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International Scrutiny Increases for Belarus

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Protesters objecting to the flawed August presidential election and the government’s brutality, in march along the Independence Prospect during the “March of Unity” rally in Minsk, Belarus on Sunday, Sep. 6, 2020, Belarus.
© 2020 SIPA USA via AP

Internationally, pressure is increasing on Belarus, where for the past 41 days, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest alleged election fraud in the presidential vote and the ensuing violence against demonstrators by law enforcement.

On September 17, 17 participating countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced an independent expert investigation into torture and repression in Belarus. On September 18, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that sets in motion close UN human rights monitoring of the situation by the UN’s human rights chief, requesting that she provide an oral update by the end of 2020 and a report to the Human Rights Council by March 2021.

The outpouring started the night of the August 9 presidential election. In the first few days after the vote, riot police arrested nearly 7,000 protesters and bystanders and systematically beat and committed acts of torture against hundreds. Authorities arrested and deported dozens of journalists. They arrested or forced into exile most of the country’s political opposition leaders. They have also threatened to fire people from their jobs for protesting.

For a time, the number of arrests dropped, but now they are ticking up again. Police are detaining hundreds of people throughout the country, including students and prominent rights activists, grabbing them from home and work, accusing them of participating in past protests. On September 17, they arrested Maria Ryabkova, a human rights defender with Viasna, one of Belarus’s top human rights groups, who documented police torture in recent weeks.

In contrast, authorities have yet to launch a single criminal investigation into the well-documented cases of torture.

For weeks, the protests and crackdown have made headlines, with the latter drawing international condemnation. Hopefully, the recent moves by both the OSCE and the UN Human Rights Council show that international attention on Belarus will not only be sustained but increase.

These inquiries do not eliminate, but rather underscore Belarus’ own obligations to hold police accountable for beating, sexually abusing, and humiliating detained protesters and others. The inquiries will also help establish an authoritative, independent record of the abuses, and maintain the spotlight on Belarusian authorities’ conduct for months to come.

Importantly, the inquiries will also signal to those fighting for their rights in Belarus that they are not alone.


Mourning the Death of Feminist Icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen during a public appearance hosted by the Museum of the City of New York at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York, NY, December 15, 2018. 
© 2018 Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa via AP Images

My heart is broken. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is almost too much to process. Justice Ginsberg, the second woman appointed  to the US Supreme Court, was more than a feminist icon, she was a collective feminist grandmother to women, girls, non-binary people – to everyone who struggles to imagine themselves as having a powerful voice for change.

She trailblazed what it meant to be a lawyer who was a mom. A lawyer who fought for gender equality. A lawyer who was petite but unyielding. A lawyer who was a person first, with wit and compassion. With a heart so heavy, it’s impossible to articulate what she meant to women’s rights, to a movement that is global, that is growing, that is being squeezed and threatened.

Justice Ginsberg founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She held the unambiguous belief that: “Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.” She brought that belief to the bench – not as a political agenda, but as a constitutional agenda for equality and justice.

Her push for gender equality and for recognizing women’s rights as human rights was revolutionary when she began her career. It is heartbreaking that today gender equality has become politicized and framed as part of a radical agenda.

We should work to ensure that Justice Ginsberg’s replacement on the Supreme Court shares that same commitment to gender equality. It will require everyone who believes that women’s rights are human rights to raise their voice, no matter how petite, and to continue the fight for equality of all people.


Afghan Women Win Fight for Their Own Identity

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Delegates attend the last day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May 3, 2019.
© 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Afghanistan’s president has signed a new law that will, for the first time, include mothers’ names on their children’s birth certificates and identification cards. The law is a major victory for Afghan women’s rights activists, who for several years have campaigned for both parents to be named under the social media hashtag #WhereIsMyName.

The reform will have important real-life consequences, making it easier for women to obtain education, health care, and passports and other documentation for their children, and to travel with their children. It will be especially significant for women who are widowed, divorced, separated, or dealing with abusive partners.

It is also part of the important, if slow, cultural shift taking place in Afghanistan toward ending the erasure of women in Afghan society and overturning harmful ideas, like that women and girls should not be seen or spoken about. Denying women the right to be recognized on their children’s identification essentially gave state backing to the idea that children are the property of the father, and that women should not exist in public life. Women in Afghanistan still face enormous barriers to equity, including discriminatory laws, failure to enforce laws that should protect them, and discriminatory barriers to education and employment. The Afghan government has often failed to respect women’s rights, so government support for this law is encouraging.

This is also an important victory at a moment when Afghan women know that their rights could be sacrificed in the upcoming talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and that the 3 women on the 21-member government-backed negotiating team will be hard-pressed to ensure that a final agreement fully respects women’s rights.

The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan has been long and hard, and many Afghan women fear their rights could be rolled back in the negotiations. Despite changes since 2001 that have seen women gain more rights, discrimination against them remains severe and pervasive. This new law is a confidence boost and reminder of the many battles Afghan women’s rights activists have fought – and won – since 2001. One of their hardest battles is ahead of them, at the negotiating table; the Afghan government owes them its support there too.