21 August 2013
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination today completed its consideration of the combined eighteenth to nineteenth periodic reports of Belarus on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Presenting the report, Valentin Rybakov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that Belarus consistently taken measures to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. Its national constitution prohibited discrimination based on race, colour, ethnic origin, gender or religion, and the country’s laws regulated equality and non-discrimination in a number of areas. The rights of ethnic minorities were fully respected, and their language and culture could be studied in educational institutions across the country. Religious freedoms were respected, and more than 3,000 religious organizations were registered in the country. Statistical data showed a constant drop in crime motivated by ethnic and religious hatred. A recent census showed that vast majority of the inhabitants of Belarus did not attach important to ethnic background, which was a reflection of the high level of tolerance in Belarusian society.
During the interactive dialogue, the Committee commended Belarus on efforts undertaken to combat racial discrimination in a number of areas, as evidenced by the amendment of existing laws and the adoption of new legislation. However it was said that Belarus had come under scrutiny by the Human Rights Council, but much of that scrutiny was carried out from a distance, since the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus had not been allowed to visit the country. The United Nations had received reports about limitations to the freedom of the press, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and other human rights violations in Belarus. Experts also asked questions the situation of the Roma, the independence of the judiciary, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons, media and press freedom and the rights of human rights defenders, and the successful reduction in neo-Nazi aggression against Jews in recent years.
In concluding remarks, Jose A. Lindgren Alves, Country Rapporteur for Belarus, said that said that the tone of the dialogue had been very positive, and commended Belarus on its impressive initiatives to boost employment and education among members of the Roma community, and on offering school teaching in minority languages.
The Delegation of Belarus included representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Education, the Commission for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, and the Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 21 August, when it will begin its consideration of the combined sixteenth to twentieth periodic report of Jamaica (CERD/C/JAM/16-20).
The combined eighteenth to nineteenth combined periodic report of Belarus can be found here: CERD/C/BLR/18-19.
Presentation of the Report
VALENTIN RYBAKOV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, began the presentation by announcing that Belarus had withdrawn its reservation to Article 17 of the Convention and was now fully implementing the Convention. Belarus was party to many multilateral and bilateral treaties for the prevention of racial discrimination and the protection of minorities. The Constitution of Belarus prohibited discrimination based on race, colour, ethnic origin, gender and religion, and the country’s laws regulated equality and non-discrimination in a variety of fields. Almost 84 per cent of the inhabitants of the country were Belarusians, with the remaining 16 per cent comprising a large number of ethnic groups, including Russians (8.3 per cent), Poles (3.1 per cent), and Ukrainians (1.7 per cent). A recent census had revealed that the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Belarus did not attach important to ethnic background, which was a reflection of the high level of tolerance in Belarusian society.
The law on ethnic minorities prohibited forced determination and identification of national groups and direct or indirect limitation of the rights and freedoms of minorities or any attempts to assimilate minorities against their will. The freedom of development of all cultures in Belarus was also guaranteed by the law. Belarus had consistently taken measures to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination, and the legislative framework was monitored by international non-governmental organizations. As no information on ethnic background was included in identification cards, there was no discrimination in education, employment or in any other context where use of an identification card was required. The right to freedom of expression and religious conviction was also guaranteed by legislation. All labour migrants, regardless of gender, race, ethnic group, language, religious or political convictions, participation or non-participation in trade unions, age or place of residence, had an equal right to enter the territory of Belarus. All foreigners and permanent residents in Belarus had the same socio-economic rights enjoyed by Belarusian citizens.
