Human Rights Committee
9 October 2018
The Human Rights Committee this morning concluded its review of the fifth periodic report of Belarus on its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Presenting the report, Yuri Ambrazevich, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva, at the outset, reiterated the commitment of Belarus to international human rights treaties regardless of the delay in submitting its report, and said that the promotion and protection of all human rights and the right to development allowed Belarus to confidently move forward in overcoming difficulties and achieving important indicators in the area of human rights. Evidence of that was the recent United Nations Development Programme report which had ranked Belarus fifty-third and which meant that, for the first time, Belarus had joined the States with the highest human development index. In addition to being a party to most of the core human rights instruments, Belarus was also extending the circle of its international and regional obligations. Citizens of Belarus had a wide range of instruments they could use to protect their rights, including national courts and addressing the Human Rights Committee under the provisions of the Optional Protocol.
In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts welcomed the adoption by Belarus of the inter-agency national action plan for human rights, and the strengthening of the legal framework in the area of trafficking in persons, domestic workers and persons with disabilities. They asked about the country’s cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, invoking of the Covenant by national courts, stigma and discrimination against persons living with HIV/AIDS, cooperation with the Human Rights Committee and the lack of compliance with the requests for interim measures issued by the Committee, especially in the death penalty cases, the Committee’s Views issued in relation to individual communications, and lack of adequate investigation into the disappearances and murders since 1999. Other issues of concern included the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, discrimination against Roma, discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, allegations of the use of torture and ill treatment by the police to extract confessions, and limitations on the freedoms of opinion, assembly and association.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Ambrazevich stressed that Belarus was interested in resuming the dialogue with the Committee. The dialogue was very important for studying the State machinery and international practices. The Committee’s recommendations would be carefully studied and would be taken into account in the future work of the Government.
Sarah Cleveland, Committee Vice-Chairperson, welcomed the renewed conversation with Belarus and appreciated the constructive attitude of the delegation during the dialogue. She expressed hope that it would not be another 20 years until the delegation returned. She noted a few concerns: respect for the authority of the Committee to develop its own rules of procedures, implementation of the Committee’s Views, freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the death penalty.
The delegation of Belarus consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, and the Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public today at 3 p.m. to begin its consideration of the fifth periodic report of Sudan (CCPR/C/SDN/5).
The Committee has before it the fifth periodic report of Belarus (CCPR/C/BLR/5).
Presentation of the Report
YURY AMBRAZEVICH, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva, at the outset, reiterated the commitment of Belarus to international human rights treaties regardless of the delay in submitting its report, and said that the promotion and protection of all human rights and the right to development allowed Belarus to confidently move forward in overcoming difficulties and achieve important indicators in the area of human rights. Evidence of this was the recent United Nations Development Programme report which had ranked Belarus fifty-third and which meant that, for the first time, Belarus had joined the States with the highest human development index. Belarus had also prematurely achieved the Millennium Development Goals relating to hunger, poverty, universal education, gender equality and reduction in maternal mortality. Belarus was the first country in Europe that had eliminated mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS and syphilis and had received the certification by the World Health Organization in 2016. In line with its belief in sustainable development, Belarus had established the Council for Sustainable Development and was paying particular attention to peace and security, especially in the region, with Minsk being an important centre for negotiations concerning the conflict in Ukraine.
In addition to being a party to most of the core human rights instruments, Belarus was also extending the circle of its international and regional obligations, continued the Ambassador. It had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016 and was a party to a number of the Council of Europe human rights instruments. Since 2017, Belarus had become one of the few countries without a backlog in reporting to human rights treaty bodies. One exception to the cooperation with human rights bodies and mechanisms was the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, which had been created against the will of Belarus. The mandate, Mr. Ambrazevich said, concealed the political positions of some countries and was counterproductive to the promotion and protection of human rights. The very first national plan of action for human rights 2016-2019 aimed to build the capacity for the effective implementation of the country’s international human rights obligations, to identify problems in the area of human rights and work on legislative and institutional solutions, and to use international experience effectively. The plan had been developed with the participation of civil society and efforts were now ongoing to increase its transparency. Mr. Ambrazevich stressed that a significant part of actions foreseen by the plan had been implemented while Belarus had been under unilateral sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States, which were counterproductive to the human rights situation.
