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Human Rights Council Hears that the Challenges to Human Rights in Burundi Remain Enormous, and that the Human Rights Situation in Belarus Remains Grav

22 September 2023

AFTERNOON 22 September 2023

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi and started an interactive dialogue on

the oral update of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election and in its aftermath.

Fortuné Gaetan Zongo, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, said Burundi had reopened its borders with its neighbours, including Rwanda, and it had taken part in the fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review. There had been judicial progress. These and other steps, however, did not mean that the human rights situation in Burundi had improved: the challenges remained enormous and there had been little progress, with a glaring weakness of institutions, which made them instruments of human rights violations. Concluding, the Special Rapporteur said he hoped the human rights situation in Burundi would improve significantly.

Burundi, speaking as a country concerned, said reports submitted to the Council should be rigorous and based on fact, not on hearsay, and biased and slanderous media documents. The reports of the Special Rapporteur failed to live up to the standards provided by the Council, and today Burundi would address some of the absurdities included in the report. What did the Special Rapporteur mean when he stated that the National Human Rights Institution of Burundi was less credible than in 2012? What could Burundi conclude when the Special Rapporteur acted as the emissary of a single opposition political party? Burundi understood that the countries behind the mandate wished to see it renewed, despite Burundi’s firm opposition to this.

National Human Rights Institution of Burundi also took the floor.

In the discussion, some speakers remained deeply concerned about continued human rights violations and abuses in Burundi, including impunity for extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, mentioning concern for human rights defenders, journalists, opposition, and civil society that were punished for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Some speakers pointed out the need for constructive dialogue and cooperation with regard to human rights, and to avoid politicisation and selectivity and interference in countries’ internal affairs. The Human Rights Council should avoid politicisation and double standards and respect the human rights development path chosen by the people of Burundi.

Speaking in the discussion were Norway on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Egypt, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, United States, China, Zimbabwe, Russian Federation, Luxembourg, Tanzania, Yemen, Venezuela, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Romania, Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and Iran.

Also speaking were International Federation of ACAT, East Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits de l'homme, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Research League, CIVICUS, Centre du Commerce International pour le Development, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, and Amnesty International.

The Council then started an interactive dialogue on the oral update of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election and in its aftermath.

Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said three years on from the contested Presidential elections in August 2020, the human rights situation in Belarus remained grave, showing no signs of improvement. Instead, there was further shrinking of civic space and continuing lack of respect for fundamental freedoms, evidenced by a campaign of violence and repression against individuals who opposed the Government, or were perceived to be doing so, expressing critical or independent views. Systematic impunity continued to allow those responsible for gross human rights violations to evade accountability for their actions. The Office’s documentation revealed an ongoing and distressing pattern of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions on trumped up charges targeting various segments of society, including government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, academics, trade unionists, religious figures, members of minorities, lawyers, and others who sought to exercise their fundamental rights. The Office deeply regretted the Government’s ongoing lack of cooperation.

Belarus, speaking as a country concerned, said the Council had again been presented with another report based on unreliable sources and biased conclusions. Its authors continued to exaggerate Western interpretations of the 2020 Presidential election. Belarus had adopted Constitutional reform and modernised legislation to strengthen the constitutional order. However, the reaction of the Office of the High Commissioner and Special Procedures to the reforms was reduced to rabid criticism in line with the campaign of disinformation launched by a number of Western countries against the Belarusian State. The accusations of political prisoners in Belarus, arbitrary detentions, torture and arrests were politically motivated and unfounded. The Council needed to respect the choice of the Belarusian peoples and their right to independently choose the path and development.

In the discussion, some speakers said the human rights situation in Belarus was catastrophic. The Belarusian authorities’ violations against civil society actors, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and media workers, anti-war protesters and opponents of the Belarusian authorities were increasingly massive and systematic and some of these violations could amount to crimes against humanity. Some speakers expressed deep concern by the notable increase in the practice of incommunicado detention, namely targeting political opposition members and civil society activists, urging Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and others detained on politically motivated charges in Belarus, including members of human rights organizations. One speaker pointed out that the people of Belarus were unable to fully enjoy their human rights due to unilateral coercive measures. Baseless sanctions against Belarus should cease, allowing its people to enjoy their human rights. The undue pressure that continued to be exerted upon Belarus by the adoption of unnecessary and polarising mechanisms was deplored.

