When Roman Protasevich realised his flight from Greece to Lithuania was being diverted to Minsk last Sunday, witnesses said the Belarusian dissident journalist became “super scared”. He was afraid he would face the death penalty.
A day later, in a video recording shown on Belarusian state television, he acknowledged playing a role in coordinating anti-government protests last year, comments his allies said were made under duress.
Western countries have widely condemned the incident, in which Belarusian authorities, citing what was a false bomb alert, scrambled a warplane to intercept the Ryanair flight Protasevich was on. The European Union is preparing new sanctions on Belarus and officials are exploring ways to ban Belarusian airlines from EU skies.
But one goal appears already to have been achieved for the authorities in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. The incident has demonstrated their ability and commitment to reach domestic opponents even when they are based abroad. It is something autocratic and authoritarian leaders have been doing elsewhere in the world.
The attempted poisoning of a former Russian spy in the English city of Salisbury in 2018, China’s measures against the Uighur minority and crackdowns in countries such as Ethiopia, Syria and Myanmar have shown the ability of leaders and states to control and coerce with relative impunity.
In some cases, pro-democracy activists and opposition leaders have been detained and threatened. Even those based abroad have faced intimidation. In other cases, ethnic groups and specific areas have been targeted. Though some countries have had sanctions imposed on them, repression has continued.
Western states have faced accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency in their response, imposing sanctions on some countries but taking relatively little action against Saudi Arabia over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, or against the United Arab Emirates over its detention and treatment of dissenters.
This decade is shaping to be one where human rights crackdowns have little, if any, genuine consequence. Myanmar continues to be backed by China as it inflicts what some critics refer to as “genocide” on its Rohingya minority. Myanmar denies systematic persecution of the Rohingya. Though Ethiopia has been criticised over a crackdown on the Tigray region, it faces new allegations of rights abuses, which it has denied.
The world appears to be facing an attempt to roll back decades of international law and demonstrate that authoritarian governments have the ability – and they would say the right – to take whatever action they wish within their borders, regardless of any international outcry.
HOW SHOULD THE WEST RESPOND?
In the case of the plane incident in Belarus, the response from European nations in particular has been rapid. Foreign airlines have begun to avoid Belarusian airspace and Belarusian aircraft face airspace restrictions in some European countries. Belarus already faces EU sanctions and more are likely to follow, but few expect it to bow to demands to release people who Western countries regard as political prisoners.
Lukashenko has defended his country’s actions. In a speech to the Belarusian parliament on Wednesday, he accused the West of hypocrisy and waging a “hybrid war” against him.
Russia has denied any involvement in the incident, but the incident in Belarus has highlighted tensions in Russia’s relations with the West. Moscow is an important financial and political backer of Belarus and is wary of protests in Belarus that could encourage Kremlin opponents in Russia.
Last year, Moscow accused Washington of trying to foment a revolution in Belarus. On Thursday, Russia denied access to its airspace for several planes that had avoided Belarus and regards its ally as a buffer against the EU and NATO.
Russia has also flexed its muscles repeatedly in recent years, at one point mobilising tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine this year, seven years after it annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has accused the Kremlin of trying to kill him, a charge that Moscow denies. Moscow also denies accusations of involvement in or failing to prevent cyber attacks launched from within its territory.
The White House has said it does not believe Russia played a role in the plane incident in Belarus. When it comes to Russia, the Western powers have often been divided over how to respond.
Calls for punishment of what the West sees as Russian aggression by halting construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will take Russian natural gas to Germany without passing through Ukraine, have not been answered. The United States has increasingly signalled it doubts it will be able to stop the project, given wider European and particularly German support.
There are also differences of approach among Western countries over China. Most Western countries have expressed outrage over police treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and the crackdown on the Uighurs, but some countries, including Germany, make clear they see Beijing as a partner as well as an emerging rival.
As long as those dynamics do not change, the human rights situation is likely to keep deteriorating in autocratic and authoritarian countries. This is likely to increase tension with the West but the Western powers’ ability to agree on what action to take to reverse the trend remains unclear.