Aleh Hulak: If we don't understand that human rights make our lives better, they won't work

The original text in Russian is published at English translation made by

On 16 December 2022 Ekaterina Kouznetsova, an expert of the "Fifth Republic" project and international lawyer, met for an interview with human rights defender and chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Aleh Hulak. This conversation was the last for the Belarusian lawyer - on the same day Aleh Hulak unexpectedly passed away at the age of 56. In his last public interview he explains whether human rights can be a subject of political debate, whether they should become the basis of the philosophy of the new Belarus, and whether it is possible to build a healthy society in a country where the term “human rights” has become an invective.

E.K.: Let us start with the basic question. What is meant under “human rights”?

A.H.: A good question. “Human rights” is a rather multifaceted phenomenon that can be viewed from different angles. I would start from the beginning and say that “human rights” is a philosophy, a system of views on the relationship between a person and the state in which a person is more important than the state. Human rights are also a set of standards and legal rules adopted at the national and international levels. There is a well-established catalog of human rights and a well-established logic of approach of international institutions to what human rights are and how they should be understood. At present it is a sophisticated legal concept. “Human rights” is a system of values, which, in principle, is the same as philosophy.

It is important to say that human rights are intended to compensate for the weakness of a person in comparison with the state and to give him additional protection, so that in his relations with the state a person is more equal.

Over time, the concept of human rights has evolved and improved. While originally it was only about the range of freedoms that should not be infringed upon by the state, human rights are now understood, among other things, as a set of positive obligations of the state with respect to the individual so that he can fully exercise his rights. 


E.K.: In a situation where we are talking about a possible restart of the Constitution and the state, in a situation where the process of transit has not yet ended...

A.H.: I would say that it hasn't really begun yet...

E.K.: If you count from 1917, there was a big Soviet experiment. And there is an opinion that we are now within a period that will be referred to in future textbooks as the period of the Soviet Empire's collapse. It keeps collapsing and doesn't wreck all the way down…

A.H.: I agree with this.

E.K.: Should human rights be the foundation of the philosophy upon which the new state will be built? Because a state can be based on different ideas. For example, it is possible to build a state around a nation. To what extent can human rights as a philosophy win this race against nation-centered, state-centered constitutionalism?

A.H.: To my mind, there are diametrically different approaches: either a human-centered system, or a state-centered one, or, for example, in the version you have proposed, a nation-centered one. But in any case it is some idea that is bigger than an individual. And by and large, all models can be reduced to these two approaches. And I'm afraid that if we choose the approach - we certainly value the individual, but the interests of the state, the nation or some dominant group are more important - then it's just a matter of time [when human rights will start to be violated]. We see where this has led in Belarus and Russia.

Of course, a lot depends on the external framework. A state does not exist in a void; it is economically, politically and militarily bound to the surrounding states. But if the external circumstances permit, inside this system there is always a desire to bring the idea of a centrality of a state to its extreme and ultimately to the point of absurdity.

Therefore, understanding and knowing history, it is simply unwise and wrong to choose such [state-centric] models. And in this sense, in my opinion, there is no alternative to human rights, if it is a really thoughtful and serious approach (which, unfortunately, is not always the case).

Human rights today is a standard that cannot be circumvented. It is possible to cheat, to speculate on democracy and human rights, to play with concepts. This happens, especially if the controlling instruments and mechanisms do not work. But in principle, no state today can afford to ignore the idea of human rights as such at the start. The situation may change over time, but initially everyone plays on the fact that they are democrats and respect human rights. The question here is rather how to build the system in such a way that it is really based on the values of human rights and includes mechanisms that will allow to implement this idea reasonably.

E.K.: Then there is the question of whether human rights are an exception to the political process. Suppose right-wing libertarians can say that they do not need social and economic rights, including a guaranteed standard of living and the right of access to health care and so on. Are human rights really outside politics? Or can human rights be a matter of political debate? Where and how is this balance to be sought?

A.H.: First of all, we need to clarify that human rights are not just a set of standards, they are also common sense. In human rights there is no framework that does not allow you to take a step to the left or to the right. Human rights is just about having a goal to which we aspire. Yes, there is specificity in the realization of civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social and economic rights [which are seen as more flexible, the realization of which depends on the resources of the state], on the other. But even in relation to civil and political rights, I would not over-focus on their rigidity. In this case, too, it is primarily a question of meaning and procedures. And most importantly, it must all be discussed. In my opinion, the big mistake is that some people regard human rights as a religion where there is nothing to discuss. If we want human rights to work in society, they must be discussed and we must make the case for this approach.

Another element that legalist approaches to human rights overstate is that they are costly to implement. In my opinion, if we do not understand that human rights help us to live and make our lives better, then they will not work. That is why it is important to find forms and ways of exercising these rights that are understandable to everyone. It is necessary to argue and explain so that people understand that human rights are not just a tribute to a standard or a declaration. It is something that helps people live better both in terms of dignity and in terms of purely pragmatic interest. Because it's a question of protection and a guarantee of a normal life for a long period of time. So I think that human rights are beyond politics. They apply to any kind of politics, both left-wing and right-wing. Except, of course, for policies that deny human rights as a matter of principle. 


E.K.: There is an argument that the part of human rights that concerns the protection of minorities is alien to our values. Human rights are perceived as a Western construct that does not fit our mentality. What can you say to this?