Citizens of Belarus had a wide range of instruments they could use to protect their human rights, starting from national courts to addressing this Committee under the conditions of the Optional Protocol. A significant number of complaints of human rights violations should not be interpreted as a worrying human rights situation, especially as most complaints referred to specific provisions of specific laws. Turning to the latest legislative steps, Ambassador Ambrazevich said that in June 2018, a number of amendments to the law on mass events had been adopted, providing for an array of measures to ensure public order and security. Journalists covering such events now had to carry adequate identification documents and journalist certification. The proposed revisions to the law on mass media would see this law extended to the Internet and digital media, while proposed appellate proceedings in civil proceedings would reduce the cost of the administration of justice and increase the trust of the people in the judicial system.
Questions from the Experts
At the beginning of the dialogue with Belarus, Committee Experts welcomed the adoption of the inter-agency national action plan for human rights and asked to which extent it included recommendations made to Belarus by human rights treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review process, and whether civil society organizations had a meaningful opportunity to influence the drafting of this report. Noting Belarus’ position concerning the cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in the country, the Experts stressed that the consent of the country should not be seen as a precondition to cooperating with the mandate. Was there a system to reassess the country’s position vis-à-vis Universal Periodic Review recommendations that it had noted?
Commending the steps taken to strengthen the legal framework, including in the area of trafficking in persons, domestic workers and persons with disabilities, the Expert asked the delegation to explain the standards and requirements contained in the Citizens and Legal Entities Appeals Act. Could the delegation provide examples of the involvement of the National People’s Assembly in monitoring of the human rights situation and explain whether the Assembly included political opposition? Acknowledging the fact that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was incorporated in domestic law, the Expert noted that it was seldom invoked by the courts, especially in relation to the right to freedom of assembly and of association.
Turning to issues of discrimination, the Committee asked the delegation to respond to allegations that women carrying foetus with disabilities were pressured to abort, and that children with disabilities were often separated from their families. What steps were being taken to eliminate stigma and discrimination by the society against people living with HIV/AIDS?
Taking positive note of efforts to improve gender equality in the country, the Expert remarked that there was a glass ceiling to the greater participation of women in public and political life, which was largely fuelled by patriarchal attitudes, and gender pay gap was on the increase. The gap in pensionable age between women and men could be a contributing factor to preference in recruiting and hiring men – could the delegation comment?
In terms of trafficking in persons, the delegation was asked to explain what was being done to address the legal loopholes linked to victims’ consent, which enabled sophisticated criminals to work around the system. While the Constitution prohibited forced labour, concerns remained about some legal arrangements, such as the Presidential Decree N°18 from 2006 on dysfunctional families, the use of occupational therapy pursuant to the 2010 law as it raised questions with compatibility with the Covenant, the Presidential Decree of 2015 on social dependency, and the use of compulsory labour in some legal arrangements, including on insulting the President.
As for the cooperation of Belarus with the Committee in matters relating to the Optional Protocol, other Experts were concerned by the lack of compliance with the requests for interim measures issued by the Committee, especially in the death penalty cases, which were intended to stay an execution while an individual communication was examined. The most recent case was the individual communication from a Belarus national, who had seemingly been executed regardless of the request for interim measures. The Experts stressed the importance of Views issued in relation to individual communications, and were concerned that Belarus considered them to be only advisory and failed to fully implement them.
The Committee had recommended the establishment of a national human rights institution, which had also been one of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations that Belarus had accepted in 2015, the Experts remarked, and asked the delegation for an update on the progress, with particular attention to the institutional and financial independence of such an institution.
With regards to disappearances and murders since 1999, there seemed to be a lack of adequate investigation into such events. The failure to properly investigate such cases was a violation of the right to life itself, noted the Experts, and urged Belarus to make public all investigations into deaths in custody.
Belarus did not have a comprehensive anti-discrimination law nor a mechanism for effective protection from discrimination. What was being done to concretize general legal provisions on equality and non-discrimination principles into specific and comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, and to ensure that citizens who suffered discrimination could file complaints and access remedies? Were there any cases in which individuals had been sentenced for hate crimes and hate speech?
As for racial discrimination against Roma, what was being done to stop racial profiling, to curb the spread of prejudice against Roma, and to put in place a comprehensive programme for their social integration? What education problem among this population had been identified and which measures had been adopted to improve the situation?