Speaking in the discussion were Estonia on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Belgium on behalf of a group of countries, Liechtenstein, Czechia, Austria, Costa Rica, Croatia, United States, Lithuania, Germany, Switzerland, Malta, France, Poland, China, Zimbabwe, Romania, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Albania, Montenegro, Ukraine, Greece, Iran, Syria, Republic of Moldova, Sudan, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Cambodia and Azerbaijan.

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 fifty-third regular session can be found here.

The next meeting of the Council will be at 10 a.m. on Monday, 25 September, when it will begin with the annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective throughout the work of the Human Rights Council and that of its mechanisms. It will then continue the interactive dialogue on the oral update of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election and in its aftermath, followed by an interactive dialogue on the oral update by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine.

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

Report

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi (A/HRC/54/56).

Presentation of Report

FORTUNÉ GAETAN ZONGO, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, said the Human Rights Council in its resolution on the situation of human rights in Burundi requested that the Special Rapporteur present an update to the Council. The report covered the period from August 2022 to July 2023, but also covered the period prior that had repercussions and impacts on the situation. There were a few new elements to be highlighted since the last report, despite the lack of cooperation from Burundi. The country was open on the international stage, and had reopened its borders with its neighbours, including Rwanda, which was favourable to the free movement of people and goods. The European Union had lifted sanctions against three Burundian public personalities, including the Prime Minister, the former Deputy Director-General of the Police, and a former General. Burundi had taken part in the fourth cycle of the Universal Periodic Review. There had been judicial progress. The Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund had adopted an arrangement under the Extended Credit Facility for Burundi, aiming to allow it to address its balance of payment needs, reduce its debt vulnerabilities, and tackle recent internal and external financial shocks.

These few steps, however, did not mean that the human rights situation in Burundi had improved: the challenges remained enormous and there had been little progress, with a glaring weakness of institutions, which made them instruments of human rights violations. Mr. Zongo said there was a lack of any clear oversight for the National Intelligence Service for ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights, including lawfulness, guarantees on conditions of detention, and consistency with national and international human rights instruments ratified by Burundi. There were a number of cases where this body was reported to have violated human rights. Major challenges were causing poor performance within the judiciary, including a lack of human resources, working tools, infrastructure, as well as interference by the executive, corruption and distrust. The judiciary must conduct a review of its powers and its role.

The Independent National Human Rights Commission seemed to indicate that things were going back to normal, but these reports and public statements merely reflected official discourse. However, the internal problems needed to be monitored in order to find a solution, and the statements made by the body did not genuinely reflect the human rights situation. The A status of the Commission must be reassessed so as to ensure it complied with the Paris Principles. The requests of the Special Rapporteur to pay a visit to the country had gone unanswered. Concluding, the Special Rapporteur said he hoped the human rights situation in Burundi would improve significantly. He drew the international community’s attention to 2025 and 2027, when elections would take place, saying it would be preferable to prevent any violence in the run up to, occurrence, and aftermath of these elections. The Arusha Agreement had provided for a 15-year period of peace and stability, and he urged that it be rebooted. The international community must not forget Burundi, and should support it.

Statement by Country Concerned

Burundi, speaking as a country concerned, expressed heartfelt condolences to Morocco and Libya following the recent natural disasters. During the last statement in June by the Special Rapporteur, the legitimacy of whose mandate Burundi contested, the delegate of Burundi had pointed out how similar the reports submitted to the Council were. Today’s report was further confirmation of this. Burundi wondered who the author of the report was. The reports submitted to the Council should be rigorous and based on fact, not on hearsay and biased and slanderous media documents. The reports failed to live up to the standards provided by the Council, and today Burundi would address some of the absurdities included in the report.

What did the Special Rapporteur mean when he stated that the National Human Rights Institution of Burundi was less credible than in 2012? What could Burundi conclude when the Special Rapporteur acted as the emissary of a single opposition political party? What was Burundi to think when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Burundi was discredited by the report, under the thinly veiled pretext of its Chairman’s ethnic and political allegiances? What could be said about the relentless attacks of the Government in power? Burundi understood that the countries behind the mandate wished to see it renewed, despite Burundi’s firm opposition to this. When the draft resolution came before the Council for a decision, its members needed to ask themselves: which country deserved to be in the firing line? Which country profited from this current situation? It was certainly not Burundi or its people.

