MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE.
Just a reminder that today’s session is on the record. And with that, let’s get started. Ambassador Carpenter, thanks so much for joining us again here at the Brussels Media Hub. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Great, thanks so much, and thanks to everybody for joining us today.
Today in the OSCE’s Permanent Council we were briefed on the Moscow Mechanism report prepared by Rapporteur Dr. Hervé Ascensio on the accelerating decline of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Belarus. It paints a sobering picture. There are currently at least 1,486 political prisoners in Belarus. Legislation has been adopted over the last couple of years that is so broadly interpreted that it can be used to suppress virtually any form of opposition. Anecdotal reporting suggests that not only are people arrested and jailed for posting dissenting views on social media, but citizens are arrested merely for accessing information from reputable sources on their devices. People have reportedly been arrested merely for speaking Belarusian, as this is seen as a form of protest. Such a degree of repression appears aimed at eliminating civil society and independent voices altogether.
Only a few years ago, we all saw images of hundreds of thousands of Belarusians peacefully marching in the streets to protest the Lukashenka regime’s falsification of the August 2020 presidential election. The regime has now taken revenge against its own people, as Belarusians are routinely prosecuted for their role in these demonstrations. Earlier this week, Belarusian blogger Nikolai Klimovich died in prison near Vitebsk after being denied medication for his heart condition. He was accused of publishing a satirical cartoon of Aleksandr Lukashenka on social media.
In the OSCE, Belarus frequently likes to claim that its internal affairs are nobody else’s business, but the entire foundation of OSCE principles and commitments that began with the Helsinki Final Act is based on the explicit recognition that human rights conditions inside a country are of concern to all of the OSCE’s participating states and that every one of our countries should be held accountable for those commitments.
That’s what today’s Moscow Mechanism report on Belarus is all about. It’s about documenting abuses so there can be accountability.
Dr. Ascensio’s compelling report found systemic human rights abuses and violations occurring on a regular basis, including the regular use of torture against detainees; inhuman and degrading prison conditions; impunity for abuses and violations; and the lack of an independent judiciary or fair trials. Such conditions were reported as being most severe for political prisoners, many of whom are unable to obtain basic medical care.
Taking a page from the Kremlin’s propaganda, the report also notes Belarus tried to repress dissenting ideas and the opposition movement by falsely equating them Nazism or fascism. This is clearly an indication of how afraid the regime is of any criticism. The recent so-called “constitutional reforms” – and that’s in quotes – put obligations on parents to prepare their children for, quote/unquote, “socially useful work” and penalizes their failure to do so with the threat of taking away their children.
Furthermore, the May 24th, 2021, Law on Mass Events prohibits journalists from reporting on unauthorized demonstrations and treats them as participants. The report notes that these legislative changes provide the government an unprecedented arsenal of legislation designed to prevent any form of opposition or, more simply, any alternative.
So for those suspected of holding independent views, the report notes that the police used forceful methods to enter their homes and used threats of sexual violence or the loss of parental custody to force people to provide passwords to their phones. These illegal searches and subsequent arrests and detention appear to be part of Lukashenka’s stated goal of completely purging or effectively eliminating an independent civil society.
As I mentioned already, the Lukashenka regime inflicts barbaric conditions of detention on Belarusian dissidents and even forces them to wear a distinctive sign in prison. Take the case of Viktar Babaryka, a former presidential candidate whose current location remains unknown after he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery after showing signs of being beaten in an isolation cell. Or take the sentencing last week of three NEXTA media outlet creators and editors – Roman Protasevich, Stepan Putilo, and Yan Rudzik – who received from eight to 20 years imprisonment simply for doing their journalistic work.
We can also – sorry, excuse me. Who can also forget the brazen violation of international law and aviation safety when Belarusian authorities diverted a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius in 2021 for the sole purpose of arresting Protasevich and his companion, Sofia Sapega. This is what Belarus has come to today.
The report’s recommendations call for immediately releasing political prisoners, ensuring decent conditions of detention, and the immediate provision of medical care for all detainees, respect for fair trial guarantees and other applicable legal protections, and upholding Belarus’s own constitution by ensuring that Belarus, quote, “shall exclude acts of military aggression against other States from its territory,” end quote – something that, obviously, Belarus has failed to do.
So let me conclude before turning to your questions by saying that for a proud country that suffered so much during the campaigns of World War II and under Soviet rule, and for a society that so bravely expressed its national identity and civic consciousness in recent years, it is just heartbreaking to see how ordinary citizens have been so thoroughly repressed by the Belarusian police state. We call for accountability for all those who abused or who have – excuse me, who have abused the human rights of their fellow citizens.
And with that, I’m happy to take questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. Our first question, why don’t we go to a live question: Marina Jakubowskaja. Marina, please go ahead. Marina, can you hear us?
