Header image for news printout

Human Rights Council discusses the human rights situation in Belarus

AFTERNOON

GENEVE (25 June 2018) - The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with Miklós Haraszti, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, after he presented his report.

Mr. Haraszti said that in the past six years, Belarus had failed to bring any substantive change; heavy repression in the aftermath of the presidential election of December 2010 remained valid, and the country continued to be governed by a repressive legal framework, aggravated by recurring waves of massive violent repression.  Amendments to the media laws passed by the National Assembly in June 2018 would, if enacted, end the last bit of freedom of expression online.  The deteriorating human rights record had shaped the lives of several generations - a 22-year old in Belarus had never experienced free elections, was afraid to express views critical of Government policies, did not have free access to the media, and found it normal to undertake forced labour at the weekend.

Belarus, speaking as the concerned country, said it did not recognise the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and regretted that the Council had once again been forced to consider a politically motivated document.  The situation of human rights in Belarus, as in all countries, was far from ideal, but it posed no threats to the country’s citizens, its neighbours, or the international community.  Political pressure would not make headway in issues that Belarus was discussing in bilateral fora.  Belarus called on States not to take part in the dialogue with the Special Rapporteur.

In the ensuing discussion, delegations acknowledged limited positive developments in Belarus, such as the commencement of work of some civil society organizations, including in sensitive areas like the protection of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, and the abolition of the death penalty, and also noted the increased cooperation on domestic violence and trafficking in persons.  Some speakers remained alarmed over gross and systematic violations of human rights in Belarus, and the lack of political will by the Government to stop violations.  Speakers voiced their continued concern over restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and the continued harassment and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and trade unionists.  Speakers deplored the continued use of the death penalty and new sentences, and urged Belarus - the only country in Europe to still apply the death penalty – to introduce a moratorium on executions as a matter of priority and as a first step towards the abolition of this practice.

Speaking in the discussion were the European Union, Poland, Finland, Czechia, France, Belgium, Estonia, Australia, Switzerland, Lithuania, Council of Europe, United Kingdom, Slovakia and Ireland.

The following non-governmental organizations also spoke: Human Rights House Foundation, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Watch.

The Council will resume at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 26 June, when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and then hear an oral update by the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.  

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (A/HRC/38/51).

Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

MIKLÓS HARASZTI, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, said that in the past six years, Belarusian authorities had failed to bring any substantive change.  Neither reforms nor small steps had been initiated and Belarus had refused to comply with the Council’s recommendations as well as with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.   Heavy repression in the aftermath of the presidential election of December 2010 remained valid and the country continued to be governed by repressive legal framework, aggravated by recurring waves of massive violent repression.  A key feature of the report was the cyclical nature of centrally planned crackdowns on fundamental freedoms, including on peaceful demonstrators, non-governmental organizations, political opponents, human rights activists, and the independent media.  Over 110 individuals had been arbitrarily arrested and detained; political prisoners were occasionally released and then re-arrested.  No new political party had been registered in the last 12 years, and the only political movement registered in recent years, “Tell the truth”, had not been recognized as a party and was thus unable to participate in elections.   Although international human rights bodies were against the infamous article in the Criminal Code which had criminalized any public activity not previously permitted by the authorities, the Government now planned to move the same offence from the penal code to the administrative code, making the sentencing more automatic.  

Mr. Haraszti was concerned about amendments to the media laws passed by the National Assembly in June 2018 which, if enacted, would end the last bit of freedom of expression online.  In a situation of the lack of separation of powers, absence of national human rights institutions and rigged elections, the international community had to be especially vigilant in light of the upcoming elections in 2019 and 2020.  Also, as confirmed by the review of the Committee against Torture, ill-treatment amounting to torture was being used as a systematic tool in Belarus.  It was the only country in Europe and in the former Soviet territories to carry out executions.  Forced labour was the most visible violation of economic and social rights, and “voluntary” unpaid work had been labelled as “patriotic”.  The deteriorating human rights record of Belarus had shaped the lives of several generations of its people - a 22-year old in Belarus had never experienced free elections, was afraid to express views critical of Government policies, did not have free access to the media, and found it normal to undertake forced labour at the weekend.  It was remarkable that there were still Belarussians who continued to stand up and claim their rights.  For those reasons, the mandate should be renewed until progress was achieved.

Statement by the Concerned Country

Belarus, speaking as the concerned country, said it did not recognise the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and regretted that the Council had once again been forced to consider a politically motivated document.  The situation of human rights in Belarus, as in all countries, was far from ideal, but it posed no threats to the country’s citizens, its neighbours, or the international community.  The situation in Belarus could not be termed “a crisis”, or a situation that required the urgent attention of the international community.  There were institutional frameworks to safeguard human rights in Belarus, which was able to solve its development issues and did not require anyone’s oversight.  Nevertheless, it was open to respectful peer-to-peer cooperation.  Political pressure would not make headway in issues that Belarus was discussing in bilateral fora.  Belarus called on States not to take part in the dialogue with the Special Rapporteur, and instead use the time to discuss other, genuinely problematic issues.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

European Union remained concerned about violations of freedoms of the media, peaceful assembly and association, and the criminalization of civil society groups.  The European Union firmly advocated for the elimination of the death penalty and asked the Special Rapporteur for additional information on media restrictions.  Poland shared concerns over the human rights situation in Belarus, saying that the restrictions on freedom of expression and limits on civil society space could not go unnoticed.  Was there a genuine chance to improve the human rights situation in the country and could the recommendations by the Special Rapporteur be implemented?  Finland voiced concern over restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and the continued harassment and intimidation of journalists, human rights lawyers and trade unionists.  Expressing its opposition to the death penalty, Finland inquired about urgent revisions to the electoral code.