National Human Rights Institution of Burundi said the promotion and protection of human rights was an ongoing job. Burundi was on the right path, but challenges remained. The State had established specialised institutions, including the National Human Rights Institution, the Ministry for Human Rights, the Ombudsperson, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others. Some positive measures had been taken to fight against corruption and impunity, and to ensure more media openness. However, gender-based violence and arbitrary detention, and slow progress in processing legal cases, required attention. Burundi should uphold legal principles in which freedom was the rule, and detention was a last report. All those arbitrarily detained should be released. The international community could work together to advance human rights in Burundi.

Discussion

In the discussion, a number of speakers remained deeply concerned about continued human rights violations and abuses in Burundi, including impunity for extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, with concern for human rights defenders, journalists, opposition, and civil society that were punished for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Reports of restrictions of fundamental freedoms were also of concern. The Burundian Government was urged to thoroughly investigate all incidents and hold perpetrators accountable.

The Government of Burundi was responsible for protecting the human rights of all citizens of Burundi, a speaker said, and strongly urged the Government to fully take on that responsibility, and to that end, cooperate with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burundi by allowing full and unhindered access to the country and by providing all information needed to fulfil the mandate. Speakers urged Burundi to fully engage with the human rights system, and all its mechanisms. Several speakers regretted that the Special Rapporteur had still not been granted access to the country, despite Burundi having issued a standing invitation to all Special Procedure mechanisms since 2013.

The Human Rights Commission should implement its mandate independently. There was a lack of space for civil society, and the Government should not continue reprisals. The civic space was shrinking further and independent media were driven out of the country or forced into self-censorship. The judiciary lacked both independence and proper training. This further exacerbated impunity, including with regard to the crimes against humanity committed in 2015. Human rights defenders and journalists who had been arbitrarily detained must be released. The judiciary should undertake a critical analysis of its function and its role, and its independence and respect for the rule of law should be further bolstered, with the re-establishment of a fair judicial process, with equal protection for all.

Some speakers said that large parts of the population, understandably, had lost confidence in the Government. To turn around on this path, inclusive dialogue and political participation was required, and accountability for current and past human rights violations needed to be guaranteed, now. A return to the Rome Statute would be an important step in that direction, a speaker said. Speakers called upon Burundi to make genuine reforms to guarantee the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association. An active civil society and free media were the cornerstones of democracy, and the Government of Burundi should work to ensure that civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and other media workers could carry out their work safely and independently. The instrumentalisation of law and of institutions should come to an end. The Government should move from words to action, and carry out its commitments, in particular with regard to fundamental freedoms.

Some speakers pointed out the need for constructive dialogue and cooperation with regard to human rights, and to avoid politicisation and selectivity and interference in countries’ internal affairs, saying that Burundi had actively improved its regional and national development, achieving stable development in the country. The international community should increase international cooperation with and development assistance to Burundi to continue to improve its socio-economic situation.

The Human Rights Council should avoid politicisation and double standards and respect the human rights development path chosen by the people of Burundi. Adopting resolutions without the support of the country concerned was counter-productive, as then the recommendations would not be implemented. Some speakers said that Burundi’s participation in regional diplomatic efforts was evidence of its commitment to playing a role in the global community. The Council should prioritise deploying its limited resources to open and constructive dialogue through mechanisms that enjoyed the support of the country concerned, in a spirit of non-interference in the affairs of other States and respect for sovereignty, a speaker said. The criticism of Burundi heard in the Chamber of the Council was utterly unfounded, and the Council should strive to normalise relations rather than continue its path of interference.

