslo, Norway. The Council's special rapporteur on Belarus, Andres Herkel, said Lukashenko is now weaker than ever and in urgent need of loans. Both Herkel and other speakers, including those from Belarus, supported the strategy of targeted sanctions against the regime. But as one speaker put it: "….the terms and the goals of such sanctions must be clearly communicated to the Belarusian people."

Presently about 20% of the population in Belarus support president Lukashenko and about 20% support the opposition. So what about the remaining 60%? Some, like the younger population who know of no Belarus without Lukashenko, don't really care. Others may be to scared to voice their opinions. In any case, reaching out to this large group of the population is extremely important and one of the main challenges. The EU is among the many organisations and institutions that actively support the Belarusian youth organizations.

Others pointed to the fact that the 2014 Icehockey World Championship, due to take place in Minsk, is one good opportunity to focus on the lack of democracy and human rights in Belarus. Ideally, cancelling or moving this big event away from Belarus would constitute an enormous "loss of face" for Lukashenko, but is not likely to happen.

Summing up the conference, Secretary Bjørn Engesland of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee touched on all these aspects, but also mentioned Russia's role: "They may even benefit from playing along with Europe here," he said.

And again we were reminded about the lack of free expression by Natalia Radzina, journalist at Charter 97. Recently three Belarusian journalists have been killed or have died under unclear circumstances. Said Radzina: "…there is no freedom of speech in Belarus at all. All freedoms have been methodically removed."

The three organiations responsible for the conference will continue its focus on Belarus up until the presidential elections in 2014.

Watch video clips from the conference here

Read the full conference report below:
Norwegian_PEN_Konferanserapport_belarus.doc (61 KB)

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