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Over the Past Year, More than 35,000 People Have Been Arbitrarily Detained in Belarus, Special Rapporteur on Belarus Tells Human Rights Council

AFTERNOON

5 July 2021

High Commissioner for Human Rights Welcomes Police and Justice Reforms in Venezuela, Expresses Concern on Restrictions on Civic Space

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held separate interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, said that during her last intervention before this Council, on 18 September 2020, she had indicated that she feared a deterioration of the situation in Belarus, already catastrophic at the time. Unfortunately, it had continued to deteriorate. Her report covered the period from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021 and was marked by a deep political crisis, following the suspicions of malpractice and fraud that marred the presidential elections of 9 August. Three opposition candidates were still behind bars, among the more than 530 people who Belarusian human rights activists considered to be imprisoned for their political views or activities. Over the past year, more than 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or expressing solidarity with victims of abuse.

Belarus was not present to take the floor as a country concerned.

In the ensuing dialogue, some speakers were outraged by violations of children’s rights, and the rights to freedom of assembly and expression in Belarus. The massive human rights violations that had taken place, notably against labour unions and human rights defenders, must be strongly condemned. The Belarussian authorities should allow independent and thorough investigations in the allegations, including by granting unimpeded access to United Nations Special Procedure mandate holders. In some cases, children were being used as a tool of reprisals against human rights defenders. One speaker believed that the Belarussian people would manage to restore an environment of credibility and trust, while overcoming these difficult times in a peaceful manner and in the framework of an authentic and inclusive dialogue, for the benefit of the society as a whole.

Speaking were Lithuania on behalf of a group of countries, Poland on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Liechtenstein, Canada, Slovenia, Germany, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Australia, Finland, Luxembourg, France, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Spain, Japan, Estonia, United States, Greece, Slovakia, Romania, Latvia, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, United Kingdom, Iceland, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Albania, Netherlands, Republic of Moldova, and New Zealand.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Lawyers for Lawyers, Human Rights House Foundation, World Organisation Against Torture, International Bar Association, Article 19 - International Centre Against Censorship, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, Advocates for Human Rights, and International Commission of Jurists.

The Council then began an interactive dialogue on the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcoming the new initiatives announced by the Venezuelan Government, including the police and justice reforms, noted the downward trend of alleged deaths in the context of protests and security operations. However, every death was one too many. Social protests continued as access to basic services remained challenging. Pre-existing socio-economic inequalities had been further compounded by the impact of unilateral sectoral sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. She encouraged continuing efforts to explore lifting these sanctions and contribute to relieving the situation for the country’s population. Ms. Bachelet welcomed the imminent closing of all detention facilities run by intelligence services as announced by the President. However, restrictions on civic space still raised concerns.

Venezuela, speaking as a country concerned, condemned all attacks on Venezuela, as well as country-specific mandates which stemmed from politically motivated resolutions. Venezuela condemned the contents of the report, which was the result of a selective approach based on double standards. Venezuela would continue to strengthen its cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner. Venezuela fully complied with its obligations stemming from the international legal instruments to which it was party despite being put under significant pressure because of the financial blockade imposed by the United States.

In the discussion on Venezuela, speakers, expressing solidarity with Venezuela, said the High Commissioner would have to answer to history for having served as the puppet of interventionist regimes. Urging a peaceful and negotiated solution to the situation in Venezuela, speakers called on authorities to fully cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Fact-Finding Mission. Undue restrictions on civil society through legal and administrative means, as well as the intimidation and attacks they faced were a source of concern. Speakers commended Venezuela’s neighbours for their response to the migration crisis caused by the situation in the country.

Speaking were Nicaragua, European Union, Brazil on behalf of a group of countries, Liechtenstein, Cuba, Australia, Portugal, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, France, Ecuador, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Syria, China, Iran, Lao People's Democratic Republic, United States, Uruguay, Sweden, Austria, Sri Lanka, Belarus, Belgium, Georgia, United Kingdom, Russian Federation, Eritrea, Argentina, New Zealand, Colombia, Netherlands, Germany and Bolivia.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: Fundación Latinoamericana por los Derechos Humanos y el Desarrollo Social, Freedom House, International Service for Human Rights, International Commission of Jurists, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, World Organisation Against Torture, and Amnesty International.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-seventh regular session can be found here.