Among questions posed to the Special Rapporteur were: in the current situation marked by political stalemate, did the Special Rapporteur see room for an inclusive inter-Burundian dialogue: what was the Special Rapporteur’s view that such measures should take place before the 2025 elections to improve the situation; what possibility, if any, did the Special Rapporteur see for a resumption of cooperation; how could the acceptance of the recommendations issued to Burundi during the Universal Periodic Review last year help the Special Rapporteur in his work; how could the international community better help the Government to ensure respect, without any discrimination, of freedoms of assembly, peaceful association and expression in the context of the run-up to the 2025 elections; and could the Special Rapporteur provide more information on the role of women in society, particularly with regard to the increase in trafficking?

Concluding Remarks

FORTUNÉ GAETAN ZONGO, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, said there were criteria underpinning a Special Procedure’s mandate, in particular impartiality, independence and objectivity. During the course of his mandate, he had never breached those principles and had carried out monitoring on a daily basis. He was sceptical when there was no cooperation but a lot of contestations. His mandate was essential and relevant. The reading of the report should take place comprehensively, not just cherry-picking parts to use. Facts that he had reported on had objectively happened and this could be verified.

When diversity was part of the vision, that was when things could improve. There was no turnkey solution; Burundians needed to find ways to promote a dialogue among themselves. Burundi was singling itself out through repetitive actions, which were being observed by the Special Rapporteur, who suggested what actions could be taken. In the reports, there were consistent recurring challenges which had not yet been addressed. Once they were addressed, those challenges would no longer be raised. The international community needed to help Burundi to hold peaceful and transparent elections. This was the only way to ensure elections would bolster democracy and the rule of law, and strengthen human rights in the country.

In his last report, Mr. Zongo said he underscored that progress had been made regarding human trafficking in Burundi. There were certain cultural elements which needed to be addressed, including that women rarely had access to land. The elections were a priority. The Special Rapporteur would carefully monitor the recommendations accepted by Burundi during the Universal Periodic Review, and their implementation. Rebuilding trust was a matter of leadership, which had begun to show itself since the new President came to power. Now there needed to be catalysts to breathe life into the rekindling of trust between Burundi and the international community.

Interactive Dialogue on the Oral Update of the High Commissioner on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in the Run-Up to the 2020 Presidential Election and in its Aftermath

Presentation of Oral Update

NADA AL-NASHIF, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said three years on from the contested Presidential elections in August 2020, the human rights situation in Belarus remained grave, showing no signs of improvement. Instead, there was further shrinking of civic space and continuing lack of respect for fundamental freedoms, evidenced by a campaign of violence and repression against individuals who opposed the Government, or were perceived to be doing so, expressing critical or independent views. Systematic impunity continued to allow those responsible for gross human rights violations to evade accountability for their actions. The Office’s documentation revealed an ongoing and distressing pattern of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions on trumped-up charges, targeting various segments of society, including government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, academics, trade unionists, religious figures, members of minorities, lawyers, and others who sought to exercise their fundamental rights.

There was deep concern about the conditions of detention, in particular for those charged or convicted on politically motivated charges. Since the last update, the authorities had further tightened their already far-reaching control over civic space. Recent legislative proposals, if adopted, would pose significant threats to communities and individuals, exposing them to discrimination and harassment. Against this grim background, the situation in Belarus had forced at least an estimated 300,000 persons to leave the country since May 2020, and the repression was increasingly extending beyond the borders of Belarus, targeting those who had already left.

The Office deeply regretted the Government’s ongoing lack of cooperation. Urgent actions were needed, including the prompt release of detainees and prisoners charged on politically motivated grounds. Human rights violations, including the systematic repression of civil society, independent media, and opposition groups, must end. Belarus must take immediate steps to uphold human rights and protect all individuals within its borders. Ms. Al-Nashif called for prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into past human rights violations, ensuring appropriate remedies and holding those responsible to account. Member States should actively support other forms of accountability, notably through national proceedings based on established principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, consistent with international law.

Statement by Country Concerned

Belarus, speaking as a country concerned, said the Council had again been presented with another report based on unreliable sources and biased conclusions. Its authors continued to exaggerate Western interpretations of the 2020 Presidential election. The experience of the "colour revolution" in Belarus was a stress test that the country had passed and used as an incentive for further political and civil development. Belarus had adopted Constitutional reform and modernised legislation to strengthen the constitutional order. However, the reaction of the Office of the High Commissioner and Special Procedures to the reforms was reduced to rabid criticism in line with the campaign of disinformation launched by a number of Western countries against the Belarusian State.