The biannual Republican Festival of National Cultures of Belarus, the only festival of its kind in the world, brought together the culture and traditions of all ethnic groups living in Belarus. 112 public associations for national minorities had been established in the country and the State provided financial, legal, and methodological support to all those associations on an equal footing. In 2011 8,500 migrant workers had moved to Belarus. Representatives of all ethnic groups and religious backgrounds enjoyed freedom, regardless of the amount of time they spent in the country. The number of persons applying for refugee status was steadily increasing, as was the number of persons granted asylum. In 2012, 23 per cent of applicants were granted refugee status. Foreigners and stateless persons with refugee status, and all permanent residents in Belarus, enjoyed the same rights as citizens. The 2013 law on social services provided social provisions, such as financial assistance to associations that helped people in difficult situations, such as the victims of trafficking.
Belarus’ policy in the area of religion was to promote peace and harmony by encouraging interaction between religious organizations. More than 3,000 religious organizations had been registered in the country. A recent survey had shown that 93 per cent of the population felt that inter-religious relations in Belarus were peaceful and that 82 per cent were satisfied with the places of worship available in the country. Statistical data showed a constant drop in crime motivated by ethnic and religious hatred. In a recent survey only four per cent of those questioned said that they felt they had been subjected to racial discrimination. In 2007 three individuals were convicted of deliberate heinous bodily harm motivated by religious hatred. No specific trends of discriminatory action against specific ethnic or religious groups had been identified.
There were currently over 30,000 Jews living in Belarus, and 45 Jewish non-governmental organizations operated in the country. The two main universities in the country offered high-level courses in Hebrew, and there was a Minsk Jewish community centre. There were six public Roma associations in Belarus. From a religious point of view, Belarusian Roma were Russian Orthodox and Catholic. Despite efforts undertaken by the State, the educational level of the Roma tended to be low, even though increasing numbers of Roma were obtaining vocational training or higher education qualifications.
The Inter-Ethnic Council, under the Ombudsman, ensured the harmonious coexistence of all religions and denominations. The Centre for National Culture coordinated all work and activities for the revival, preservation and development of the culture of ethnic minorities. Belarus did not have any ethnic or religion-based conflicts. The most effective way to ensure inter-ethnic harmony was encouragement of national cultural diversity and tolerance. Belarus attached special attention to the theme of tolerance, and ensured the broadcast of television programmes on inter-ethnic and inter-religious issues. The media law guaranteed respect for the right to freedom of the media and prohibited the dissemination of information containing incitement to racial discrimination or hatred. The law on combating terrorism was designed to prevent extremist activity and other acts of intolerance. Any limitation of fundamental freedoms and rights was a criminal offence under the Criminal Code, and measures taken for the protection of individuals from discrimination covered not only Belarusians but also foreign citizens, stateless persons, migrants and refugees.
While Russian was the main household language for 70 per cent of the population, there were also several publications in the mother tongue of various national groups.
The education code guaranteed the right of ethnic minorities to use their mother tongue and be taught in it. A small number of schools used minority languages such as Polish and Lithuanian as their main language of instruction, while in other schools it was possible to study minority languages as optional subjects. The Higher Educational Institutions of Belarus, which benefited from State funding, oversaw the conduct of in-depth studies of ethnic languages such as Lithuanian, Polish, Serbian, Czech and Ukrainian as well as of national cultural traditions and literature, and also coordinated the training of minority language teaching staff.
Trafficking in persons was a form of discrimination which undermined human rights, and required collective efforts to prevent it. Belarus, as a country of origin, destination and transit, was actively involved in the fight against trafficking in persons and was the initiator of the 2010 Global Plan of Action for Combating Trafficking in Persons. Its national legislation incorporated all the relevant international instruments which it had ratified. A 2009 law on stateless persons ruled on refugee status and protection for refugees, and stipulated that foreigners may not be returned against their will to a State territory where their life or freedom may be at risk. Training and refresher courses in human rights were constantly provided to judges, police officers and other law enforcement officials to strengthen protection of human rights and prevent discrimination. In 2007 the Ombudsman’s Office published a manual entitled “Multinational Belarus” in Belarusian, Russian and English.