Turning to hate, discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, the Committee asked the delegation to comment on a President’s statement that “It’s better to be a dictator than gay”, and whether sexual orientation and gender identity were one of the grounds for non-discrimination.
The Committee noted with concern the reports that families of those on death row were not informed about the date of execution, did not receive the body of their loved one, nor were informed of the burial site. What measures were envisaged by the national action plan on human rights to address the issue? Of 172 persons who had received a death sentence, how many had been pardoned and how many had had their sentences commuted? How many had been executed and had the families been notified? The death sentence was handed down by the Supreme Court and – not being subject to an appeal – was enforceable once handed down. Were there effective remedies to a death sentence?
The Committee was concerned about the high rate of violence against women and asked about the status of the draft law on domestic violence and concrete steps taken to adopt this legislation that specifically criminalized domestic violence.
Experts asked the delegation to comment on the allegations of the use of torture and ill treatment by the police to extract confessions, and explain how allegations of torture were investigated and those filing a complaint were protected from reprisals. Was there an independent mechanism for medical examinations in prisons? What was being done to ensure that the law contained the definition of torture and ill treatment in conformity with the Covenant, and as recommended by the Committee against Torture?
Responses by the Delegation
In response to questions raised about the national human rights plan, the delegation explained that it was a platform for interactions between the Government and various other actors, and a platform for cooperation in the implementation of the Universal Periodic Review and other human rights recommendations. This was the very first document of its kind, and an important event for all actors in the country, as it provided for developing joint action between all stakeholders, including civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations, to strengthen the observance of human rights in Belarus. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs was the coordinator for the implementation of the plan which contained 99 actions in the sphere of human rights, including the cooperation with human rights treaty bodies, involving civil society in developing human rights legislation, protecting the rights of vulnerable groups, and ensuring economic and social rights. The coordinators had held several briefings with civil society on how to implement the actions contained in the plan, including on developing anti-discrimination legislation.
With regard to a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles, the delegation explained that such an institution had not been established yet, but there was a network of specialized State, public and non-governmental institutions which worked on the protection of human rights, including the National Committee for the Rights of Children, Interethnic Consultative Committee, National Convention on Labour and Social Issues, Ecological Council, and the Public Council to Combat Corruption. Most of those institutions were in fact compliant with the Paris Principles, the delegate said, as they were independent and included representatives of civil society organizations. A study conducted in 2011-2012 by the National Centre for Legal Investigations had demonstrated a clear preference by stakeholders to establish a national human rights institution, and Belarus was now studying the experiences of other countries, particularly those in the region which enjoyed similar socio-economic conditions, and in the light of the already established institutional network in the field of human rights.
Another delegate addressed questions raised on the application of the Covenant by the courts and explained that prior to the ratification of an international treaty, an assessment of the domestic legislation was conducted and steps were taken to harmonize it with the treaty. Therefore, courts referred to principles and provisions of the national law, and there was no need to refer to an international treaty.
In 2017, Belarus had concluded an analysis of the legislation with the view of adopting a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, which had found that the law was neutral and there were no norms which gave advantage to any group of persons. There were some 300 laws in the country which directly prohibited discrimination and guaranteed equality before the law, and discrimination was explicitly prohibited in the Code of Administrative Procedure. The norms providing for the protection from discrimination regulated the lives of citizens in respect to administrative procedures, the principle of equality was enshrined in the Constitution, and legislators had been working on amending laws to expand the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination, including in the labour code.
The Criminal Code provided for liability for incitement to religious or racial hatred, while racial, religious or political enmity motives were considered aggravating factors and carried harsher penalties. Belarus was studying the experiences of others in relation to gender-based discrimination to establish the norms for equality and how to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population from discrimination. The national legislation, the delegate continued, provided for criminal liability for acts of torture, which depending on the circumstances, could also be differently qualified, for example as the abuse of power, or the affliction of bodily harm. The legislation comprehensively dealt with liability for acts of torture, and the concept of torture was included in the Criminal Code.
