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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus

Human Rights Council 

10 July 2020

Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, and concluded an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, presenting her report, stated that the Government of Belarus continued not to recognise her mandate and refused to cooperate with it.  Since her last report to this Council, there had been no major improvements in the legal and regulatory protection of human rights in Belarus.  Nor had there been any improvement on the death penalty, which Belarus continued to impose and apply.  Since her report was finalized in March 2020, the human rights situation in Belarus had deteriorated.

Belarus, speaking as the concerned country, said it did not recognise the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, which was not well founded.  Country mandates without the agreement of the country concerned were ineffective and pointless instruments, undermining the legitimacy of the Council in general.  Belarus had been making contributions to peaceful developments in Europe for decades, and there was no inter-faith or ethnic conflict in the country.  Belarus was cooperating with numerous international organizations, including this Council and other United Nations bodies. 

In the ensuing discussion, speakers expressed regret that the Government of Belarus did not cooperate with the mandate, especially given the recent positive actions of Belarus in their work with European Union organizations.  Speakers were concerned about the alarming government crackdown silencing opposing views, as well as the detention and harassment of independent activists, bloggers and journalists, in the period before the upcoming 9 August presidential election. 

Speaking during the interactive dialogue were Finland on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Estonia, Belgium, France, Australia, Czech Republic, Lithuania (video message), Netherlands, Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, Poland, United Kingdom and Germany.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor : Human Rights House Foundation, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, Article 19 - International Centre against Censorship, and Amnesty International.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.  The interactive dialogue started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Speakers said the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association strengthened transparency and contributed to the safeguarding of fundamental rights for all.  These rights, along with freedom of expression, were fundamental to participation in democratic governance. 

In interim remarks, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said that shrinking civic space was a global problem which required urgent action.  The COVID-19 health crisis had served as a pretext to impose further restrictions on civil society.  Yet, it was in times of crisis that civil society's contribution was most needed ; no States could tackle the pandemic alone. 

Speaking during the interactive dialogue were Botswana, Iraq, New Zealand, Netherlands, Belgium, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, Maldives, Nepal, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Georgia, Ecuador, Ukraine, Niger, Myanmar, Chile, South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Namibia and the Russian Federation.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor : International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), Réseau Européen pour l'Égalité des Langues, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Society for Threatened Peoples, CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation, American Civil Liberties Union, Article 19 - International Centre Against Censorship, Human Rights House Foundation, United Nations Association of China, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain Inc, and Alsalam Foundation.

The Council will next meet this afternoon at 3 p.m. to continue the interactive discussion with the President of the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.  It will then hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association

The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Speakers said that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association strengthened transparency and contributed to safeguarding fundamental rights for all.  These rights, along with freedom of expression, were fundamental to participation in democratic governance.  Speakers denounced practices such as using Internet shutdowns and digital surveillance to restrict these rights.  What obstacles had the Special Rapporteur faced in discharging his mandate and how could Member States help him overcome them?  Had he encountered good practices he could share?  Restrictions based on public health concerns may only be used where they were proportionate and necessary.

Interim Remarks

CLEMENT NYALETSOSSI VOULE, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said that shrinking civic space was a global problem which required urgent action.  The COVID-19 health crisis had served as a pretext to impose further restrictions on civil society.  Yet, it was in times of crisis that civil society's contribution was most needed ; no States could tackle the pandemic alone.  On best practices, he referred those present to his report, stressed the need to strengthen international law regarding the freedom of assembly and peaceful association, and emphasized the value of international solidarity to prevent States from turning inward.  It was crucial to consider how the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association contributed to the empowerment of women and girls ; his report to the General Assembly this fall would focus on this topic.

Discussion

Speakers reiterated that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association were fundamental to functioning democracies, at the same time noting the important role that civil society organizations played in their countries.  Multiple speakers noted that countries had to strike a delicate balance between freedom of assembly and their duty to protect their citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic, seeking best practices from the Special Rapporteur in this regard.  The shrinking civil space was directly connected to States abusing their power to limit the rights of peaceful assembly and association, using the COVID-19 pandemic to obfuscate their actions.  As such, speakers reiterated that peaceful protests represented populations' vital means to voice their opinion, expressing their concern about recent legislation that interpreted peaceful protests as terrorist acts in some countries.  The Special Rapporteur was asked to comment on the linkages between the 2030 Agenda and the right to peaceful assembly, noting that active public engagement also facilitated conflict resolution.  Other speakers noted that peaceful protests could be abused by instigators who made them violent, also highlighting that it was States that ensured peace, and this role must not be ignored by the Council.  Civil society speakers emphasised that it was time to pay particular attention to children who campaigned on a variety of issues, including climate change and social justice, calling on Member States to guarantee children the same rights that were afforded to adults.  Some speakers said that civil society organizations had risen to the challenge of COVID-19 where State responses had been lacklustre, further reinforcing the importance of the freedom of association.