Questions by Experts
JOSE A. LINDGREN ALVES, Country Rapporteur for Belarus, thanked the delegation for its informative report and presentation, and commended Belarus on mentioning concrete examples of some of the theoretical issues it had addressed. The report itself had addressed almost all of the concerns which the Committee had raised since the last time Belarus was reviewed in 2004.
Belarus had come under scrutiny by the Human Rights Council and much of that scrutiny was carried out from a distance, since the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus had not been allowed to visit the country. The United Nations was obliged to seek other sources of information, and had received reports about limitations to the freedom of the press, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and other human rights violations in Belarus.
The report submitted did not conform to the Committee’s requirements about the presentation of disaggregated data by ethnicity, but numbers showed that the Government was aware of the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic character of Belarusian society.
The report also gave the impression that there was no special representation for minorities in the Parliament and other State bodies, and there were no political parties formed on the basis of ethnicity. Could the delegation confirm that that was indeed the case?
Were adversaries in political elections qualified as “extremists”? The Counter-Acting Extremist Act may have been important in opposing neo-Nazism, a plague afflicting many countries in Europe. Incidents of neo-Nazi aggression against Jews had been denounced by Belarus in recent years and such phenomena now appeared to have receded, which was very positive. If that was the case, had the Counteracting Extremism Act been useful in achieving those results?
The difficulties faced by the Roma people in Belarus in education and social prejudice were serious but not much different from those in other parts of Europe. Belarus had demonstrated its intention to ensure that all ethnic communities were an integral part of the country. The question of the Roma in Europe, like that of any other nomadic group elsewhere, had to be addressed on a regional or continental basis with representatives from the Roma people themselves.
Belarus deserved praise for recognizing the right of citizens not to follow any faith in particular and it was commendable that the Government did not interfere in the individual’s decision of whether or not to have a religious affiliation. Were the constitutional rights of citizens fully observed in practice?
Was national legislation concerned with extreme manifestations of religious fundamentalism, such as terrorism? Were there any forms of peaceful religious manifestations which were seen or treated as a threat to public well-being?
It was very positive that refugee status had been granted to persons from a wide variety of religious and national backgrounds. However, Belarus was not yet a party to the two conventions on statelessness and stateless persons, the Country Rapporteur said, and should seriously consider adhering to those international instruments.
Efforts to protect the use of minority languages in the country, as highlighted in the report, and to promote tolerance in society were commendable, said the Country Rapporteur. Belarus had taken a number of constructive initiatives closely linked to the cultural rights of individuals.
It was positive that Belarus was a party to all international instruments related to trafficking in persons, said the Country Rapporteur. The country had dismantled 22 criminal organizations, a total of 665 persons convicted had received custodial sentences, and 4,587 had been identified as victims of trafficking. The recommendations made to the country in 2009 about offering assistance to victims of trafficking had been adopted in the form of law. Under the new legislation, a victim may now be awarded compensation following a positive court ruling.
The Country Rapporteur asked why Belarus had not ratified the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. He also asked whether Belarus had an independent Human Rights Institution. Belarus should consider organizing a visit to the country by the Independent Expert on Minority Issues, which would likely strengthen cooperation between Belarus and the United Nations system.
A Committee Expert praised the comprehensive presentation delivered by the high-level Belarusian delegation, and said that the legislative system in Belarus was very extensive and covered many areas with which the Committee concerned itself. Nevertheless, there was still no definition of racial discrimination in the Belarusian legislation, which was a major gap. Bearing in mind that international treaties should prevail over national legislation, he asked whether the Convention was directly invoked by Courts and by political bodies of the State.
Concerning references made to the law on national minorities, an Expert noted that several different terms were used in the report, such as “national groups”, “national communities” and “national minorities” and asked which groups out of the 140 groups mentioned in the presentation were considered to be national minorities? The lack of a racial segregation policy in the country did not necessarily mean that no segregation existed in Belarus, because often it was individuals, not the authorities, who were responsible for segregation. Could the delegation comment on that point in connection with the situation in Belarus? Were there schools in the country which might be described as implementing a policy of racial segregation?