Belarus had signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012 and ratified it in 2016. The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection was in charge of the implementation its provisions, and had adopted a comprehensive long-term plan to ensure substantive equality for persons with disabilities and their integration in the society, in dignity and freedom. Civil society organizations and representative organizations of persons with disabilities had been consulted in the drafting of the plan, which, inter alia, aimed to introduce the concept of disability and the definition of a person with disabilities in line with the Convention; to address barriers and ensure a barrier-free society, including through a thorough review of the legislation and a prohibition of disability-based discrimination in transport; and to introduce the concept of personal assistance. All residential institutions for persons and children with disabilities were regularly inspected and this year alone, 13 laws had been adopted to improve the living conditions there.
Turning to questions raised on stereotypes, the delegation explained that for a decade now, Belarus had been working on preventing abortions due to foetal malformation, including to provide psychological support to women and provide them with full information on medical prognosis and the possibilities of social integration. A survey on stigma related to HIV/AIDS, carried out by non-governmental organizations, had found that 20 per cent of women living with HIV/AIDS had experienced discrimination. Activities were ongoing to educate medical students on stigma and discrimination, and five laws had been adopted or amended, including on persons caring for those living with HIV/AIDS. Progress was being made in caring for people living with HIV/AIDS, the delegation added, noting that at the beginning, the Global Fund had cared for all the patients, while today, 92 per cent were being cared for by the Government.
In response to concerns raised about discrimination against Roma, a delegate stressed that Belarus was a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, free from religious conflict or inter-ethnic clashes. The major contribution to such a state of affairs was being provided by the Ombudsmen on Religion and Ethnicities, an advisory council in which over 120 ethnicities were represented, including representatives of Roma. The Roma community was fully integrated in the society and its members enjoyed all the rights on an equal footing with others, including the right to education, which was being provided with respect to their ethnic and linguistic characteristics.
On domestic violence, other delegates said that a draft concept on the domestic violence law had been developed under the aegis of the President, and that, once adopted, the law would introduce a number of new approaches to dealing with domestic violence. In 2008, the law on actions to prevent offences had been adopted, which had been supplemented in 2014 by new institutions such as the office prevention units. The Procurator General’s Office was the national coordinator in the area of preventing offices, and was coordinating 15 offence prevention units, and over the last three years, they had turned the situation around in terms of preventing domestic violence. Crisis centres, or shelters, for victims of violence, had also been set up.
The Investigative Committee, set up in 2012 to ensure independent investigation of crimes, was based on strict adherence to the law governing the work of law enforcement agencies. It was an independent law enforcement body not subjected to the Procurator General’s Office or any other law enforcement agency. The Investigative Committee worked on the basis of the principle of equality before the law, and it carried out proceedings vis-à-vis anyone in criminal cases, citizens and civil servants alike, with full professionalism and with full respect of the law. Some of the crimes investigated included cybercrimes, human trafficking, and principally crimes against individuals and property.
With regard to so-called “disappearances”, the delegation said that Belarus was working using methodology based on best international practice, and the fact that not all crimes were elucidated did not mean that the State did not work on investigating those crimes. In 2015, only seven per cent of those crimes had been solved, while over 80 per cent had been elucidated in nine months of 2018 alone.
The Constitution prohibited forced labour; it carried a criminal sentence and was defined by the Labour Code. The President’s Decree N°9 on additional measures to develop the timber industry had been abolished, and Decree N°3 on preventing social parasitism had been substantially changed: it was now called the decree on promoting employment among the population, and there was a full deletion of the idea of charging unemployed individuals.
In terms of cooperation between Belarus and the Human Rights Committee in matters related to the Optional Protocol, the delegation stressed that Belarus was conceptually in agreement with the Committee on a number of issues, and explained that Belarus would consider any decision on communication that had been registered as null and void. The national law had its own approach to this issue, which Belarus continued to adhere to, especially as the law did not provide for a mechanism to consider the Committee’s Views. Belarus, alongside a number of other States, considered the Views to be advisory in nature. With regard to interim measures in the death penalty related cases, the delegate reiterated the position of Belarus that national norms prevailed over the Views of the Committee. Belarus would continue to apply its national legislation in this respect. The decisions of the Committee to pay compensation to relatives of persons who had been found guilty of committing serious crimes, including murders, were not understood by the authorities and the population in Belarus.