The accusations of presence of political prisoners in Belarus, arbitrary detentions, torture and arrests were politically motivated and unfounded. Crimes against national security, attacks on the police, and financial crimes in Belarus were punished no more severely than in the European Union, United States, and Great Britain. Accusations of harassment of civil society were false; there were more than 2,000 non-governmental organizations active in the country. Neither the resolutions, nor the sanctions enacted against Belarus were effective.

There was a way out of the current impasse. The Council needed to respect the choice of the Belarusian people and their right to independently choose their path and development. Belarus was ready to discuss any problems, but would only undertake dialogues with those who respected the Belarusian people, their choices, traditions and national interest.

Discussion

In the discussion, some speakers said the human rights situation in Belarus was catastrophic. The Belarusian authorities’ violations against civil society actors, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and media workers, anti-war protesters and opponents of the Belarusian authorities were increasingly massive and systematic, and some of these violations could amount to crimes against humanity. The entire Belarusian society lived in fear of intimidation, harassment, prosecution, arbitrary arrests and detention.

Some speakers expressed deep concern at the notable increase in the practice of incommunicado detention, namely targeting political opposition members and civil society activists, urging Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and others detained on politically motivated charges in Belarus, including members of human rights organizations. There was grave concern for the ongoing crackdown on independent journalists, human rights defenders and organizations. Further, speakers expressed concern about forced disappearances, torture and ill treatment, sexual violence and excessive use of force by law enforcement, sometimes resulting in deaths, saying these crimes were targeting opposition figures in a climate of total impunity.

The Belarusian authorities must ensure immediate and unconditional release of all arbitrarily detained persons, while the international community had a collective responsibility to ensure accountability for the violations of international human rights law and to continue fighting against impunity. The Belarusian authorities must conduct independent, impartial and credible investigations into all alleged serious human rights violations, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and fully cooperate with the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe and United Nations mandates and mechanisms on the situation in Belarus. Several speakers called upon the Belarusian authorities to stop enabling Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine by allowing Russian forces to use its territory. Speakers also condemned in the strongest possible terms Russia’s unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Belarus and called on Belarus to immediately ensure their safe return.

A speaker stressed the need for an independent investigative mechanism into the situation in Belarus which had a broader mandate and was sufficiently funded. Other speakers called for a moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. Belarus was urged to comply with its international obligations and uphold human rights, engaging in dialogue with its international partners. Each and every political prisoner, including the members of Viasna Human Rights Centre, must be released forthwith and without conditions.

One speaker respected the development path independently chosen by the people of Belarus, as well as its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, pointing out that the people of Belarus were unable to fully enjoy human rights due to unilateral coercive measures, and that some States ignored the progress made by the State for the promotion and protection of human rights, imposing country-specific mechanisms that seriously exacerbated division and confrontation in the Human Rights Council. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should refrain from using false information to make baseless accusations against developing countries, using them as a political tool. The resolution was an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus and violated the principle of objectivity, impartiality and non-selectivity.

Baseless sanctions against Belarus should cease, allowing its people to enjoy their human rights. Another speaker commended Belarus for its legislative and political and other reforms aimed at strengthening constitutional order and security and enhancing the protection of citizens’ rights and interests. The undue pressure that continued to be exerted on Belarus by the adoption of unnecessary and polarising mechanisms was deplored, as were the sanctions that had brought about untold suffering to innocent citizens. The Council should engage in constructive and respectful dialogue in order to strengthen, not weaken, the Government’s ability to respect its obligations.

Among questions raised were: how could the international community help ensure the safe return of Ukrainian children to Ukraine; could the High Commissioner provide more details on the current implementation of the amendments to the law on citizenship; how could the international community best support those Belarusians who had been forced into exile; how could the international community strengthen its accountability measures to prevent further human rights violations, including those against national minorities and migrants; how could States help to support the fight against impunity that prevailed in Belarus; and how could the international community contribute to an improvement of the human rights situation in Belarus?


Produced by the United Nations Information Service in Geneva for use of the information media; not an official record.
English and French versions of our releases are different as they are the product of two separate coverage teams that work independently.

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