An Expert said that Belarus had made remarkable progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, and asked the delegation to explain how the country had achieved those impressive results. What was the impact of such developments, if any, on the population?
The delegation was invited by an Expert to discuss criticism received from other United Nations bodies about alleged violations of civil and political rights in Belarus. As judges were appointed and dismissed by the President of Belarus, was the judiciary truly independent, he asked. Several human rights organizations had expressed a lack of confidence in the judiciary. Lawyers should be able to carry out their duties without limits to their ability to function, because complaints about discrimination cases would be brought through them. The delegation was asked to comment on reports received about lawyers in Belarus being subjected to intimidation, and other ways of limiting their ability to function.
Concerns were also raised about the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate freely in the country. Particularly worrying was a 2008 presidential decree that had significantly increased the amount of money non-governmental organizations had to pay for office space in Belarus.
An Expert said that the report was very well-structured but its overly legalistic nature did not necessarily translate into concrete actions on the ground. What were the outcomes of the laws mentioned in the report in terms of defending the rights of the people, and what specific policy tools did Belarus use in order to combat racial discrimination? In other words, what would a person who was subjected to racial discrimination do and how would they go about making their voice heard and receive assistance?
Response by Delegation
The delegation said that it was grateful the Committee had noted the progress made by Belarus since its last review. The harmony prevailing in Belarusian society today was a testament to the effectiveness of measures taken at the national level. Belarus had long been a multi-ethnic State, and some of its ethnic minorities had been living there for centuries, while others had come to Belarus during the Soviet era in the twentieth century. The 16 per cent of the population which was non-Belarusian was spread more or less evenly around the country and was not concentrated in specific areas. Larger minority groups had their own cultural associations, which were legally registered in the Ministry of Justice or other State organs and worked with the Government.
The number of 140 ethnic groups in the report also included a large number of very small ethnic groups. Those were identified as groups rather than communities, because they were so small that they did not have their own associations. The Polish, Russian, Jewish, Armenian and Lithuanian groups, on the other hand, were referred to as ethnic communities.
Belarus welcomed migrant workers to cover its labour needs and respected their culture and traditions but did not accept the politicization of cultural associations, because in Belarus everyone was equal before the law. The main policy of the Government was to support and fund the events and activities of minority groups, which consolidated Belarus’ multi-ethnic society.
Concerning national languages, the delegation said that there were two State languages, Russian and Belarusian, which had been adopted by a referendum. Nevertheless, use of ethnic languages was not prohibited.
The Roma had lived in Belarus for several centuries, and since the 1950s their living conditions had been monitored because many of them were not working. The term “gypsy” was not discriminatory and was commonly used in Belarus. The name of the Roma Association itself included that word and the Roma people used the word “gypsy” when referring to themselves. Having had a nomadic lifestyle in the past, the Roma community had integrated into society and the economic life of the country, and a significant number of persons from that community had entered higher education institutions, although many still interrupted their education at the secondary level. More Roma were working now than in the past. There was no segregation on the basis of race. Enrolment of Roma children in schools was being carefully monitored, and the Government was working with the Roma communities to convince parents of the necessity to send their children to school from the age of six years old.
There were four schools in the country in which instruction was carried out in minority languages, two in Polish and two in Lithuanian. The mother tongue of national minorities was studied in other schools, either in clubs or as an elective subject offered at school. There were also establishments of additional education, where the language and culture of the main ethnic minorities were studied. Hebrew was taught not only in State schools but also in private institutions. There had been a 300 per cent increase in the number of school graduates from national minorities. No cases of bullying of children belonging to ethnic minorities had been reported, but here was a specific complaint procedure to be followed if such a case arose. In 1999 a programme of cultural education and training was introduced in all schools, and in the past few years a number of handbooks on cultural education had been published.
