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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
22 September 2023
I welcome the opportunity to address the Council and provide an update on the human rights situation in Belarus, in accordance with Resolution 52/29.
Three years from the contested Presidential elections of August 2020, the human rights situation in Belarus remains grave, showing no signs of improvement. On the contrary, we are witnessing the further shrinking of civic space and continuing lack of respect for fundamental freedoms, evidenced by a campaign of violence and repression against individuals who oppose the Government, or who are perceived to be doing so, expressing critical or independent views. Systematic impunity continues to allow those who are responsible for gross human rights violations to evade accountability for their actions.
The documentation of OHCHR reveals an ongoing and distressing pattern of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions on trumped-up charges, the targeting of various segments of society, including government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, academics, trade unionists, religious figures, members of minorities, lawyers, and others who seek to exercise their fundamental rights.
As of this month, September 2023, the Belarus authorities' crackdown on those critical or perceived to be critical of the Government has resulted in over 3,750 individuals being convicted in criminal trials characterized by severe and disproportionate prison sentences, with little regard for due process or indeed, the right to a fair trial. Notably, pursuant to amendments to the criminal code made in 2022, trials in absentia are now possible and have been conducted against prominent political opponents and individuals currently residing outside Belarus. Inside Belarus, 1,500 individuals are currently detained on charges that our Office believes to be politically motivated.
I am deeply concerned about the conditions of detention, in particular for those charged or convicted on politically motivated charges. Detainees, both men and women, are subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including beatings, overcrowding, sleep deprivation, denial of access to medical care, repeated solitary confinement and unsafe or exploitative compulsory labour. In addition, some detainees were subjected to severe psychological violence, including death threats, rape threats, sexually abusive comments, insults, and other forms of abuse.
High-profile opposition figures and human rights defenders serving sentences face broad restrictions in contacting their family or lawyers, with some of them held fully incommunicado for months, their families lacking official information about their whereabouts or conditions. Of particular concern is the increasing difficulty for detainees to access legal assistance. Over 100 lawyers have been disbarred since 2020, with some being detained, even prosecuted for fulfilling their professional duties. Over 200 lawyers have chosen to leave the profession, while many others have fled the country due to fear of arrest.
We are deeply troubled by the reported deaths in detention, including cases of suicide. I remind the Government of its special responsibility for the safety and health of all persons in its custody, and call for thorough investigation of each and every such death – whatever the cause - to clearly establish the facts and circumstances, to ensure the appropriate accountability and to enable measures to be put in place to avoid recurrence.
Since our last update, the authorities have further tightened their already far-reaching control over civic space. Again, as of this month, the Government's so-called "extremists" list includes almost 3,300 individuals. The authorities are increasingly employing the label “extremism” to stifle dissent, loosely classifying activities described as disseminating false information, insulting officials, discrediting institutions, organizing mass riots, calling for sanctions and inciting social hatred as also constituting “extremist” acts subject to criminal penalty. The particular situation, once again, of journalists is alarming, with more than 670 arrests recorded by the Belarusian Association of Journalists since 2020.
The crackdown on civil society organizations continues, with as many as 900 NGOs being dissolved and 492 organizations forced to shut down to avoid criminal prosecution. Similarly, new restrictions on political party registration raise concerns as they effectively exclude opposition parties, including from participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2024.
I am deeply concerned by recent legislative proposals that, if adopted, would pose significant threats to communities and individuals, exposing them to discrimination and harassment. One such troubling draft aims to unduly regulate religious groups, imposing restrictions on their activities and religious education based, once again, on vague terms such as "extremism", "terrorism," or incompatibility with "the ideology of the Belarusian state." Another discriminatory proposal seeks to arbitrarily restrict freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association of members of the LGBTI community, under the guise of prohibiting so-called “propaganda”. This proposal also aims to penalize a so-called “child free lifestyle”, in violation of personal freedom and reproductive choice of individuals.
The recent expansion of the application of the death penalty to include the ill-defined crime of "terrorism" and "high treason by government officials or members of the armed forces" is similarly alarming and distressing, running flatly counter to the worldwide movement away from the death penalty. I note with deep concern that dozens of activists and human rights defenders have been charged with "terrorism", and may therefore run the risk of capital sentences for conduct that is entirely protected under international human rights law. Once again, I urge an immediate moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty, as a first step towards its eventual abolition.
Against this grim background, the situation in Belarus has forced at least an estimated 300,000 persons to leave the country since May 2020 and the repression is increasingly extending beyond the borders of Belarus, targeting those who have already left. Regrettably, many have been added to the Government's "extremists" list, as I outlined, while their relatives and friends remaining in Belarus face tremendous pressure and, at times, direct retaliation from the authorities.
In this context, amendments to the Citizenship Law, effective since July of this year, are deeply concerning. They provide the authorities with the power to revoke the citizenship of individuals residing abroad who have been convicted – including in absentia – of "extremism" or and I quote "causing serious harm to the interests of Belarus." Additionally, Belarusians are required to inform the authorities about their residences abroad, leading to heightened surveillance of those in exile as well as their families remaining at home. These amendments risk inflicting statelessness and provide broad space for abuse and misuse; they should be repealed. Of further concern, on 4 September, a Presidential Decree was issued ordering Belarusian diplomatic missions abroad to stop the issuance and renewal of passports for Belarusians in those countries.
Our Office deeply regrets the Government’s ongoing lack of cooperation. We call on the Government to engage constructively with our Office and other human rights mechanisms. Urgent actions are 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 should take immediate steps to uphold human rights and protect all individuals within its borders.
I call for prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into past human rights violations, ensuring appropriate remedies and holding those responsible to account. In light of the prevailing impunity in the country, 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.
I would express our acknowledgment and gratitude to the many victims, the survivors, the members of civil society who have shared their often deeply painful experiences, in cooperation with our Office. I am especially grateful to our experts Karinna Moskalenko, Susan Bazilli, and Monika Platek for their invaluable advice to the Office in the discharge of this mandate, and for the continued support provided by the Council’s Special Rapporteur on Belarus. A detailed report with recommendations will be presented at the next Council session.
Thank you, Mr. President.