Call to Action in Support of Scholars and Students in Belarus

Scholars at Risk is deeply concerned about the harassment, intimidation, detention, fines, arrest, and expulsion of students and scholars in Belarus, in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, following peaceful protests in the aftermath of the country’s recent presidential elections.

The official results of the August 9 election had President Lukashenko, who first took office in 1994, winning re-election for a sixth term with more than 80% of the vote. The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to flee to Lithuania after receiving threats. Critics from inside Belarus, as well as international observers, immediately condemned the result, charging that the election was marked by widespread electoral fraud. Concerns about a fraudulent election triggered mass demonstrations, often led by university students, across the country. Scholars at Risk has reported several incidents (August 12, August 28, September 1, September 4, October 17, and October 26), in which police responded to protests with arrests and violent force. Other organizations, including the Belarusian Students’ Association. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates, that to date, more than 25,000 people have been detained.

SAR expresses solidarity with the students, scholars, and staff of Belarusian higher education institutions, who continue to suffer targeted and broad-based attacks, and calls on Belarusian authorities to uphold commitments to protect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Belarus is a party. In addition, all Bologna Process members, including Belarus, committed in the 2018 Paris Communiqué to protecting and promoting the fundamental values of the European Higher Education Area, including academic freedom and integrity and institutional autonomy. SAR supports and echoes the joint statement by the European University Association (EUA) and the European Students’ Union (ESU) that “these commitments cannot be just empty words – they must be followed by action”.

SAR calls on state authorities and higher education leaders in Belarus to:

  • Refrain from the use of force when responding to student and faculty expression on and off campus, and ensure that actions by security forces are proportional and do not interfere with peaceful expressive activities;
  • Refrain from detentions, prosecutions, and university disciplinary measures that retaliate against, restrict, or otherwise frustrate peaceful academic conduct, expression, or associations;
  • Refrain from imposing pressures on higher education institutions to carry out disciplinary measures, and other actions that restrict academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association, and travel;
  • Secure the immediate release of scholars and students wrongfully imprisoned in connection to their right to freedom of assembly, their academic activity, opinions, and associations, and, pending this, to disclose the location of all detainees and uphold national and international legal obligations related to due process and the humane treatment of prisoners;
  • Protect institutional autonomy and take steps to shield higher education institutions from undue government interference; and
  • Reconsider the recent decision to no longer recognise diplomas from foreign educational institutions, which is in clear contravention of the Lisbon Recognition Convention, to which Belarus is party.

SAR calls on the international community, in particular, the OSCE and its participating States the European Union and its Member States, and the Ministers of the European Higher Education Area to:

  • Demand prompt release of scholars, students and others detained for nonviolent expression or conduct, and conduct prompt, thorough, and transparent investigations of attacks on higher education communities in Belarus, as well as all reasonable efforts to hold perpetrators accountable;
  • Continue targeted political and economic sanctions against individuals, state and non-state actors responsible for grave human rights abuses against students, scholars, and other citizens of Belarus;
  • Provide funding to support at-risk scholars and students or the higher education institutions and NGOs seeking to help. Together with SAR Europe’s Inspireurope project partners, SAR calls on the European Commission to establish a dedicated EU fellowship programme for researchers at risk;[1]
  • Exert international pressure on the authorities and provide adequate and timely support to those protecting and promoting higher education values, including academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association, and travel in Belarus; and
  • Offer protection for those individuals facing persecution through expediting visa applications or through the provision of free Schengen visas and/or temporary humanitarian visas where needed.

SAR calls on the international higher education community to:

  •  Publicly condemn attacks on scholars and students in Belarus. In doing so, higher education leaders, SAR national sections, prevent the normalisation of attacks, signalling that an attack on one scholar is an attack on all;
  • Ensure that adherence to international standards of academic freedom and human rights is prominent in agreements and joint activities with counterparts in higher education institutions in Belarus and ensure that academic freedom and human rights are respected in the same joint activities and partnerships; and
  • Support scholars and students impacted by attacks by offering temporary positions of academic refuge to these individuals through Scholars at Risk, the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), PAUSE, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, and others.

Finally, SAR invites:

  •  At-risk scholars inside and outside Belarus who may be in need of temporary relocation to contact us here. Together with higher education institutions across its global network, SAR arranges temporary research and teaching positions for at-risk scholars seeking temporary positions of refuge; and
  • Those monitoring the situation in Belarus, to report incidents to SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project here. SAR’s Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education around the world with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities.

For more information, please contact Denise Roche, Advocacy Manager at SAR Europe, at denise.roche@mu.ie.

[1]  See Researchers at Risk: Mapping Europe’s Response, Report of the Inspireurope project, pp. 42-43, available at: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/sar-europe/inspireurope

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