A.H.: First of all, human rights are not about something we like, something that works by itself thanks to the support of the majority. Human rights are an add-on to democracy, which limits the majority. Human rights are a tool that helps to balance the individual with the larger system. And not only the state, but the majority, which may be in parliament or on the street, is also much stronger than the individual. Human rights are what protects the minority. And that may not always be liked. After all, even good things are not always liked. For human rights to work, society must have a certain level of development and a responsible understanding of what is good and what is bad. Conventionally speaking, medicine can be bitter and nasty, but it is needed. And so it is here. Even if we take the purely economic dimension, there are empirical concepts that diversity [respect for the rights of minorities] gives sustainability to business, gives better opportunities to earn money, and gives economic growth. And at the same time, it happens because one lives and works in a more pleasant environment where one's dignity is respected and there are opportunities for realization. That is, it is such a symbiosis, rather than the opposition of the individual and life in the collective. It does not destroy the values and rules of the collective. Of course, if the collective is not, say, completely savage. These ideas can be accepted if society is willing to make a responsible conscious choice. Because when we talk about rights, we consciously accept the concept that the state cannot control everything. And in this process, the role of responsible human behavior is much higher than in a totalitarian society where you will always be reminded of your responsibility from above. Public interest, public reason and public good play a role here. So, in my opinion, when someone says that human rights are destroying traditional values, it's just manipulation.

A simple example. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry joined the coalition "Group of Friends of the Family" within the framework of the UN. And who is there? Muslim and African countries and no Europeans. I am not mentioning this to say that anyone is better or worse. But it is obvious that our values do not coincide with those of Central Asian or African countries. But for some reason we defend these traditional values.

In the realization of human rights, the importance of common sense is much higher than is necessary, for example, in the functioning of a totalitarian system. We see this in our reality, when concepts are distorted, and meanings are perverted. The distortion of meaning is one of the pillars of an authoritarian system of government, because in such a system you have to manipulate all the time, while common sense prevents you from doing so.


E.K.: You mentioned how human rights are manipulated by the state. But we are assuming that the greater responsibility lies with the individuals themselves. What are the chances of building a normal society where there are generations that at first did not know how to stand up for their rights in the Soviet Union, and now live in an absolute mirror-world, where the mentioning of human rights is actually a dirty word. The model of normal civic education is completely absent in our country and has been replaced by patriotism education. Our government is crooked, our society is undereducated. What can we do about this?

A.H.: Good question. In those cases, I always recall a discussion with a [pro-state] Belarusian youth organization official on the Council of Europe platform. We were in the same delegation and got acquainted with the representatives of various structures of the Council of Europe, discussed different questions and understood how different our system is. For example, our local self-government is not the same as in Europe. And there are a lot of such nuances. And when we talked with this functionary later, he asked me whether our people are ready to live in a democratic society, referring to the fact that we do not have this experience. And I found nothing better to do than to answer a question with a question. For example, a man lives in the woods, and he has to go out to live in the city. How long does he have to live in the woods before he's ready to go out into the city? Five years, ten years? The more he lives in the forest, the less ready he is to go out into the city. That's the situation we're in right now. And the biggest problem, in my opinion, is that knowledge alone is not enough. You need skills and experience of acting in a democratic system, and no amount of teaching can replace that. This does not mean that we shouldn't teach. But it is important not only to encourage people to learn, to be responsible, and to understand their responsibility. A democratic system - and human rights as part of that system - is good because through discussion and debate, it tends to work reasonably. And it takes into account that every person has a dark side and a bright side. It is a system that is built on strengthening and utilizing the light side by making sure that there is no room for the dark side. And over time, this becomes a tradition that works on its own. And that's why there is no single model for all: in one society with certain habits and traditions something will work, and in another society it won't. But all of this can be thought through and tested in practice as part of the democratic process.

I understand how difficult the task of this transformation is, but there are no other options. Of course, it is possible to keep going in the direction in which we have been going. But we have long seen that this is a dead end and that there is no point in going on. So, in my opinion, the question is not which way to choose, but how to make sure that the path towards human rights and democracy was really effective and as fast as possible.


E.K.: How can human rights help when they are violated so massively and horribly today in a situation of war and repression?

A.H.: I agree that right now human rights do not help protect specific individuals, specific interests and specific institutions. This problem exists, of course. But then again, when a war breaks out, it is not so much human rights as humanitarian law that works. Human rights work in more or less normal situations in which there is common sense. But in any situation, human rights are very important for having a tool for understanding what is right and what is wrong. Human rights and law in principle allow us to maintain a value framework, because during such crises people tend to forget the causes of events. And everyone gets his or her own truth. I was offended, I offend; I was shot at, I shoot. The friend-or-foe distinction becomes more important than the good-bad distinction. And in this sense, the framework of human rights and law in principle is extremely important in order not to lose this [value] logic, even if it is not very applicable now. It's also important for the psychological aspects of people's survival, it's important for the future. Because there is a great temptation to see war as a process that will simply end. But it will not. The war will end, and something new will begin immediately. And the question is with what we will come to this new thing.

At the same time, we do live in a world where there is a rethinking of the fact that the methods used so far have not been effective. In this sense, the responsibility also lies with those who could have influenced this in a more correct and effective way, but instead gave reasons and opportunities to believe that human rights and principles of law could not be perceived as a binding framework of behavior. So there will still be mechanisms in the international community to hold those responsible accountable. If [international] mechanisms that were designed for a certain balance of power and interests and a certain format of understanding of international security do not work, then they will be reconsidered. Yes, unfortunately, this will not stop specific hostilities or specific repression right now. There is no such quick answer, but it will be necessary in the future anyway. So I will simply recall the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world," and "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.