Our comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the context of the 2020 presidential election – mandated by the Council last September – covers serious violations of human rights between 1 May and 20 December last year. They were aimed at curtailing the right to participation in political affairs, and the rights to freedoms of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association.
The events that unfolded before and immediately after the election have led to a human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country. They have also brought greater visibility to a longstanding and chronic pattern of systemic violations and impunity, which has been previously noted by this Council's Special Rapporteurs on Belarus, as well as by the treaty bodies and other mechanisms.
Numerous and widespread violations committed in the context of the election; the systematic denial of fundamental freedoms; mass arbitrary arrests and detentions of people who organized or participated in largely peaceful protests, or who voiced criticism or dissent; hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment; acts of harassment and intimidation targeting opposition members, journalists, human rights defenders and citizens in general – all these violations, committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear.
Failure to ensure accountability for these violations is a fundamental concern and key aspect of this crisis. The Government’s information note with respect to our report, which we received on 10 February, indicates that “the preliminary investigation bodies received 4 644 complaints about use of physical force and special measures by the personnel of interior affairs interrupting unsanctioned protest actions”. However, it goes on to observe that over 1050 of these complaints were rejected. It offers no information regarding the number of security personnel – if any – who have been investigated or charged for excessive or unnecessary use of force. From other sources, we understand that not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment, which the report mentions, had led to the opening of a criminal case, prior to our cut-off date of 20 December.
Since completion of our report, the human rights situation has further deteriorated. The Government’s systematic crackdown against protestors continues. I am also concerned that legislative amendments currently in preparation reportedly enable harsher punishments for participation in peaceful demonstrations.
I am worried by increased targeting of journalists and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually. Just last week, large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for “mass disorder.” As of 9 February, some 246 people have been sentenced to prison terms on allegedly politically-motivated charges.
It is essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established. All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released. Thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations should be conducted into all allegations of serious human rights violations, with perpetrators brought to justice. There should be an immediate end to the policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.
I further recommend comprehensive reform of the national legal framework. Our report includes specific recommendations, which address key systemic issues, including with respect to fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.
Our report is an impartial and non-political account of the human rights concerns that Belarus should urgently address. I hope your interactive dialogue will also be a step in that direction. The Office is ready to cooperate with the authorities to facilitate the significant transformations, which we view as essential to building a just, peaceful and sustainable path for the country.