Explainer: Elections in Belarus, an internet blackout, and human rights

August 12, 2020

On Sunday, the country of Belarus held a national election where President Alexander Lukashenko won in a landslide victory, claiming an implausible 80% of the vote. Over the last few days, the nation has experienced mass protests over the controversial election, and the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has fled to neighboring Lithuania for safety. Tikhanovskaya became the opposition candidate after her husband Siarhei Tsikhanousk was jailed by the Lukashenko regime.

Tikhanovskaya gained mass support with younger Belarusians by utilizing the power of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube to share her message and organize large rallies. In hopes of quelling protests and widespread unrest in the nation, which is especially high given the failure of the regime to slow down the spread of COVID-19, Lukashenko’s regime reportedly shut down the internet, which allows dissidents to connect with each other and the outside world.

Where is Belarus, and what happened?

Belarus is a country in eastern Europe, bordered by Russia and Poland. Lukashenko has served as president of the country for over 26 years. His reign began in 1994. The self-described authoritarian leader continued many of the former Soviet Union’s policies such as state ownership of large segments of the economy. Described as “Europe’s last dictator,” Luckashenko has led the country to commit massive human rights violations and has a track record of voter suppression and fraud, which is often seen as the means to retain power over the people of Belarus.

A presidential election took place on Sunday in Belarus, but many outside observers have called the election a sham and an effort to allow Lukashenko to remain unchallenged as an authoritarian president. The Economist describes the lead-up to the election by saying, “prominent opposition figures were jailed or chased out of the country, most independent observers were barred, foreign media harassed, and opinion polls banned.”

The internet shutdown that began on Sunday has continued throughout this week. Despite the Belarusian government’s denial of a state-sanctioned shutdown, it is widely assumed that Lukashenko’s government instituted the complete shutdown to internet connectivity throughout the country, including the use of land-line phones. In response to the official government release claiming an outside attack on the internet infrastructure, WIRED reported that Alp Toker, director of the nonpartisan connectivity tracking group NetBlocks, said “there’s no indication of a DDoS attack. It can’t be ruled out, but there’s no external sign of it that we see.” Netblocks tweeted on Sunday of the initial connectivity issues, which ultimately lead to a complete blackout in Belarus. 

Nationwide protests broke out in response to the rigged election and internet blackout. Mainly focused in the capital city of Minsk, the country’s leadership has mobilized and deployed police units and military troops to quell the unrest. Lukashenko claimed Monday that the mass protests were brought on by foreign interference and that he would put down the opposition rallies. In response to Lukashenko’s supposed landslide victory, Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia both quickly endorsed the results even as opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, continues to claim that she is the rightful winner of the election.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the election in Belarus was “not free or fair,” adding that the United States “strongly condemn(s) ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.”

How does this happen?

With so much of our daily lives and community tied to technology, especially the internet, it is no wonder that authoritarian regimes around the world would seek to leverage these tools to suppress dissidents and retain their power over their people. This digital authoritarianism was once contained to nations like Russia and China, which have extreme limits to the free flow of information and technologies their people can use. But many nations, including Iran most recently, have clamped down on the internet and other technologies in order to stamp out opposition and maintain power over their people.

The internet is essentially a massive network of various computers and servers swapping information. As the internet grew in prominence throughout the world, each country took different steps as they adopted this life-altering technology. Countries like China took a hands-on approach as they developed their internet system, building in complete control by the government which is commonly referred to as the ”Great Firewall of China.”

In the hopes of retaining control over the information that flows from and to their people, nations like Iran and Russia retrofitted their traditional private and decentralized systems, like those found in most Western democractic countries, with varying degrees of control over connectivity after the systems were designed. Wired reports that “Belarus has a fairly centralized internet infrastructure, making it relatively straightforward to pull the plug if you’ve laid the groundwork,” especially with state-owned companies controlling “both the mobile data network and the country’s interconnection points with the international internet.”

As I have previously written, one of the seemingly unintended and unseen consequences of this type of communication ban in Belarus is that information continues to flow even without the internet as people take to the streets and other means.

Why does this matter?

In a 2005 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, then U.S. Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, said that Belarus was one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny.” Under Lukashenko’s rule, the government of Belarus has been shown responsible for disappearance of opposition leaders, propaganda, election fraud, and persecution of many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), independent journalists, and national minorities.

Christians should be among the first to stand up against authoritarian regimes, proclaiming that every human life is valuable and that these freedoms are not the government’s to grant nor take away.

In the West, we’ve grown accustomed to various freedoms and often forget that there are millions of people worldwide living under the repressive hand of authoritarian regimes like that in Belarus. The internet is a powerful tool of communication that has allowed for the flourishing of humanity as well as the democratization of information in ways that the world has never seen before. But these same tools in the hands of authoritarian leaders have also opened the door to atrocities and violations of basic human rights that we could have never imagined.

According to a 2020 report from Freedom House, Belarus has an abysmal record of civil liberties, human rights, and internet freedom. While it may seem even foreign in the United States for these types of atrocities to be committed amidst political turmoil, it is very common in many places throughout the world for authoritarian regimes like China, Iran, and now Belarus to clamp down on dissidents and to deny basic human dignity to their people—all in hopes of retaining power and position over their citizens.

Christians should be among the first to stand up against authoritarian regimes, proclaiming that every human life is valuable and that these freedoms are not the government’s to grant nor take away. Every human being is created by God with certain inalienable rights and dignity as his image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-28). This is one of the many reasons that Christians engage in international diplomacy and foreign policy in hopes of standing against these regimes designed to exploit the weak and dehumanize our fellow image-bearers (Psalm 82:3). 

In a world where everything is tied to the internet in some capacity, a government should not have the power to institute a blackout at will in order to recentralize power and deny rights to its people. This power should also not be used in order to rig elections or jail opposition to retain ruling authority. While various details will likely still come out about the situation on the ground in Belarus, other authoritarian leaders throughout the world are watching to see how we respond to the abuses of power.

If left unchecked and undeterred, it is only sensible that these regimes will continue their blatant violations of human rights over the vulnerable and powerless, especially using technological means to weld their authoritarian control. Part of any international strategy for human rights must be countering these nations and regimes morally, as we call for accountability and freedom for all people around the world.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24