A matter of life and death

Minsk hosts Death Penalty: Transcending the Divide international conference, organized by UN Office in partnership with the Foreign Ministry, with support from British Embassy
The conference featured the European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, and Andrea Rigoni, of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, alongside various media representatives. Although this was the first event of its kind in Minsk, it is part of a trend in strengthening Belarus’ dialogue with the European Union.

As the Deputy Foreign Minister, Valentin Rybakov, said at the conference opening, our country remains open to discussion of any topic, including acute human rights issues, such as the death penalty. Meanwhile, all problems should be solved via dialogue, rather than confrontation, taking into consideration our country’s national features. This has long been our foreign political credo and remains unchanged. As Mr. Rybakov underlined, most Belarusians supported the preservation of the death penalty during a referendum 20 years ago. “We cannot and will not ignore this fact,” he asserted.

Stavros Lambrinidis, Andrea Rigoni and Sanaka Samarasinha (UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus) reported on existing EU and global approaches to the death penalty, stating that all 28 EU members have agreed to annul the death penalty and 150 states worldwide have stopped its use.

Nikolay Samoseiko, a deputy of the House of Representatives, is convinced that Belarus will also annul the death penalty at some point but upholds the decision of the referendum from two decades ago, when over 80 percent of citizens voted to preserve the ultimate punishment for crime. The vote reflected the criminal situation and economic situation observed at that time, when radical change was accompanied by growing violence. It was felt that lifting the death penalty could have encouraged destabilising behaviour, and public opinion was virtually unanimous.

Behind the scenes, debate continues regarding why the death penalty continues to be applied in the USA, upheld by public support in many states. There is no rational answer.

“I’m not embarrassed by the fact that we are the only state in Europe still applying the death penalty,” emphasizes Vladimir Senko, the Chairman of the Standing Committee for International Affairs and National Security of the Council of the Republic, although he admits that he believes Belarus will follow the European trend at some point. He adds, “I’m embarrassed and, even, outraged that a fence has been erected around us because of this, making the issue a subject of conditions and sanctions. Imposing intrusion under the flag of lifting the death penalty is far from true values which are advocated by the Council of Europe and the EU.”

Discussions held in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel gathered the entire diplomatic corps in Belarus, including the EU special representative, a representative of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and famous ‘new Europe’ diplomat Karel Schwarzenberg. 

As Mr. Samarasinha stressed, it’s vital for talks to continue beyond the formal environment, taking place in schools, universities, private apartments and public organisations. The expert community — as represented by figures from civil society, science and religion — have set in motion new thinking, but residents of Belarus must make the final decision. 

By Nina Romanova
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