How Western HR defenders make the affairs of the Belarusian regime more complicated.
Libereco - Partnership for Human Rights is an independent German-Swiss non-governmental organization dedicated to the protection of human rights in Belarus and Ukraine since 2009. The organization has repeatedly supported the protesting Belarusians, and called for increased sanctions against the Lukashenka regime.
CEO of the Libereco German branch Marco Fiber told the website Charter97.org how the organization complicates the life of the Belarusian regime.
- You are actively supporting Belarusian political prisoners, and your action “godfathers for political prisoners” is also very well known. What is the essence of this action?
Robin @mesarosch has become the godparent of the political prisoner Andrei Voinich, who is denied appropriate medical aid. @verenahubertz is now the godparent of Yauhen Afnahel and @DeborahDuering of Iryna Kastsiuchenka.#WeStandBYyou #StandBYBelarushttps://t.co/VtwFurQRex— Libereco – PHR (@LiberecoPHR) December 20, 2021
- The idea originated more than 10 years ago, when the regime suppressed the protests after the 2010 presidential elections. If I'm not mistaken, 7 out of 9 presidential candidates have been jailed. Then we came to an idea of how to support political prisoners. We asked Western politicians from national governments as well as the European Parliament to “adopt” one of the prisoners. It was quite successful. But then there were only a few political prisoners in Belarus, and not hundreds, as now.
A few months before the 2020 elections, when Siarhei Tsikhanouski was arrested, we started this campaign again. The idea of the action is to induce politicians to lobby for increased pressure on Belarus, as well as to actively contact the prisoner's lawyers and family members. Why are we doing this? First of all, to show the regime that the prisoners are not alone.
Moreover, we have learned in the past that this somehow prevents torture in prison, especially when the political prisoner is not a well-known opposition activist. Most of the political prisoners are completely ordinary Belarusians who were caught in the street and imprisoned for several years.
With this campaign, we want the Belarusian authorities to know that the public in other countries knows what is happening in their prisons. Another goal is to motivate the prisoners, to tell them that they are not alone. I believe that mental health in prison is also very important.
- For many years, the Belarusian regime has refused the head of Libereco Switzerland, Lars Bunger, to enter Belarus. In your opinion, to what extent is the Belarusian regime afraid of human rights organizations that tell people the truth about what is happening?
-I don’t know if “afraid” is the right word, but the regime is definitely annoyed. We are trying to complicate their affairs. Take, for example, our current campaign about Western companies that advertise on Belarusian state TV channels. I would say that from an economic point of view, this does not matter much, but it would be a big sign if large Western companies publicly announced that they no longer publish any commercials on Belarusian state television.
Just like Nivea and Skoda announced they would end their sponsorship of the IIHF championship in Minsk last year. I think Lukashenka was hurt because he is a big hockey fan. For most world leaders, this would not be a big problem, but it was unpleasant for Lukashenka. It's like someone took his teddy bear. Thus, many small actions are detrimental to the Belarusian regime. We, as NGOs, can only put pressure on Western companies and governments to do something. It takes time, but in the end there will be some result.
- Your investigation into Western companies buying advertisements on Belarusian state channels has caused a real resonance in the Belarusian media. Has it caught the attention of the media and politicians in Europe?
- We, more precisely, many assistants from Belarus, already in August began counting Western videos on Belarusian state television. They had to watch all these state TV channels in the evening for 3 hours a week, which was a kind of torture for them (laughs - edit.)
The result of this investigation went international. The Danish media focused on the Carlsberg brewery, the AP news agency covered US-based companies, the British media covered British companies, and many Swiss and German newspapers covered Swiss and German companies.
We just made a report, but we wanted to put direct pressure on the companies. For example, we contacted Henkel before the last report was published, but the company did not respond to us. Now, after being contacted by one of Germany's most influential newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Henkel has finally responded. They said they would not renew their contracts. Several companies have announced that they will also address this issue. However, our goal is for all Western companies to stop contacting Belarusian state television.
Some companies told us that it is not they who buy advertising, but some subsidiaries in Russia or Belarus. For us, this is just an excuse, because the parent company in Germany should just tell its partners to stop these contacts, because this is bad PR. Realistically speaking, the Belarusian market is not so important for them when compared to the German or American one. I do not believe that they want to lose their positive image in the world, therefore it is much easier to end these contacts, and this is what we tell them.
- Why is it still considered normal in democratic countries to have business with such regimes as the Lukashenka’s?
-Money still matters, the biggest problem is that it’s legal. Many companies say they have legal contracts and therefore have an obligation to honor them. Moreover, the conclusion of a new contract is legal. This is not like Iran, where the sanctions are really tough. Almost everything can be done in Belarus, except for weapons and other things.
Of course, companies do this because, from a legal point of view, nothing stands in their way. Therefore, we call for additional sanctions, especially regarding the ban on commercial advertising in the Belarusian state media, because the money goes directly to the regime and its propaganda.
- How to make these contacts as toxic as possible?
- Protests: in letters, on social media and on the streets. I know that the Belarusian association in Germany Razam is quite active in Hamburg and other cities in Germany. They held a lot of protests. If there are people who regularly come to the front doors of companies and demand such a simple thing to just stop showing advertisements on television, then the media is covering stories like this. They like it if there is a connection between the international problem, the dictatorship in Belarus, with their native region, with a local company. Therefore, the media demand statements from companies. In the end, different forces make them terminate contracts.
- Libereco made a strong statement following the hijacking of a Ryanair plane in the skies over Belarus. You then called for tough sanctions - including disconnection from SWIFT. Why is it important to react harshly to such antics of dictators?
- What we have seen in the recent months is a completely new level of violence. Yes, until August 2020 there was a dictatorship in Belarus, in the late 90s and early 2000s there were murders, but now it is a daily terror against its own population. Now there are already more than 900 officially recognized political prisoners, and their number continues to grow. We saw that people were imprisoned only because of the wrong Telegram channel on their phone, because of the white-red-white flags on the windows, or simply because they were on the street in the wrong place at the wrong time. People are sentenced to imprisonment for several years for minor things.
We saw Lukashenka's interview with the BBC, where he openly stated that the Belarusian authorities had tortured people. He must be held accountable for this. Everything that the European Union and other Western countries have done is still not enough, so disconnecting from SWIFT is one of our main requirements.
- In your opinion, what tools can the democratic world use to bring the victory of the Belarusian people closer?
- The main thing is to show solidarity: write letters to political prisoners. One of the easiest ways is to remove, I would say, the Soviet red-green flag and raise the white-red-white flag of independent and free Belarus during sports events, in front of hotels, etc. As in Riga, when the mayor of the city did it during the IIHF Championship. He showed the real flag of the Belarusian people. This may be a small thing, but it means a lot for Belarusians.
It is important to talk to Western politicians, family, neighbors, friends and everyone else in your country: people are living under a brutal dictatorship in a country just a few hundred kilometers away. Moreover, many Belarusians had to flee the country and start a new life in Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Germany. If you know a Belarusian, just talk to him or her, ask how you can help, show solidarity.