18 September 2020
Madam President, Madam High Commissioner,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to this urgent debate. This session is timely and pertinent, given the catastrophic human rights situation in Belarus that continues to deteriorate. These unprecedented post-electoral developments require the renewed attention of the international community and the scrutiny of UN bodies and mechanisms.
On 4 September, I had a chance to address the UN Security Council members during an informal Arria-formula meeting. I would like to reiterate some of the most serious challenges that I highlighted then.
Although the human rights situation in Belarus has been marred by multiple, systemic deficiencies for decades, the current crisis reveals the magnitude of the problem: during the whole electoral process, the Authorities have denied Belarusian citizens their legitimate right to participate in public life.
As I stated in my 2019 report to the UN General Assembly, since the last electoral cycle nothing has changed, in law and in practice, that could have raised hope that this year’s vote would meet the internationally recognised criteria for free, fair and transparent elections.
The available reports indicate that the process was grossly manipulated. The electoral field had previously been "cleared up" to prevent three of the most popular candidates from running. This was followed by fraud at the vote count stage which put under question the electoral legitimacy of the incumbent President. In fact, Mr Lukashenka’s eagerness to remain in power after the end of his current term appears to be the main cause of the current political deadlock in Belarus.
Moreover, the President and his supporters stubbornly refuse to engage in dialogue with the opposition and civil society, which would be the only way to reconcile Belarusian society with its government after people from all social strata realised how serious and systematic State violations of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech have been since election night.
The whole world has seen how the repressive capacities of the law-enforcement and judicial systems are used in Belarus to harass, threaten, punish or otherwise silence any dissenting voice. Deaf to domestic and foreign calls to engage in an honest dialogue with the opposition, the Authorities cynically brought charges against members of the Presidium of the Coordination Council.
One of them, after bravely resisting attempts at forceful deportation – which in itself was a shocking precedent – is accused of, I quote, ‘calls to action aimed at causing harm to national security, committed through using the media and the Internet’. These charges imply that Mrs Kolesnikova is now facing potential imprisonment for up to five years.
Let me stress that by all available accounts, the popular movement sparked by the alleged victory of Mr Lukashenka is genuine, spontaneous and peaceful. Belarusians massively took to the streets throughout the country to express their rejection of official results, which did not seem credible to them. As in the previous contested election, in December 2010, they were violently prevented from exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
The response of law enforcement agencies was again violent and disproportionate. To date, more than 10,000 people have been abusively arrested for taking part in peaceful protests, adding to some 1,500 already arrested since the crackdown started back in April. Most of them are now free, and I call on the Authorities to immediately release and drop all politically-motivated charges against those who remain arbitrarily detained. As demonstrations have spread to all sectors of society, from housewives to factory workers and students, I call on the police to immediately stop escalating violence.
The right to demonstrate peacefully is a pillar of democratic society, and it can be exercised online too. By cutting off Internet access starting on 9 August, the Government attempts to prevent voters from informing and coordinating with each other via social networks. Recurrent Internet blockades are disproportionate, and incompatible with the right to freedom of expression and access to information. So is the harassment of journalists, who are now accused of participating or even coordinating the protests!
Unable to find the leaders of this new type of revolt, police indiscriminately arrested demonstrators, journalists, passers-by, women and even children. Some people were shockingly captured in the street by masked men in plain clothes. Thousands were savagely beaten. This brings me to yet another crucially important point: during this wave of brutal repression, over 500 cases of torture, committed by state agents, have been reported to us.
During the week of 10 August hundreds of detainees were subjected to humiliating conditions and degrading treatment. I have been informed of allegations of rape, electrocution, and other forms of physical and psychological torture. What is more, the perpetrators seem confident that they will not be prosecuted, because of prevailing lawlessness and impunity.
Yet it is the responsibility of the Belarusian State to prevent, investigate and punish these crimes, which are all the more serious because they were committed in a premeditated, and organised manner.
I call on the Authorities to shed full light on these tragic events and to guarantee the right of victims of torture to obtain redress. Given the abuse they suffered, these victims are in such a state of post-traumatic shock that they still require urgent humanitarian aid.
Let’s not allow another Iron Curtain to descend on the European continent. Border closures will not stop international scrutiny. In view of the seriousness of the reported abuses, let me recall that human rights violations are not an internal affair: they are of interest to the international community. I therefore reiterate my call on the Belarusian leadership to reason, and to exercise restraint. The only possible way out of this crisis is dialogue, which must be open, honest, and inclusive, involving all stakeholders, including in particular opposition and civil society leaders.
To conclude: Belarusian society has changed considerably over the past years, and in recent months it developed a capacity for civil resilience, and inventive ways to demand respect for human rights. Belarusians showed how eager they are to see, and take part in, democratic changes, in order to build a better country for themselves and their children.
We should all continue working together to ensure that their legitimate will is respected, and materialises in the near future.
Thank you for your attention.