Responding to the comment about the role of religion in society, the delegation said that Belarus had had a painful experience of destruction of churches and other places of worship in the past, which were now being restored. Democracy involved, among other things, respect for cultural, spiritual and moral values, and any violations of the law in that respect were being strictly monitored and sanctioned.
Any activity promoting discrimination on ethnic grounds and inciting hatred through racist discourse were treated as a legal offence and were punishable under the criminal code. Sentences for such offences included fines and imprisonment for periods of up to two years. In Belarus everyone had equal access to courts, which was guaranteed by the Constitution. Concerning the lack of definition of racial discrimination in the legislation, the laws of the country provided for recognition of the supremacy of equality, which covered the concept of racial discrimination. The term was explicitly used in numerous legal acts, such as the labour code. In future, a definition of the term might be included in national legislation.
Concerning the independence of the judiciary, the delegation said that the Constitution guaranteed the enjoyment of rights and freedoms by all and that any interference with judges’ activities was punishable by law. Moreover, a new law on lawyers had organized the legal profession, promoted the rights of those exercising legal duties, and underlined the independence of lawyers and their right to confidentiality. Lawyers could not be interrogated as witnesses in legal cases and could not disclose to trainees information covered by the confidentiality principle.
Regarding the application of the media law, the delegation said that in Belarus there was a well-developed media market, which included 1,532 printed media and nine information agencies. A further 57 new media organizations were registered in 2013, of which only three belonged to the State. There was a large number of foreign media operating in the country, including in foreign languages such as Russian, Polish and German. Media materials were monitored to ensure that they did not incite racial hatred. Complaints could be received from non-governmental organizations or individuals, but there were also preventive measures to discourage the incitement to racial hatred to begin with. No warning had been issued to any media for ethnic or religious discrimination in the past few years. The situation was constantly improving and there was greater professionalism among journalists.
Concerning ratification of the conventions on stateless persons and statelessness, the national legislation fully contained the provisions of those conventions and Belarus had been fully implementing them, even if it had not officially ratified them. The number of stateless person in the country was decreasing, from 7,300 in 2011 to just over 6,000 in 2012. The Government would consider the possibility of ratifying the conventions in the near future.
Laws had been adopted on trafficking in humans to ensure that free assistance was provided to victims, including temporary housing, medical support and social assistance. The Ministry of Education had also established a rehabilitation programme for child victims of trafficking, and had given the programme its own trust fund. Belarus was aware that it was a country of transit, so it took the matter seriously and sought ways to combat trafficking.
There were currently 40,000 foreigners residing in Belarus on temporary visas, which was a small number given that the population of the country was 9.8 million inhabitants. Most of the foreigners living in Belarus were fully integrated in society, knew the language, culture and customs of Belarusian people, and did not live on social benefits, but worked and paid taxes. There were no foreigners in Belarus who did not have a legal status.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs had taken a series of practical measures to provide human rights training to its staff in two higher institutions. Belarus had also opened an international study centre for migration and the combating of trafficking, and had prepared published materials for teachers, including a textbook with practical recommendations for teaching human rights in school and other establishments.
Targeted social assistance, such as pensions and allowances for families with children, was offered to specific groups to raise the income of those citizens who were less well-off.
Belarus took steps to protect the rights of women, particularly women from ethnic minorities. Its international initiatives included co-sponsoring the United Nations General Assembly resolution on persons of African descent.
The delegation said that the destruction of Jewish monuments in Belarus had been a series of isolated incidents. In fact, the Jewish community in Belarus enjoyed a significant amount of prestige, which went back to the history of Judaism in the country. A number of Belarusian Jews, many of whom had moved to Israel, had gone on to make a significant contribution in international politics, the arts, and scholarship. Anti-Semitism had no place in Belarus and in recent years no anti-semitic incidents had been reported.
Belarus had been constructively cooperating with the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, and had raised with him the ban on Belarusian judges entering European Union territory on political grounds.
