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Back from an unofficial visit to Belarus, UN Special Rapporteur “hopeful” for dialogue on human rights

GENEVA (12 July 2017) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus has spoken of his cautious hope for a dialogue to begin on the country’s rights situation, during an unofficial visit to the capital, Minsk.

Miklós Haraszti said although the government still did not recognize his mandate, it was encouraging that they had allowed him to attend a human rights seminar, which took place on July 6, alongside the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“I see the authorities’ tolerance as a sign of progress which may be the first step toward cooperation with the mandate created by the Human Rights Council in 2012,” Mr. Haraszti said.

The Special Rapporteur also cautiously welcomed the publication earlier this year of the Belarusian Government’s new action plan on human rights, based on select commitments that the Government had accepted in the framework of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review* process.

However, he noted: “Unfortunately, none of the 100 points within the plan tackles concerns regarding civic and political rights.”

Mr. Haraszti said change could come rapidly if the government wished.

“Paradoxically, the absolute command that the government has established over public life also allows it to bring change at a stroke of a pen,” he told the seminar on human rights.

“Many citizens and diplomats I have spoken to during my visit expressed their expectation that the Government would lift the menace of criminalization, allow human rights issues to be addressed, and spare the country from yet new cycles of disappointment and repression,” he noted.

The Special Rapporteur at the seminar highlighted two key areas of concern regarding human rights in Belarus. 

“The first is a systemic refusal of individual liberties - a permission-based regime of public life, which in effect criminalizes all Belarusians who act without prior authorization,” he said. “We also note a lack of independence of the judiciary, and ongoing use of the death penalty.

“The second area of concern is the cyclical recourse to mass repression, such as the crackdowns in December 2010 and March 2017, when the authorities actually criminalize citizens for using their civic and political rights.”

Mr. Haraszti thanked the organizer, Mr. Kent Härstedt, Vice-President of the Assembly and Head of the Swedish delegation, for facilitating his visit.

The seminar, unique in Belarus for its inclusiveness, was also attended by leading members of civil society including Mr. Ales Bialiatski of the still-unregistered Human Rights Centre Viasna, Mr. Andrei Bastunets of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and Mr. Aleh Hulak of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

The chairman of the country’s Parliamentary Commission on International Affairs, Mr. Valeri Varanetski, told the event that he and fellow MPs were prepared for further dialogue.  Mr. Haraszti welcomed their commitment, telling them he “very much hoped” the Commission would invite him back for a working visit.

Other politicians at the event included Ms. Tatsiana Karatkevich, a former presidential candidate from the Tell the Truth Movement, and Ms. Anna Kanopatskaya, one of the country’s only two opposition MPs, who represents the United Civic Party.

While in the country, the Special Rapporteur also participated in a forum organized by Belarusian human rights groups and the Civic Solidarity Platform; and attended the trial of human rights activist Mr. Oleg Volchek, who is accused of joining protests against a tax on the unemployed.

(*) The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is an examination of the human rights records of all UN Member States by other States, in order to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur. It allows each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. The UPR process reminds States of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Mr. Miklós Haraszti (Hungary) was designated as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. In the 70s, Mr. Haraszti was a founder of Hungary’ s human rights and free press movement, and in the 1990s he was a Member of the Hungarian Parliament. From 2004 to 2010, he served as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Since 2010, he has been a Professor at several universities teaching media democratisation.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: Belarus

For more information and media requests please contact Mr. Alexandre Girard (+41 22 917 9180 / agirard@ohchr.org) or write to sr-belarus@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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