The Human Rights Council will next meet at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 6 July when it will hold the second panel of its annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women, with a focus on gender-equal socioeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be followed at noon by the resumed interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

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

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (A/HRC/47/49) on recent developments in the country

Presentation of the Report

ANAÏS MARIN, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, said that during her last intervention before this Council, on 18 September 2020, she had indicated that she feared a deterioration of the situation in Belarus, already catastrophic at the time. Unfortunately, it had continued to deteriorate. The report covered the period from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021. It was marked by a deep political crisis, following the suspicions of malpractice and fraud that marred the presidential elections of 9 August. Three opposition candidates were still behind bars, among the more than 530 people who Belarusian human rights activists considered to be imprisoned for their political views or activities. Over the past year, more than 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or expressing solidarity with victims of abuse. Reports indicated that torture and other forms of degrading or inhumane treatment were used almost routinely against those in detention. These extremely serious violations had not been prosecuted in Belarus, where the judicial system failed to protect victims of human rights violations. This persistent impunity explained why abuses continued to this day.

The situation continued to deteriorate: the authorities seemed to have launched a full-scale attack on civil society as a whole, targeting people from all walks of life. The current wave of repression affected the entire population, sparing no generation or socio-professional category. Recent legislative amendments further restricted the right to freedom of expression and media freedom. To date, 24 journalists had been detained for doing their job. In recent weeks, the academic community had been targeted. The Belarusian education system continued to discriminate against vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities, those living in rural areas, people deprived of their freedom, and ethno-linguistic minorities - Roma and Polish, in particular. Tens of thousands of Belarusians had fled to seek refuge abroad. However, since the forced landing of an airliner in Minsk on 23 May, apparently for the sole purpose of arresting a dissident on board, opponents did not feel safe anywhere. Despite these immense challenges, civil society actors and organizations had shown exemplary courage, resilience and pacifism.

Statement by Country Concerned

Belarus was not present to take the floor as a country concerned.

Discussion

Speakers were outraged by violations of the rights of children in Belarus, as well as of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The massive human rights violations that had taken place, notably against labour unions and human rights defenders, must be strongly condemned, speakers said. The Belarussian authorities should allow independent and thorough investigations into the allegations, including by granting unimpeded access to United Nations Special Procedure mandate holders. Denouncing the flagrantly brutal political regime in place in the country, speakers called for the liberation of all journalists and political prisoners. It was unacceptable that minorities, journalists and civil society were being subjected to systematic repression. The unlawful detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, following their politically motivated arrests, aimed to silence the opposition. The forced landing in Minsk of an intra-European civilian flight amounted to an inadmissible attack on international aviation. Expressing deep concerns about allegations of torture, speakers asked about the effect of the recent closing of the regional office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Speakers noted that an independent, vibrant, free and pluralistic media represented one of the cornerstones of democratic institutions and a resilient society - freedom of the media was not about politics but about basic principles of democracy and the respect of human rights. The attacks on the academic sector, including expelling students and firing teachers and staff for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, were concerning. Several non-governmental organizations were already under criminal investigation, as the law was being turned into an instrument of repression. Lawyers were politically persecuted for their work, with no less than 20 lawyers disbarred for political reasons, while others had been harassed, detained and arrested. The independence of the legal profession on the whole had been under attack, as multiple speakers expressed concern over recent legislative changes. In some cases, children were being used as a tool of reprisals against human rights defenders. The world relied on them to provide independent information about violations in the country, but it was becoming more and more difficult for them to conduct their work. One speaker believed that the Belarussian people would manage to restore an environment of credibility and trust, while overcoming these difficult times in a peaceful manner and in the framework of an authentic and inclusive dialogue, for the benefit of the society as a whole.

Concluding Remarks

ANAÏS MARIN, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, stressed the need for the international community to particularly support human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists. It was essential for Belarus to recognise her mandate, because isolation from the international community would not provide a solution. She was aware of the use of children in blackmailing human rights defenders to self-censor or to force them to leave the country - she had received multiple reports of this practice and would be addressing it in depth in her upcoming report. Civil society in Belarus was in post-traumatic shock - offering free psychological consultations were some concrete measures that could support the Belarusian people. Nearby countries should be prepared for an influx of Belarusians as it was unlikely that the already existing flows would diminish. Prosecutors in some countries had already begun investigating allegations of torture of those Belarusian citizens who fled, which was a start - currently, there was no accountability in the country itself. Belarus’ whole system of governance was geared towards restraining human rights, rather than protecting them.