In their follow-up questions, the Experts asked about the extent to which the Covenant was a part of the basic legal education and how judges, lawyers and prosecutors were made aware of the activities of the Human Rights Committee. The Committee, an Expert stressed, had been created to monitor the implementation of the Covenant, and in particular, to interpret its content and provisions, and provide an independent interpretation of obligations of States parties under the Covenant.
On the matters of compensation to families of the persons found guilty of serious crimes, the Experts stressed the critical importance of due process, even for those individuals who had committed the worst of crimes. Further, Experts insisted on the fundamental need to ensure that death sentences could be appealed.
What measures were being taken to respect the right to privacy and identity of transgender persons, and to protect intersex children from invasive surgery?
Replies by the Delegation
YURI AMBRAZEVICH, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva, noted that the discrepancy in the interpretation of the Covenant and its Optional Protocol, as well as the procedures of the Committee, should not be interpreted as non-cooperation by Belarus with the Committee. Chairperson Shany had used the term “non-cooperation” several times, but that was not the correct assertion. As to the Experts’ mentioning that the Committee had considered 100 communications from 237 individuals in Belarus, Mr. Ambrazevich clarified that for the majority of those cases the Government had presented information about their merits. In more than 90 per cent of the cases, the authorities had submitted information on time. If the State had not been cooperating, then the Committee would have had at its disposal only the information provided by the authors of the communications. In addition, the authorities had met several times with the Committee in order to exchange views on doctrinal differences, which countered the assertion that Belarus was not cooperating with the Committee. The problem lay in the lack of standards of applicability of the Optional Protocol. It might be useful to give some thought as to how to adapt the Optional Protocol to the new realities. The rules of procedure of the Committee had changed several times in the past years. However, the Optional Protocol remained unchanged.
As for the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Belarus did not cooperate with the mandate holder not only because the mandate had been created without the approval of the Government of Belarus, but because the Government considered it a political mandate. The resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur was always adopted by a minority of votes, not even two thirds of Member States of the Human Rights Council. Only 14 delegations of all delegations had taken part in the exchange with the Special Rapporteur. Those States represented a specific group of countries. The human rights situation in Belarus did not deserve a separate consideration within the Human Rights Council, and certainly not under the agenda item which required the urgent attention of the international community.
On the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol, Belarus had received relevant recommendations within the Universal Periodic Review and had taken note of them. Currently, Belarus was not prepared to ratify the Second Periodic Protocol to the Covenant, which was in connection with the public opinion in the country on the application of the death penalty. In 1996 there had been a referendum and the overwhelming majority of the population had supported maintaining the death penalty. Over the past few years, the authorities had actively discussed with the public that question, and it seemed that slightly more than 50 per cent of the public still supported the death penalty. Parliament had set up a special working group on the death penalty. Over the past several years, members of Parliament had actively worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the executive branch on the promotion of human rights, in particular on the implementation of the national plan of action on human rights.
As for trafficking in persons, it was a priority for the Government of Belarus on the national and international levels. The authorities had established a mechanism for the identification and referral of victims of human trafficking. Belarus was one of the first countries which jointly with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had initiated a project of technical assistance in human trafficking. Belarus’ legislation to prevent trafficking in persons had been recognized by international experts as one of the most progressive. Belarus had also seen practical and tangible results in fighting trafficking, as seen in the number of crimes resolved. There was a liability for a number of trafficking-related crimes in the country. The Criminal Law established liability for rape, sexual assault, organization of prostitution services, and to compel someone to continue activities as a prostitute.
Turning to the issue of enforced disappearances, Mr. Ambrazevich explained that there was no legal concept of enforced disappearance in Belarus. There was the concept of disappearance and it was in that context that legal investigations were conducted. Once the investigation had taken place and if the Prosecutor’s Office had found no trace, there was a criminal investigation. Even though the Working Group on enforced disappearances had issued a highly politicized report, Belarus was one of the countries with the lowest number of such cases. Other countries had hundreds and thousands of such cases. Belarus continued to cooperate with the Working Group and it had several times sent it updated information about indicated cases. Hints of omission on the part of Belarus were not accurate.
