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Elena Tonkacheva: Fears of human rights defenders about the law on alternative service came true

12.11.2014  |  Society   |  Piotr Kuchta, EuroBelarus,  
Elena Tonkacheva: Fears of human rights defenders about the law on alternative service came true

Neglect of demands and suggestions introduced by the civil society led to the appropriate results, assumes Elena Tonkacheva, the head of the Legal Transformation Center “Lawtrend”.

Well, at the session on November 10 the deputies of the House of Representatives adopted the draft law “On alternative service” on first reading.

-It took no less than 5 years for the parliamentarians to fulfill direct constitutional instruction about the establishment the institute of alternative service, - told Elena Tonkacheva, the Chair of the Board of the Legal Transformation Center “Lawtrend in the interview with “EuroBelarus” Information Service. – It should be recalled that the elaboration and introduction of the draft law on alternative service before the Parliament happened only because civil society actors made this question a matter of publicity and marked their understanding of this draft law’s significance.

Elena Tonkacheva also recalls the situation when in 2010 the human rights fighters bumped into a series of cases when young people who asked for alternative service because of their religious beliefs were persecuted and never managed to fulfill this right.

- The cases were famous; the community couldn’t but notice them, and, accordingly, it started to work actively demanding the lawmakers and state bodies to put efforts to establish an institute of alternative service. In 2010 the Constitutional Court reacted to the actions of the society. It supported civic organizations and drew the attention of the lawmakers to the fact that this long-lasting deficiency in the legislation infringes upon the constitutional law and violates the rights of the Belarusan citizens.

According to Elena Tonkacheva, “the period when civil society organizations and state bodies interacted on the issue of alternative service ended in the unanimous victory of civil society organizations; the head of the state voiced the requirement to elaborate the law on alternative service, which, basically, was the direct order to start the elaboration of the draft law”.

The head of “Lawtrend” defines the second period as “the stage of quiet sabotaging the common work on the content of the draft law by parliamentarians and state bodies”.

- It was the period when civil society organizations had lots of suggestions and readiness to work on the law together with the Commissions established by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection. Civil society organizations asked to include them into the Commission, moreover, we confirmed our expert competences, our possibilities to communicate with the foreign experts and specialists in the sphere of legal relations. In result, none of the civil society organizations was invited to teamwork. State bodies were working on the draft law independently and privately, which decreased the possibility of civil society organizations to affect the content of the document.

Elena Tonkacheva emphasized that civil society organizations used every opportunity they had: “we prepared our own expert conclusion, drew up our list of main questions the concept of the draft law had to answer”. Besides, “we tried to influence the content of the draft law by means of media, large international conference in Minsk, where leading European experts were involved, by publishing a large volume with main modern approaches to regulation of alternative service”.

- The next part of the “quiet” non-cooperation by the state bodies was to make the almost completed draft law restricted. I.e. we retained our positions and were promoting them, but officially we couldn’t get the text for the debate. We still had several doubts. First, the alternative service has to be perceived in the society as absolutely worthy and respected. Secondly, the period of alternative service has to correspond to the period of military service or insignificantly surpass this period. Thirdly, all citizens should have a possibility for alternative service because of their beliefs and opinions, not only for religious reasons. Fourthly, clear transparent and apprehensible system of management in the institute of alternative service is required.

Elena Tonkacheva underlines social function of the institute of alternative service as extremely important.

- Modern alternative service provides young people with possibility to choose what socially important spheres they would prefer to do their civic duty: medical institutions, forestry, post offices or any other social positions, which, on the one hand, are not very busy with labor market, and on the other – to pack them and provide high-quality services to the population surely is the state’s responsibility.

The final law didn’t justify the hopes of the civil society organizations.

- All our fears came true: the law on alternative service adopted in first reading offers alternative service only for religious purposes and this has yet to be proved. How will this process happen and how the decision will be made remains unclear. We have been criticizing the former project for the suggested period of service – 30 months for citizens without higher education, 20 months for those with higher education, whereas the established period of alternative service – 36 and 24 months accordingly – considerably exceed the period of military service, which is non-typical for how alternative service is arranged, including the arrangement of it in the countries of our region. Let me note that the system of management of alternative service is very unclear: it is not some integrated focal management, let alone popularization of this institute. Well, we should note quite good tendency: the adopted law leaves the right to get distance learning while performing alternative service. But on the whole, the document is adopted without due discussion with the society. Unfortunately, we can’t recall any commentaries of the parliamentarians addressed to the society on different stages of discussion.

Elena Tonkacheva emphasizes “extreme weakness of the institute of citizen and civil society organizations participation during the whole process of rule-making; neglect by the current parliamentarians and lawmakers everything that the notion “institute of citizen participation in discussion and elaboration of normative acts” requires”.

- In this situation we talk about the law that directly affects the rights and interests of young citizens. I am convinced that such kinds of documents are to be discussed with the society first in order to reach trust between the society and the state bodies, as well as to respect the decisions made by the state bodies. We will still see how the law works in practice. I believe that for human rights organizations and for youth organizations it is large and minute piece of work – from 3 up to 10 years. We need very accurate and systematic monitoring, we need to constantly check how all this works. We should try to have a dialog with those who will organize the system of alternative service; we should try to change the content of the law together with law enforcement officials or without them.

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