Concerning the creation of a National Human Rights Institute, the delegation said that, to create such an institute, Belarus needed to be fully convinced that the institute would work productively for the good of the people without duplicating the work of existing bodies, such as the Commission for the Rights of the Child and the Commission for the Rights of Ethnic Groups and Minorities.
Belarus and many other Human Rights Council Members States did not recognize the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, who had never visited the country and had no experience on the ground. The mandate had been created by the European Union and the United States, who had imposed economic and political sanctions on Belarus. A United Nations General Assembly resolution considered unilateral measures to be harmful and condemned the practice. The Committee, too, should condemn unilateral measures of that kind. Belarus did not need the services of a Special Rapporteur, who was also a national of a European Union country (Hungary), which had created the mandate without taking into account the principles of impartiality and objectivity. The only United Nations mechanism which made it possible to obtain comprehensive information on the human rights situation in countries was the Universal Periodic Review.
Comments by Experts
Efforts undertaken by Belarus in cultural diversity education were very useful, an Expert said, adding that in future reports Belarus should provide statistical information on the general population who had benefited from such training, so the Committee could measure progress made in that regard. The initiatives taken by Belarus to promote the recognition of persons of African descent and to commemorate the trans-Atlantic slave trade by establishing a permanent monument were commendable.
An Expert praised Belarus for its clear and concise report, but said that the information contained was not consistent with the observations of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus.
Serious concerns about the lack of a National Human Rights Institute were raised by another Expert, who noted that the response to the delegation on that matter was the same as the previous time the issue had been raised with Belarus.
The delegation was also asked to provide concrete information on specific initiatives taken to raise awareness among the Roma people of the importance of education, and to raise awareness about the Roma people in Belarusian society. What was Belarus doing to address the issue of the negative stereotyping of the Roma in the media?
The delegation had given a lot of information about the provisions of the written law to combat racial discrimination, said an Expert. The Committee, however, was more interested in action taken on the ground and the practical application of the laws. Specific data and examples should be provided by the delegation to show how the legislation was being implemented in practice, for example in connection with the protection of the independence of the judiciary.
An Expert emphasized that special procedures of the Human Rights Council should not be treated as sanctions imposed on States parties, but, rather, as a useful mechanism to facilitate the protection and promotion of human rights.
Response by Delegation
The delegation said that it would seriously take into account the proposals and recommendations made by Committee Members, for which it was grateful. The delegation answered all questions which came under the competency of the Committee, and it had already explained why it was unwilling to accept the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, which it regarded as illegal.
The Roma did not have poorer living conditions that any other ethnic groups in Belarus, the delegation said. Initiatives taken to improve the living standard of ethnic minorities also applied to the Roma, and the Government had prepared a draft programme aimed at improving integration of the Roma in society, especially in the area of education. In general, however, there were no separate programmes for each ethnic group. The delegation drew attention to the tangible positive results of the general education programme which was also applied in the case of the Roma. Segregation was avoided in education, where the Government’s preferred policy was for children from various ethnic backgrounds to be able to study in the same schools.
Belarus was engaged with the International Organization for Migration in a non-governmental organization programme providing technical assistance to the victims of trafficking. The programme detected victims of trafficking and liaised with other law enforcement agencies. Special psychologists had been appointed to work with minors who had been victims of trafficking, and their rehabilitation was the number one priority.
JOSE A. LINDGREN ALVES, Country Rapporteur for Belarus, concluded that the tone of the dialogue had been very positive, despite the bashing of Belarus in the international press for the human rights situation in the country. The situation of the Roma in Belarus was better than in the other European countries, and Belarus should be commended on its impressive initiatives to boost employment and education among members of the Roma community. Offering school teaching in minority languages was also a very positive measure.
VALENTIN RYBAKOV, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, thanked the Committee for the open and substantive dialogue. Belarus took the Convention and its implementation very seriously and worked to tackle all remaining challenges. Combating all forms of discrimination remained a top priority for Belarus, which hoped further to strengthen its cooperation with the Committee.
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