The International Labour Conference has taken an unprecedented step to challenge Lukashenka’s denial of freedom of association.
The regime of the Belarus dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has isolated itself further. The International Labour Organization, which normally pursues a policy of consensus, dialogue and small steps, even in the most difficult situations, has run out of patience. From Geneva comes a clear message. Yesterday, the ILO adopted a resolution, under article 33 of its constitution, challenging Belarus’ continued disregard for workers’ rights and the arrest of countless trade unionists.
This is the first time in the more than 100-year history of the ILO that delegates to the International Labour Conference, representing governments, employers and trade unions, have taken such a step to stop violations of freedom of association. Until now, this procedure had only been used once—in 2000, against Myanmar, over its use of forced labour.
Article 33 tackles non-compliance with a report of an ILO commission of inquiry. Back in 2003, such a commission was established in relation to violations of trade-union rights in Belarus vis-à-vis ILO conventions 87 (freedom of association) and 98 (right to collective bargaining). Member states yesterday decided to take all possible and appropriate steps to ensure that Belarus implements the recommendations of that inquiry. This may involve sanctions but also support for those persecuted by the regime and their struggle for international workers’ rights.
With a strong majority of 301 to 54 votes ILO members voted in favour of the resolution, sending a powerful signal against the violation of fundamental labour standards. The international community has lost patience with the regime’s lies and half-truths.
Vital moral support
For two decades, Lukashenka has ignored ILO recommendations and demands. Repression has increased dramatically following the mass protests against the rigged 2020 election and the Russian war on Ukraine. More than 40 trade unionists have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. They are accused of ‘extremism’ and even ‘terrorism’—wild accusations with no basis in reality. Others only escaped detention by fleeing the country. All independent trade unions are banned.
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The ILO’s decision is both a condemnation of Lukashenka and an expression of international solidarity with trade unionists imprisoned for their convictions and involvement in public protest against his dictatorial rule. For the prisoners, this is vital moral support. Not being forgotten by the world gives them strength to maintain their physical and mental health while behind bars.
Unsurprisingly, a minority of governments, such as Russia, China, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe—themselves notorious for persecuting and imprisoning independent trade unionists—voted in favour of Lukashenka at the ILO and thus against the right to freedom of association. The number of supporters of the regime on the international stage is however limited.
Dependent on Russia
Since the rigged election, Belarus has become increasingly dependent on Russia. It has approved Russian attacks on Ukraine from Belarusian territory and lost another piece of national sovereignty with the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons. Economically, there is now almost total dependence on Russia. If Belarus were to seek to regain its national independence, it would have to try to create a certain distance from Russia and resume talks with the international community, instead of seeking the support of other dictators.
One way to do so would be to comply with the ILO’s demand to respect workers’ rights and release imprisoned trade unionists. The government in Minsk has however so far shown no sign of moving in this direction.
As long as Belarus does not shift, those who voted for an article-33 process must follow up on the Geneva resolution in their own countries. International resolutions remain empty words if they are not followed by concrete action at the national level.
Many states have already imposed economic sanctions on Belarus, which have so far increased its dependence on Russia rather than leading to any relenting by the regime. Further tightening of sanctions would increase pressure but run the risk of being counterproductive in the end.
Increasing the pressure
The ILO process should therefore not be limited to discussions about economic sanctions and bring forth a package of measures to increase international diplomatic pressure on Belarus, target regime officials, help imprisoned trade unionists and encourage and support all those forces that do not accept Lukashenka’s suppression of democracy and workers’ rights. What steps would be effective and feasible under current circumstances should be discussed as soon as possible by national governments, employers and trade unions, in consultation with the Belarusian unions in exile.
Such measures could include:
- annual parliamentary debates in which governments explain to members of parliament and the public what they have done and will continue to do to implement the ILO decision;
- an end to bilateral or multilateral co-operation with the regime in all areas of society, while supporting and co-operating with Belarusians who want to see their country free and democratic;
- personal sanctions against those judges, police, factory directors, ministers, KGB officers and so on involved in arrests and arbitrary sentences against trade unionists and the banning of independent unions;
- adoption of imprisoned trade unionists and their families by labour ministers from different countries, to express personally their international solidarity while supporting the families materially and demanding releases;
- opening of borders to persecuted trade unionists and non-bureaucratic recognition of them as political refugees, and
- financial support—openly and, if necessary, covertly—for trade union work in exile and in Belarus.
In view of the many current global crises, there is a danger the ILO resolution will quickly fall from the public spotlight and be forgotten. It will depend on the international trade-union movement to create again and again the necessary publicity—so that democratic governments act on what they raised their hands to support in Geneva.