MODERATOR: Yes, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, uh-huh, thank you. Hello, Mr. Carpenter. My question is: what exactly in practice can be done just now to set free the political prisoners in Belarus or at least to make easier the conditions of their detention? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, thanks for the question. This is obviously critical and a core component of the Moscow Mechanism report that came out today, is the condition under which political prisoners are being kept in detention in Belarus. Obviously we have called for their immediate release. That’s something that we have done for a long time. But I think what’s crucial here is to ensure that we demand accountability and that we put in place the mechanisms to ensure that there will be accountability for those who are detaining and involved in the false and flagrantly abused judicial process that has resulted in their detention.
I will underscore the fact that in today’s day and age, with advanced technologies and facial recognition software and all kinds of other capabilities that didn’t exist just a couple decades ago, there are means to be able to find out who is responsible for abusing the human rights of other people – in this case of political prisoners – and to pursue justice over time. It is critical that we document each and every case where prisoners are illegally detained – where they are detained for their political views, for expressing their opinions, for expressing independent voices and dissent – standing with them, continuing to expose what’s happening in Belarus, and then ensuring that when the day comes, there is indeed accountability.
I know it’s going to be difficult, but this is something that we believe in very, very firmly, and I do believe that one day there will be accountability for these crimes.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Let’s go ahead to another live question: Alex Raufoglu. Alex, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, John, thank you so much for doing this, and Ambassador, thank you for your time. Staying on that line, I appreciate your office sending your response to the report in advance. The line that stuck with me is that you said the Lukashenka regime has descended even further into pariah status. Yet we are talking about an OSCE member. I know you have heard us asking this before on different occasions, but how do you connect those dots that a pariah state is still a member of an organization that takes care of European security?
And just another question. We are also seeing other OSCE members, namely Azerbaijan and others, are still flirting with Lukashenka, welcoming him in their capitals. Are you prepared to appeal to them and tell them that this is not a time for kumbaya hand-holding, but it’s time for some very aggressive diplomacy and cooperation against this sort of human rights violations? Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Yeah. So with respect to your latter question, absolutely: this is a time to make clear to all of our partners that we need to stand by the core values that are represented in the Helsinki Final Act. No one should be flirting or meeting with members of the Lukashenka regime. It’s just absolutely unacceptable for a country that is engaged in this degree of repression, not to mention the fact that it is a co-aggressor and has facilitated Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. And we tell that across the board to all of our allies and partners, and obviously there are many, many countries – there were 38 invoking participating states in the OSCE – who have clearly, clearly condemned what the Lukashenka regime is doing. And so we do believe that the vast majority of states in the international system view Belarus as a pariah.
That said, Belarus does remain a participating state in the OSCE, as does Russia. As I think I’ve said before, I am not prepared to defend their continued participation in the OSCE. Look, both of these states have done things which go beyond any sort of – I mean far beyond, so far beyond that there is – it’s hard to even speak of good standing in any organization. I mean, they are transgressing absolutely every fundamental principle upon which this organization is based.
That being said, it is clear that there is no mechanism in the OSCE to expel any participating state. That is how the OSCE was designed. Like the UN, it’s an inclusive organization that has every country encompassed within a certain region – in this case, Europe and Eurasia and parts of North America – and there just simply is not a mechanism for doing that. We believe it is more effective at the moment, rather than trying to change the rules of the organization for which there is also no clear template, to focus on isolating Russia and Belarus. Hence this Moscow Mechanism report. Hence the continued denunciation of the Lukashenka regime in the Permanent Council week after week after week. And that will continue.
There is no country that is defending what Lukashenka is doing inside Belarus, and so we think it’s important that they hear from the international community what we think about their repression and the fact that there will be consequences both in terms of sanctions, in terms of accountability, in terms of Belarus’s future and how they integrate into the world economy. There are long-term repercussions for this degree of repression and attempts to eliminate civil society.
So that’s sort of where we are today. Again, I am not defending – here to defend their membership in the OSCE. It’s a reality that they’re a member, and so as a result we work with our allies and partners to isolate them.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to a submitted question now from Panyi Szabolcs from Direkt36 in Hungary: “Hungary’s government has been keeping close ties with the Lukashenka regime, including regular high-level visits as well as handing out thousands of Schengen visas per year to allegedly pro-regime individuals. What is your view of Hungary’s behavior, and how can you make sure that the Orbán government is not undermining joint U.S. and EU efforts?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Okay. Well, thanks. As I said before, the United States along with our allies and partners has continually worked to ensure that the Kremlin and its enablers, including the complicit Lukashenka regime in Belarus, pay a severe economic and diplomatic price for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. And with our allies and partners, we’ve taken actions that target the financial networks and assets of both the Kremlin’s and the Lukashenka regime’s enabling elites.