Interactive Dialogue on the Report of the High Commissioner on the Human Rights Situation in Venezuela

The Council has before it the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/47/55) on the human rights situation in Venezuela

Presentation of the Report

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, on this Independence Day in Venezuela, she was reiterating her commitment to continue extending her support towards the full realisation of human rights in the country. She trusted that soon there would be progress towards the establishment of a country office in Venezuela. Welcoming the new initiatives announced by the Government, including the police and justice reforms, she noted the downward trend of alleged deaths in the context of protests and security operations. However, every death was one too many. Police reform offered the opportunity to make a significant and sustainable shift towards stronger protection of human rights, and prevention of human rights violations. Social protests continued as access to basic services remained challenging. Pre-existing socio-economic inequalities had been further compounded by the impact of unilateral sectoral sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. She encouraged continuing efforts to explore lifting these sanctions and contribute to relieving the situation for the country’s population.

In line with the spirit of the announced reforms, it was urgent to continue advancing with accountability mechanisms for killings in the context of protests in recent years. Conditions of detention continued to raise concerns, even more in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Bachelet welcomed the imminent closing of all detention facilities run by intelligence services as announced by the President. However, restrictions on civic space still raised concerns. The arrest of three representatives of the non-governmental organization Fundaredes three days ago was a worrying example. Any legislative or regulatory development should seek to strengthen confidence-building measures and inclusive decision-making. The High Commissioner encouraged authorities to continue revising the legal framework in concrete ways on certain issues such as the imposition of disproportionate oversight on civil society, and conflating humanitarian and human rights activities with terrorism. Welcoming the recent efforts made to address some of her previous recommendations, she called for these efforts to continue.

Statement by Country Concerned

Venezuela, speaking as a country concerned, recalled that today marked the Day of Independence in Venezuela, and condemned all attacks on Venezuela, as well as country-specific mandates which stemmed from politically motivated resolutions. Venezuela condemned the contents of the report, which was the result of a selective approach based on double standards. Venezuela would continue to strengthen its cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner. Venezuela had facilitated its access to places of deprivation of liberty, something that several members of this Council had not done. Venezuela fully complied with its obligations stemming from the international legal instruments to which it was party despite being put under significant pressure because of the financial blockade imposed by the United States.

Discussion

Some speakers, expressing solidarity with Venezuela, said the High Commissioner would have to answer to history for having served as the puppet of interventionist regimes. Other speakers, urging a peaceful and negotiated solution to the situation in Venezuela, called on Venezuelan authorities to fully cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Fact-Finding Mission. Undue restrictions on civil society through legal and administrative means, as well as the intimidation and attacks they faced were a source of concern. Speakers commended Venezuela’s neighbours for their response to the migration crisis caused by the situation in the country. It was unacceptable that extrajudicial executions continued in the context of security operations; all those arbitrarily detained must be freed immediately. The criminalisation of humanitarian work and journalism was deeply concerning, as were the reports of torture and enforced disappearance. As one of the elected members of this Council, Venezuela must not only respect the international human rights commitments to which it had freely subscribed, but should also set an example by engaging in a frank and peaceful dialogue with all the political components of the country.

Some speakers said that the principles of non-selectivity, non-politicisation and impartiality were violated by this dialogue, given that it was being held against the wishes of the country concerned. Speakers emphasised that human rights should not be used to interfere with internal affairs and undermine territorial sovereignty. Unilateral coercive measures imposed on Venezuela had seriously damaged its economy, capacity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ability of all Venezuelans to enjoy their human rights, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable. Other speakers said the current situation had caused one of the worst displacement crises in the world, reiterating their support for the High Commissioner’s work in Venezuela. Improvements in living conditions in detention centres were welcomed, as speakers called on the High Commissioner to assist Venezuela in combatting overcrowding. Structural impunity reigned when it came to cases involving protests - it was time to stop the cover ups. Speakers were concerned about the limited information available on the nature of the agreement between the Office and the Venezuelan authorities, asking the High Commissioner to comment on the authorities’ compliance with previous recommendations.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/07/la-rapporteuse-speciale-sur-la-situation-des-droits-de-lhomme-au