48th session of the Human Rights Council
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
24 September 2021
The Council has requested an oral update and interactive dialogue pursuant to Resolution 46/20, which requested me to carry out a comprehensive examination of alleged human rights violations committed in Belarus since 1 May 2020, with assistance from relevant experts and mandate holders.
I appointed three international experts on 14 May 2021 – Karinna Moskalenko from the Russian Federation; Susan Bazilli from Canada; and Marko Milanović from Serbia – to support this examination. We are pleased to have them with us today.
We are currently completing the recruitment of the full Secretariat of the Office Examination of the situation in Belarus. The interim period has been covered by a short-term start-up team composed of OHCHR staff, engaged in initial collection and analysis of available information, and dealing with administrative, human ressources, financial, logistical and information technology setup work.
Our Office considers that the human rights situation in Belarus has continued to worsen in 2021.
I am deeply concerned by increasingly severe restrictions on civic space and fundamental freedoms, including continuing patterns of police raids against civil society organizations and independent media, and the arrests and criminal prosecutions of human rights activists and journalists on what routinely appear to be politically motivated charges.
Over 650 individuals in Belarus are now believed to be imprisoned because of their opinions – among them, members of the opposition, human rights defenders, journalists, protesters and activists, including the chair of well-known human rights group Viasna.
Media freedoms continue to be obstructed, and at least 497 journalists and media workers were reportedly detained in 2020, with at least 68 subjected to ill-treatment. As of 10 August 2021, 27 journalists and media workers remained in detention, among them Raman Pratasevich, who was arrested in May following the extraordinary diversion of a flight from Greece to Lithuania.
By the end of August 2021, 129 civil society organizations had been closed down or were in the process of liquidation by the authorities, including several long-standing partners of the UN human rights mechanisms. Independent news portals Tut.by and Zerkalo.io have been termed “extremist”, making dissemination of any of their content subject to criminal prosecution. The Belarusian PEN Center was shut down by a Supreme Court ruling, followed by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and the Ministry of Justice has also filed a lawsuit for the liquidation of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
The scale and pattern of behaviour by the Belarusian authorities to date strongly suggest that limitations to freedoms of expression and assembly, among other human rights, are primarily aimed at suppressing criticism of and dissent from Governmental policies, rather than any aim regarded as legitimate under human rights law, such as the protection of public order.
I am alarmed by persistent allegations of widespread and systematic torture and ill-treatment in the context of arbitrary arrests and detention of protesters. We have no evidence to date of any genuine and impartial investigations has taken place into reports of incidents that took place during the dispersal of demonstrations in the days following 9 August 2020. During these incidents hundreds of protesters were violently beaten by security officers, in particular by riot police and special police forces. Many protesters, including children, were also subjected to ill-treatment in detention. At least four protesters died.
Gender-based violence in detention also continues to be of serious concern. It has been reported that approximately 30% of those arbitrarily detained are women and girls. The Office has received reports of sexual violence committed by law enforcement officials, primarily, but not exclusively, against women and girls. These include reports of sexual assault, threats of sexual assault, psychological violence and sexual harassment against both women and men. Psychological violence has reportedly been widespread, including threats of sexual assault and threats of removing the victim’s children; some of these threats were indeed realised.
Thousands of people have fled Belarus since the 2020 presidential election, many to the Czech Republic, Germany, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, among other States. I take this opportunity to remind all Governments that under international law, no-one should ever be prevented from seeking asylum or other forms of international protection.
Reportedly, refugees and other migrants from third countries have been encouraged by the Belarus authorities to cross the country’s borders with EU States – notably Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The death of four people last week at the border between Belarus and Poland brought into stark focus the deplorable situation these people face. The human rights of these individuals- including food, water, medical care- should be a paramount concern and any claims to asylum or other protection claims should be individually examined. It is also essential that journalists, lawyers, civil society and humanitarian actors be granted access to the border areas.
I take this opportunity to honour and thank all those who have shared their experiences and guidance with my Office, including the experts and those who have experienced or witnessed human rights violations. Our report to the next session of this Council will include more detailed analysis and recommendations.