The human rights situation in Belarus continued to deteriorate, said Czechia, which was particularly concerned about the restriction of the freedom of expression and harassment of journalists.  Belarus must provide its people with unhindered access to information.  France continued to be concerned by the human rights situation in Belarus, particularly by the ongoing violations to the freedom of expression, and urged Belarus - the only country in Europe to still apply the death penalty - to implement a moratorium.   Belgium said the Special Rapporteur’s report outlined the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus.  Belgium deplored the use of the death penalty and called on the Government to implement a moratorium on executions as a first step towards the abolition of this practice.

Estonia remained concerned about the oppressive human rights environment in Belarus, and thus supported the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.  Systemic shortcomings in Belarus included the absence of the rule of law, stifling of any dissenting view, and the lack of media pluralism.  Australia called on Belarus to act on the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations to release all political prisoners and to fully support the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.  It also shared concern about the lack of progress in abolishing the death penalty.  Switzerland noted several positive signals in Belarus, namely certain non-governmental organizations being able to start their work in sensitive areas, such as the protection of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, and the abolition of the death penalty.  But there remained a lack of systematic improvement in the protection of human rights.  

Lithuania acknowledged limited positive developments in Belarus and the interactions with international institutions in the field of human rights, but was appalled by the renewed crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, members of the political opposition and human rights defenders on 2018 Freedom Day March.  Which were the most problematic aspects in the implementation of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate?  Council of Europe welcomed the increased cooperation with Belarus, particularly the activities aimed at strengthening the rule of law.  The death penalty and its abolition remained the central element of the dialogue with Belarus; it was encouraging to see a greater participation of civil society organizations and academia in the discussions on the abolition, but a serious concern remained about the ongoing executions and new sentences.  United Kingdom welcomed the adoption of the interagency plan on human rights and the improved cooperation on issues of domestic violence and human trafficking, including with civil society.  The continued use of the death penalty in Belarus remained a source of great concern, said the United Kingdom and urged Belarus to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty as a matter of priority and as a first step towards its abolition.

Slovakia noted the Special Rapporteur’s concern about the unchanged oppressive environment for rights and freedoms in Belarus and was concerned that the proposed administrative restrictions would increase threats and intimidation against independent journalists.  Belarus should create conditions that would allow the existence of the nation-wide independent media and end the harassment of journalists.  The continued application of the death penalty in Belarus remained of grave concern to Ireland which urged the authorities to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty.  It was necessary for the Council to maintain its scrutiny of the situation of human rights in Belarus, so all States should support the extension of the mandate.

Human Rights House Foundation said six years after the creation of the mandate, Belarus was yet to implement any systemic reforms.  Belarus’ civil society relied on the mandate to give international expression to the human rights violations they faced, and to ensure that Belarus was held to account internationally.  Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the continued pattern of systemic abuses by Belarus and the lack of improvement in the human rights situation in the country.  The law that required authorization by the State for any public gatherings also allowed for the criminalization and arrests of protesters, which served to silence journalists, activists and lawyers through detention.  Draft amendments to the law on media that would allow authorities to block any online content without the need for a court order were currently before Parliament.  

International Federation for Human Rights Leagues said that all legislative and systematic restrictions on freedom of expression and association remained in place and violations of civil and political rights were coupled by violations of economic and social rights.  Of particular concern was the continued persecution of independent journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition activists, including through threats of criminal prosecution.  Amnesty International noted that the continued use of the death penalty, violations of the right to a fair trial, laws restricting the independent media, and reprisals against peaceful critics of the authorities, all called for the renewal of the mandate.  Amnesty International was particularly concerned about further restrictions of the media which would be brought about by the proposed law on media.

United Nations Watch remained alarmed over gross and systematic violations of human rights in Belarus.  The report showed the lack of political will by the Government to stop violations.  Urging the Council to renew the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, United Nations Watch asked what specific measures the Council could take to address rights violations and whether there was sufficient support for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry.

Concluding Remarks

Belarus, in concluding remarks, said that the low number of delegations interested in participating in the dialogue with the Special Rapporteur demonstrated that the Council’s attention to the country was undue.  States must end their biased campaign against Belarus.  Every country was facing similar problems and the international community must pursue the peer-to-peer dialogue.

MIKLÓS HARASZTI, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, concluded by expressing regret that Belarus believed that there was no interest in the discussion.  Systemic problems persisted and the Human Rights Council acted wisely in urging Belarus to cooperate with the mandate.  The national human rights mechanisms were based on legal arrangements that gave arbitrary authority to Government authorities.  Any public activity was criminalised if it lacked preliminary official authorisation, and the gravity of the situation was evident by a nation-wide crackdown on public gatherings over the last two years.

Commenting on his visit to Belarus last year, the Special Rapporteur thanked Belarus for letting him enter the country, but noted that he had not been invited by the State but had been invited to the closed session of a human rights seminar, while an official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had asserted that he had not been a guest of the State.  The Special Rapporteur had been able to witness the cruel indifference of the judge and prosecutor in a case involving a person arrested at a public gathering.  There was no need to produce new recommendations on Belarus as non-politicised recommendations had been made repeatedly in the past.  New legislation under consideration would allow for the use of fines against people disseminating information not previously vetted by authorities.  The main obstacle to immediate action regarding the death penalty was the total lack of judicial independence in the country.
 __________

For use of the information media; not an official record