Concluding Remarks

CLEMENT NYALETSOSSI VOULE, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, thanked the African Group and other countries for saying that COVID-19 should not serve as a cover for curtailing freedom of association and assembly, as well as Sri Lanka for the constructive dialogue.  Regarding Zimbabwe, he assured that the same methodology was used as in other countries.

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

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus on the situation of human rights in Belarus (A/HRC/44/55).

Presentation of the Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

ANAÏS MARIN, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, said the Government of Belarus continued not to recognise her mandate and refused to cooperate with it.  Since her last report to this Council, there had been no major improvements in the legal and regulatory protection of human rights in Belarus.  Nor had there been any improvement on the death penalty, which Belarus continued to impose and apply.  During the period in question, five death sentences had been handed down and at least two executions had taken place in the country.  The Government of Belarus had agreed to consider opening a debate on the death penalty.  The time had come to go one step further, by declaring a moratorium on executions as a first step toward abolition.  Despite the repeal of article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, freedom of association remained unduly restricted in Belarus.  Peaceful demonstrators were still too often subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.  The legal and institutional environment unduly restricted the expression of opinions critical of government policies.

While welcoming the drafting of a bill to better protect persons with disabilities, Ms. Marin was concerned about the prevalence of structural forms of discrimination, and the lack of accessible and inclusive working environments for them.  Further, in the absence of appropriate awareness-raising policies and an anti-discrimination law, people living with HIV and their families continued to suffer from stigma.  Since her report was finalized in March 2020, the human rights situation in Belarus had deteriorated.  In the past 10 weeks, at least 600 people had been arrested for expressing their views.  International monitoring by the Human Rights Council and Special Procedures should continue.  By giving visibility to systemic violations of fundamental freedoms in Belarus, her mandate gave members of civil society an opportunity to be heard.  She would like to hear what the Government was prepared to do on its part to ensure tangible and sustainable progress in the promotion and protection of human rights.  In the meantime, she could only recommend that the mandate be renewed.

Statement by Concerned Country

Belarus, speaking as a concerned country, said it did not recognise the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, which was not well founded.  Country mandates without the agreement of the country concerned were ineffective and pointless instruments, undermining the legitimacy of the Council in general.  Belarus had been making contributions to peaceful developments in Europe for decades, and there was no inter-faith or ethnic conflict in the country.  Belarus was cooperating with numerous international organizations, including this Council and other United Nations bodies.  The Government of Belarus did not need external mentors, but was open to mutually beneficial cooperation.

Discussion

Speakers expressed regret that the Government of Belarus was not cooperating with the mandate and continued to deny the Special Rapporteur access, especially given the recent positive actions of Belarus in its work with European Union organizations.  Speakers were concerned about the alarming Government crackdown silencing opposing views, as well as the detention and harassment of independent activists, bloggers and journalists, in the period before the upcoming 9 August presidential elections.  The targeted prosecution of potential presidential candidates and their staff was particularly worrying, as the number of political prisoners had reached 25.  Belarus should ensure unhindered election observation and allow external independent observers during the election.  The climate of disproportionate and discriminatory assaults on the fundamental freedoms of speech, expression, opinion, peaceful assembly and association was condemned by speakers.  They agreed with the Special Rapporteur's assessment that no substantial progress in legal and regulatory protection of human rights had taken place in the country.  Belarus was urged to stop the implementation of the death penalty and enact a moratorium on sentencing and executions as a first step towards abolition, as speakers expressed concerns about the secrecy with which Belarus implemented the policy.  Speakers noted that more than 600 people had been detained and more than 100 arrested for participation in peaceful protests, calling on the Council to ensure that the crackdown would not escalate in the run-up to the elections.

Concluding Remarks

ANAÏS MARIN, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, recalled that her previous report had been dedicated to human rights violations during election processes.  She expressed concern about the risk that the upcoming election would be conducted like elections had been in the past, and preoccupation regarding the potential restrictions of freedom of expression.  She urged the international community to remain vigilant in case additional red lines were crossed.  The international monitoring of the elections seemed compromised.  The Central Electoral Commission had yet to issue an invitation to international observers, and this would leave very little time for observation missions to be organized.  In such a context, any efforts supporting domestic observers, whose rights had been restricted in the past, would be welcomed.  It was unfortunate that recommendations previously issued by her and her predecessors had been ignored, as Belarussians deserved to enjoy their rights.

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