Can the International Criminal Court Help Belarus?

A protester carries a former Belarusian flag during an opposition rally by the Minsk Hero City Obelisk. Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images.
A protester carries a former Belarusian flag during an opposition rally by the Minsk Hero City Obelisk. Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images.

Making the case

The recent election results in Belarus have triggered revolution in yet another post-Soviet country and Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s response has been devastatingly brutal. However, the Belarusian people’s resilience and Western sanctionsadopted on 14 August – have proved effective. As some of the 6,700 jailed protesters were released, accounts of horrific treatment by law enforcement emerged: overcrowded cells, no food, torture, forced confessions, severe beatings , and threats of rape.

With reports of mounting violence, Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski warned Lukashenka to expect not just sanctions but also the possible intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC), an idea supported by the opposition-led Belarus’ National Salvation. While there are significant impediments to the Court’s involvement, the impact of such an initiative could be ground-breaking.

Legal framework

The ICC considers criminal responsibility of top civilian or military leaders for only the most serious atrocities - war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and, in certain cases, the crime of aggression. In the context of Belarus, the Court’s jurisdiction over crimes against humanity might be relevant. According to the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, crimes against humanity include widespread or systematic abuses directed against a civilian population. Atrocities relevant to Belarus include arbitrary imprisonment, torture, inhuman treatment, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances.

The ICC is a last resort. It can intervene only if states are unable or unwilling to properly investigate and prosecute serious crimes themselves. Although Belarus’s Criminal Code punishes crimes against humanity, as Lukashenka himself is implicated, impartial trials in the country are impossible while he is still in power. Other countries may investigate specific atrocities in Belarus under the universal jurisdiction principle. Universal jurisdiction greenlights investigations into the most serious crimes regardless of where they are perpetrated. German, Swedish and French proceedings on Syria are illustrative examples of this. Protesters may also file individual complaints of abuse to UN bodies under the protocols of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The European Court of Human Rights is not an option for the protesters because Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe.

As the UN mechanisms are yet to be triggered and there has not yet been any talk of universal jurisdiction proceedings, the question of recourse to the ICC remains. But as Belarus is not party to the Rome Statute, the only way to trigger the Court’s jurisdiction is a referral by the UN Security Council (UNSC). Even though it would be vetoed by Russia –  and, almost certainly, China – it could be worth pursuing.

The importance of symbolism

So far, the UNSC has referred to the ICC two situations in non-party states – Sudan and Libya. But for cases that do not end up being referred to the Court, the UNSC debates are as significant for what they manage to agree upon as they are for what they do not. Regarding Belarus, two impeded UNSC accountability initiatives are relevant: on Syria and MH17.

In 2014, Russia and China vetoed the referral of cases of violence in Syria to the ICC. In 2015, Russia was the only country to block the creation by the UNSC of a special tribunal to investigate Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, downed by a Russian missile over war-affected eastern Ukraine. In both cases, the vetoes delayed justice, but they did not prevent it. For Syria, special independent mechanisms to collect evidence for adjudication were developed. Although justice has yet to be done, except in states like Germany, the evidence is ready for any future court. For MH17, a proceeding at a domestic Dutch court became an alternative. Parallel to that, new evidence of Russia’s role in both Syria and the downing of MH17 emerged - contextualising its UNSC vetoes.

Russia’s stakes in the Belarusian elections are probably even higher: the victory of democracy in Belarus will deprive it of one of its closest and most dependent post-Soviet allies.

Even if Russia destroys any chance of Belarusian citizens using the ICC, the attempted ICC-Belarus discussion will not have been in vain. Russia’s opposition to the respective UNSC resolution would be a self-defeating validation of Lukashenka’s atrocities against his own people, unashamedly restated at one of the world’s top diplomatic negotiation tables. Similar to Syria and MH17, the UNSC would reconfirm its self-imposed impotency to defend basic human rights amid political conjuncture. This would bring more attention to the issue and catalyse action through other platforms, including the discussions across UN bodies and the consideration of Belarusians’ individual complaints of abuse, and could lead to tougher sanctions. It could also further make the case for universal jurisdiction proceedings in other countries.

Supporting civil society

Belarusian civil society will need stronger support from democratic governments and human rights organizations in reporting and documenting the crimes. Other countries, neighbouring states in particular, should be ready to welcome Belarusian protesters through refugee schemes, so they are able to continue their activities from abroad.

When nationwide strikes enveloped Belarus, singers from the Minsk Opera supported protesters by singing Va, pensiero, the famed chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco – and a symbol of united Italy’s revival. The people of Belarus also want to live in a democratic state "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high". And they deserve all the support they can get. The inevitable fall of Lukashenka’s regime might take time but it should not take more lives.

Kateryna Busol, Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.

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