With respect to the rights of sexual minorities, Mr. Ambrazevich stressed that citizens of Belarus were not subjected to any intentional targeting or discrimination on those grounds. They enjoyed the same rights as everyone else. There were no forms where they needed to answer questions about their sexual orientation. The Government did not obstruct the rights of any specific social group, and it did not categorize them in any special group. This topic was not a popular theme of discussion in the society. On transgender issues, Belarus had a commission on that topic and every year the commission considered between 25 and 30 cases. In 90 per cent of the cases, the commission adopted a positive decision. According to official statistics, there were about 250 transgender persons in Belarus. They could undergo the gender reassignment operation, but only 10 to 15 per cent did so. There were psychiatric consultations with persons who had decided to change their gender.
Speaking of gender equality, Mr. Ambrazevich added that recently Belarus had submitted its national report to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Parliament had the largest number of female deputies in the Eurasian Economic Union (33 per cent). Belarus ranked 29 on the list of the Inter-Parliamentary Union according to that criteria. That information showed that there was no glass ceiling for women in Belarus. Dangerous professions were not so often occupied by women, and accordingly there might be some reflection of the gender pay gap in the statistics.
Questions by the Committee Experts
Experts asked about forced hospitalization and about arbitrary and forced institutionalization. They also inquired about the prohibition to stand as a candidate and limitations on the exercise of the right to vote on the basis of the criminal record, limitations on the right to travel, imposition of curfews, and a ban from participating in demonstrations.
Experts also inquired about the legal framework for lawyers, namely licensing and monitoring of their work by the Ministry of Justice, revocation of their licenses, and pressure on the work of independent lawyers. In September 2017, investigations into the work of more than 20 lawyers had been conducted. Had other such investigations been conducted since then and with what outcomes? What measures would be implemented in order to strengthen the independence of the Lawyers’ Bar Association?
Turning to places of detention, Experts asked for updated statistics on the number of persons deprived of their liberty. When had the authorities started the construction of new detention facilities? Suicide and death as a result of denial of proper medical care had become more frequent, Experts observed. How independent were commissions tasked with monitoring the penitentiary system? Were the prison personnel aware of the Mandela Rules? Prisoners arrested on political grounds did not qualify for early release and amnesty. Appeals against penalties had been shown to be ineffective.
Audio monitoring of people and premises was widespread, and personal data could be confiscated by the authorities. Was that in conformity with the Covenant? New legislative changes significantly expanded the Government’s control over the Internet. News portals obliged the mandatory registration of website visitors. The possibility of appealing a court decision to block a website was, nevertheless, a positive change.
There was excessive restriction on the right to peaceful assembly. New legal changes allowed for the holding of assemblies, but subject to a notification procedure. However, the law stipulated administrative fines for the organizers. Spontaneous events and protests were subject to the same rules and approval by the authorities.
On the independence of the judiciary, Experts reminded of the reports of the closed nature of the nomination, appointment, and dismissal of judges. The President and the executive still maintained a strong grip on the judiciary. What steps had been taken to operationalize the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of lawyers and judges? The National Security Council was also involved in the nomination and appointment of judges. What was its role? Why was the process of the appointment of judges closed? Had any steps been taken to revise the role of the President in that process?
Religious organizations and associations had to be registered, which seemed to create a restriction on the freedom of religion, which was contrary to the Covenant. The Committee had received reports that State bodies regularly refused the registration of existing religious organizations. What had been done to remove the unnecessary barriers to their registration?
The Committee remained concerned about the electoral rights in the State party. There seemed to be a broad interpretation of the legislation on criminal sanctions. The critical challenge remained in the counting of votes. What steps had been taken to address those problems? In February 2016, an interdepartmental group of experts had been established to study the improvement of the transparency and democratic nature of the electoral process in Belarus. What were the results of that study?
An Expert noted that it was difficult for the Committee to understand what the delegation meant by cooperation, adding that the Committee understood its position as a lack of cooperation. Turning to the freedom of assembly, the Expert inquired about the licensing conditions, and about the proportionality of restrictions. It was one thing to introduce a licensing regime, and another thing to use proportional measures in response to the organization of assemblies. The Committee was of the view that applying criminal law against the organizers was not proportional. The Expert stressed the linkage between the ability to participate freely in public life and excessive restrictions on the freedom of assembly. Why did a single-person picket require licensing?
An Expert inquired about the case of prisoner of conscience Dimitry Palienka. What were the circumstances under which he had been detained? Why had the authorities banned assemblies on Freedom Day and on the day to commemorate Chernobyl? The Expert also asked about police brutality and the treatment of detainees, fair trial and due process.
