Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus' opposition leaders, gestures to a crowd in Minsk Aug. 27.

The hidden key to a country’s liberation

From Belarus to Tunisia, people under dictatorship have shown they must act with dignity, not plead for it.

It was a scene out of a Cold War novel. On Monday, KGB agents in Minsk pushed Maria Kolesnikova, one of three women behind the pro-democracy protests in Belarus, into a car. Then the security agents drove her to a checkpoint at the border with Ukraine and tried to forcibly expel her. Instead, she tore up her passport, climbed out a car window, and walked back toward her own country with head high.

By clinging to her right as a citizen, Ms. Kolesnikova showed in action what she had been advising people during two months of protests in Belarus. Rather than plead for dignity from authorities, she acted on her inherent dignity. In fact, in helping organize the protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko after a rigged election Aug. 9, she has ensured protesters were inclusive, respectful, and peaceful.

“There has never been a plan other than reminding people of their own dignity,” she said. The result has been a civic awakening with demonstrators being largely leaderless and fearless.

In many countries, the key to either creating a democracy or improving one has been to recognize the dignity of all. Ms. Kolesnikova says the Lukashenko regime has shown “disrespect, humiliation, and intimidation” to the people. The best response, she says, is for Belarusians to act with freedom and dignity. “That can't be broken with police batons,” she says. Ms. Kolesnikova was detained again on Monday after her escape. Yet her example no doubt has left a mark in Belarus.

Reminders of this approach can be found in recently liberated countries. Each Jan. 14, Tunisia celebrates the “Dignity Revolution” in 2011 that ousted a dictator and led to democracy. Ukraine is building a “Dignity Revolution” museum in the capital Kyiv to honor its pro-democracy revolts in 2005 and 2014. In Sudan, where democracy is still a work in progress, the civilian leader, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, often justifies each new reform as preserving the “dignity of the Sudanese people.”

Neither government nor politicians can bestow dignity. Nor do social or material circumstances determine its expression. This point was made clear after World War II when all countries joined in signing a “universal” declaration that states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Dignity is also marked by an innate capacity to distinguish what is good. “Most people know in their innermost being that they have dignity and that this imposes upon others the duty of respect,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a former Supreme Court justice.

In many countries, a feeling of humiliation is commonly heard these days. Politicians often revel in stoking that feeling.  Yet when dignity kicks in, individuals can move entire countries. Belarus may be next to show how.

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