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

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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 chair of research in technology ethics and creative director at ERLC. In his role as creative director, he oversees the communications team, including all creative design projects.  His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is a graduate … Read More