An Expert noted some progress in the registration of trade unions. However, there remained a problem of high registration fees, regional diversity, and restrictions on the right to strike. Why were those conditions necessary and were they proportionate? The Committee had been struck to hear from civil society that almost none of them were registered associations. Why had Viasna not been successful in registering? What was the logic underlying the ban on the use of foreign funding by civil society actors to organize assemblies? Was it true that no political party had been established in Belarus since 2000?
Experts welcomed the fact that the Ambassador had referred to the link between sustainable development and human rights. However, the Committee was puzzled by the President’s rejection of the draft law on domestic violence as “Western nonsense” since both non-Western and Western States had enacted such laws.
The type of individual communications received by the Committee most often dealt with unreasonable barriers on the freedom of association and assembly. Complaints against Belarus would drop considerably if the State party complied with the Covenant in that area.
Replies by the Delegation
YURI AMBRAZEVICH, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the names that the Committee had cited had not been listed in the State party’s report and noted that this was not the subject of the dialogue. Mr. Ambrazevish added that the delegation would appreciate if the Committee did not refer to political prisoners, forced labour in Belarus, and cases of the disproportionate use of force during protests because those were all subjective qualifications.
The delegation clarified that everyone had the right to legal assistance. The institution of lawyers was independent and impartial, and the State guaranteed legal assistance to all citizens who could not afford it. Any physical and legal entity was entitled to ask for legal assistance of their choice. Guarantees were provided for lawyers’ confidentiality, self-management and self-funding. Lawyers were only guided by the law, and any obstruction into their work was prohibited. State bodies and courts could not deny the recognition of the right to legal assistance. The Congress of Lawyers and the Bar Association monitored the degree to which lawyers observed the law and ethics. Certification was a verification by a relevant commission of the Ministry of Justice, which included a significant proportion of the lawyers’ community. It was a confirmation of the qualification that lawyers had.
Public monitoring of the penitentiary system was carried out by oversight commissions, which were fully independent public associations. The Ministry of Justice provided transport to those associations to visit penitentiary facilities. The commissions had the right to carry out surveys of inmates, and they not only monitored the observance of rights in penitentiary facilities, but also took part in the implementation of social rehabilitation projects for inmates, such as distance training and educational programmes. Oversight commissions planned to cooperate with international experts and to exchange experience with other countries in Europe.
There were more than 2,800 registered public associations active in Belarus, with some 100 public associations being registered every year. The right to association was one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the national Constitution. Belarus was a modern country based on the rule of law. The State did not interfere in the activities and establishment of non-governmental organizations; it merely acted as the registering body. Periodic amendments were being made to legislation to assist non-governmental organizations to register more easily. The Government would reduce the number of documents required for the registration of associations, and it would consider the possibility of electronic registration.
Non-governmental organizations may use a legal address according to their personal residence, if it was a single residence building. Responding to the Experts question about the ban on foreign financing for non-governmental organizations, the delegation explained that such funding was forbidden if it was of a political nature (for example, financing of political parties) and if it was suspected of being used for terrorist activities.
Thanks to the humane policy conducted by the Government, a number of measures had been adopted in order to reduce the number of detainees and those in pre-trial detention. In 2001 a new Penal Enforcement Act had entered into force. The new Criminal Code had considerably amended the penalties handed down to individuals who had committed crimes, and it had introduced non-custodial sentences. Some 4,000 prisoners had seen their sentences reduced. From 2006 to 2015, the Government had adopted 12 laws on amnesty, and the number of detainees had dropped by 36.3 per cent. Twenty years ago, there were three juvenile centres and nowadays there was only one and it was only half full.
In 1999, approximately 60 per cent of the accused had been remanded in custody, whereas nowadays that figure stood at 26.3 per cent. The number of persons in remand custody stood at 50 per 100,000. The penitentiary personnel received training on the treatment of detainees and they studied penal correction systems abroad, including the Istanbul Protocol.
All staff were retrained every four years. The authorities had reconstructed a number of facilities, built a new residential facility, and had entirely refurbished one female penitentiary facility.