As our ambassador in Budapest has said, my friend David Pressman, Hungary has reached an important moment in determining its future path. As Russia’s unjustifiable war rages next door and as Belarus continues to assist in Moscow’s aggression, the time is now for a stronger relationship between Hungary and its transatlantic allies and partners.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go to another submitted question: Maksim Hacak from Belsat. He asks, essentially, “Why did it take so long after 2020 to launch the Moscow Mechanism?” And he also asks, “The Lukashenka regime has already stated that they will ignore the report and all the recommendations. Will there be any sanctions or restrictions in response?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: So it actually did not take very long because we did a previous Moscow Mechanism report on Belarus after the violence that followed the fraudulent 2020 election. So we did seek to document and expose all of the repression that happened in the aftermath of that fraudulent election as hundreds of thousands of brave Belarusians came out into the street to protest what they viewed as an illegitimate election and to demand that their voices be heard. And as you know, there was violence, there were detentions that followed from those demonstrations. They were all-encompassing in every part of Belarus, from Minsk to all of the various towns and cities across the country. And so we did invoke the Moscow Mechanism already once, and a very thorough report was produced by Professor Benedek of Austria.
We decided this time around to do another Moscow Mechanism invocation to update the international community, all of our allies and partners around the world, on the fact that this repression is deepening. We did not want to stay silent. There were in fact calls from the leader of Belarusian democratic forces Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to use the Moscow Mechanism again, and we decided together with 37 other participating states that this is something that needed to happen, that we needed to continue to shine a light on the horrible conditions of detention, the torture, mistreatment, and other things that are happening inside of Belarus. And that’s why we did this.
As far as the consequences, as I said already, we are going to be pursuing accountability for violations and abuses of human rights inside Belarus, and we will also be pursuing together with our allies and partners restrictive measures: sanctions, export controls, and other types of consequences that will make clear to the Lukashenka regime that this degree of repression, that this effort to eliminate independent voices and civil society in Belarus will not pay off for them.
Now, yes, of course Lukashenka may have meetings here and there with some other world leaders, especially with Vladimir Putin. That appears to be his favorite person to meet with. And we note that Russia has stationed quite a few troops in Belarus. But despite that, the vast majority of the international community, at least within the OSCE where I sit, is clear that what is happening in Belarus right now is intolerable and that there will be consequences.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We have one more submitted question from Milos Rudovic. He asks, “Montenegro will hold early parliamentarian elections on June 11th. Do you expect Russian malign influence in these elections? If yes, in what way? And also, do you think the OSCE will be paying special attention to these elections?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, thank you for the question, Milos. The OSCE always pays attention to elections. The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is the world’s premier election-monitoring organization and has incredible talent and expertise in this area, and will deploy to observe these elections, as it does for most elections in the OSCE region.
So look, as far as malign influence is concerned, we will be paying attention to see whether Russia or other actors engage in malign influence in Montenegro. I will note that there is a pattern of Russia engaging in malign influence in the past, including in 2016 around the election that happened in the fall when there was evidence – strong, credible evidence – of a plot. Fortunately, it was unearthed and it was averted before it could go forward in Montenegro to interfere with the democratic process there.
So look, the Western Balkans is a region that is rife with disinformation coming from outside groups, primarily Russia. There could be some malign influence from the PRC as well, but mostly I think we’ve seen it in the past from Russia. And so we’ll be watching very carefully.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We actually have one more question from Kristinia Zeleniuk from a Ukrainian station. And you covered some of this but maybe it’s a good chance to summarize, sir. She asks, “How do you – what do you think the chances are of bringing the Lukashenka regime to justice for facilitating Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, look, it’s a good question. Whenever you talk about the chances, I mean, it’s hard to prognosticate into the future, right? So it’s hard for me to answer that question directly. But what I’ll say is this: many countries in the international community are vested in ensuring that accountability processes are in place. The U.S. has undertaken, for example, unprecedented cooperation with the International Criminal Court to support their efforts at accountability. We have also invested heavily in building capacity within the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office to address their ability to pursue accountability. And we are working at establishing an internationalized court that could look at the crime of aggression. And there are various other mechanisms as well; there are countries that can use their universal jurisdiction within their courts to hold accountable those who are involved either in Belarus or Russia for this war of aggression against Ukraine.
So we’re going to pursue every angle that we can, and I would just say that there are some people who will speculate that perhaps it is likely or unlikely that such and such individual will ever face justice. But the reality is that if you look at previous mass atrocities – and that is what we are currently witnessing in Ukraine; it’s mass atrocities – you will see that the perpetrators of those mass atrocities thought in many cases that there would be impunity and that they would not be prosecuted. And in many cases they’ve been proven wrong and they have seen the inside of a courtroom and there has been a process.
This depends on the will of the international community, and it also depends on events on the ground (inaudible) war in Ukraine, and we need to see it at all levels of the chain of command. This cannot be just simply going after (inaudible).
MODERATOR: I think, unfortunately, we lost – Ambassador, are you still there?
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: (Inaudible) expect this. And certainly I know that my government is working very diligently and is contributing resources to ensure that there is accountability.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this call today. Thank you all for your questions, and Ambassador Carpenter, thanks as always for joining us. Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We would also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us again in the near future for another press briefing. This ends today’s session.
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