Answering the Experts’ questions about the limitation on persons’ right to take part in public life based on prior criminal record, the delegation clarified that the activities of the law enforcement forces were governed by the law. Those were preventive actions. They were not subjected to any limitations of their freedom of movement, or to other administrative procedures. The Public Prosecutor’s Office always evaluated the measures taken by the law enforcement forces. Citizens had the right to appeal their remand in custody.
Medical care for inmates was a priority for the authorities. All medical doctors working in detention facilities had high professional qualifications, and each facility had a psychiatrist. The medical staff had to fill in proper forms in case of death in custody. The delegation explained that the Law on Health governed the provision of medical services to inmates. The patient-doctor ratio in the penitentiary facilities was three times higher than that of the general population. The mortality rate among the prison population did not exceed that of the general population.
Coercive hospitalization was governed by the law in Belarus. In the past 10 years there had been a drop in forced hospitalization by four times. The authorities were now focusing on the outside treatment of patients. As for psychiatric treatment, medical decisions on treatment without the consent of the patient were not allowed.
Investigative activities were stringently governed by the law. The legality of investigative activities was the basic principle for the law enforcement forces. The Committee’s allegations of the extent of wire-tapping in Belarus were greatly exaggerated because the authorities did not have such technical equipment. The officials who had been prosecuted were not prosecuted for their political views but for having committed hacking.
A number of laws and constitutional provisions guaranteed the independence of judges, and their nomination, appointment and dismissal. When judges were selected for a position, they had to meet the criteria established by the law. The extension of the mandate was based on the examination of the quality of judges’ work. The candidates were selected by a collegium, presided by the President of Belarus, which was a selection procedure applied by a number of countries, such as Germany.
On 1 January 2015, the Law on Mass Media had been amended to introduce the mandatory registration of media companies publishing news on the Internet. The registration requirement was due to the fact that the Internet was the fastest developing media space. The State intended to protect the interest of society with respect to mass information. When developing the draft law, the Government had studied international experiences in governing online media, and it had opened a public discussion on the matter. There were restrictions on the sharing of harmful information for minors, information inciting suicide, and information about the making of explosive devices online. Any decision to restrict access to websites aimed to protect the public, and it was in line with the Covenant provisions. There was no absolute prohibition of a website.
Moving on to foreign journalists, the delegation explained that the activities of foreign media outlets were allowed upon granting of accreditation. There were more than 250 permanently accredited foreign journalists working in Belarus. The rules of accreditation were entirely transparent. Freelance journalists could receive temporary accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The head of the delegation noted that on the adoption of the principle of a notification procedure for organizers of assemblies, the current laws did not conflict with international treaties. There was a particular responsibility connected with respect to the freedom of assembly. The head of delegation hoped that constant improvement and changes to national laws could remove any obstacles to individual communications to be brought to the Committee.
Follow-up Questions by the Committee Experts
An Expert noted that the information provided by civil society necessarily formed an important part of the dialogue with the State party. The information that the Committee acquired on Belarus necessarily informed its understanding of the situation in the State party. The Expert inquired about fair trial and the presumption of innocence? Were defendants held in cages in the courtroom and did they enter the courtroom shackled? Was there any intention to discontinue those practices?
Another Expert noted the progress made in the State party, adding that the Committee’s task was to assess whether the changes were going in the right direction. The Committee had noted the State party’s plans to change regulations relating to the freedom of assembly and freedom of association. Why had the non-governmental organizations present in Geneva not been able to register?
The Expert noted that individual communications provided a better picture about the situation in Belarus. He asked the delegation to provide further information about article 38 of the Law on Mass Media and the grounds for banning the publication of certain information. He also asked for more information about the defamation of public officials and the arrest of journalists in connection with the March 2017 events.
YURI AMBRAZEVICH, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva, stressed that Belarus was interested in resuming the dialogue with the Committee. The dialogue was very important for studying the State machinery and international practices. Mr. Ambrazevich assured that the Committee’s recommendations would be carefully studied and would be taken into account in the future work of the Government. The Government intended to continue its work with the United Nations treaty bodies.
SARAH CLEVELAND, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee, welcomed the renewed conversation with Belarus and appreciated the constructive attitude of the delegation during the dialogue. She expressed hope that it would not be another 20 years until the delegation returned. She noted a few concerns: respect for the authority of the Committee to develop its own rules of procedures, implementation of the Committee’s Views, freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the death penalty.
For use of the information media; not an official record
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