On 3 November, a number of mass media published new stories on the meeting of the Universal Periodic Review working group, presenting the discussion of the report of Belarus as support for the current regime by the Human Rights Council. Almost all media used the text published by the UN Watch, a non-governmental organization known for its critical attitude to the work of the UN, as a source. It was UN Watch that wrote the controversial phrase, which was distributed on the Internet “51 out of 92 countries highly appreciated the achievements of Belarus in the field of human rights”. This one-sided assessment seriously distorts the meaning and content of what happened in Geneva on 2 November.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a collaborative mechanism through which human rights standards and practices of United Nations Member States are verified. It is the first UN human rights mechanism that is universal, which means that all states are obliged to go through this process, one after another and on an equal footing. The UPR became operational in 2008.
Consideration of the report of Belarus on human rights took place on November 2 at the UN Headquarters in Geneva as part of the 36th session of the Working Group on the UPR. This is the third report of Belarus of this kind — the first two review cycles were conducted in 2010 and 2015. It is important to note that the review of the report on Belarus was planned in advance and that formal discussions were to focus on the implementation of recommendations since the previous review, rather than the current situation. Indeed, between 2016 and 2019, the Government of Belarus has made significant progress in implementing some of the recommendations, as noted by many participants in the meeting, making it clear that this is the direction the world is welcoming. For example, the delegation of Belarus was congratulated on the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2015), adoption of the first National Human Rights Plan (2016-2019) and readiness to invite several thematic UN Special Rapporteurs to visit.
At the same time, despite the fact that current events are not the subject of discussion, almost half of all participants in the dialogue felt it necessary to speak out on the subject of the events of recent months, strongly condemning such flagrant violations of human rights as disproportionate use of force against protesters, arbitrary arrest, torture and ill-treatment in prisons, suppression of freedom of assembly and association, suppression of freedom of speech and expression.
It is important to note that the Human Rights Council (HRC) did not give any assessment of the achievements of Belarus. The Universal Periodic Review, which took place on 2 November, is only one of the Council’s mechanisms. The HRC consists of 47 countries, but all UN member states participate in the discussion of UPR reports, not only HRC members. The Human Rights Council, as a UN body, does not consider the report of Belarus and is not authorized to assess the situation in the country. Only individual Member States, i.e. any of the 193 Member States of the United Nations, can make comments, ask questions and, most importantly, make recommendations during the UPR, but not the organization itself or its bodies.
During the discussion of the report of Belarus 92 states took the floor. It was noted that not only Eastern and Western European countries traditionally taking the floor, but also a large number of Asian states (29 countries, or almost a third of all speakers), as well as Latin American and African countries, many of which showed high awareness and negative attitude to what is happening in Belarus, were highly involved in the discussion.
Absolute numbers of delegations spoke out with varying degrees of constructive criticism or constructive recommendations. It is difficult to fully assess where the number of “51 countries that supported Belarus” came from. UN Watch may have counted those delegations that traditionally began their statements with words of support in the direction of the reporting country, which is a well-established diplomatic practice, recognition as positive the fact that the state consent to participate in the process, readiness to listen to and consider recommendations of other countries. However, starting on a soft and positive note, most participants end up with specific recommendations. For example, the phrase “We thank Belarus for its participation in the promotion of sustainable development goals” by the representative of the Netherlands at the beginning of the presentation did not prevent the delegation from making a very specific recommendation “to introduce into the Criminal Code an article providing for responsibility for all forms of torture”.
Many of the recommendations were related to the events of recent months (cease intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest and disproportionate use of force, release all political prisoners, investigate allegations of ill-treatment and torture by state authorities, engage in a genuine dialogue with civil society, among others), others were more general (abolition of the death penalty, domestic violence, establishment of a National Human Rights Institution in accordance with the Paris Principles, acceptance of the UN Special Rapporteur visiting the country, etc.).
It is the recommendations that are most important in the UPR procedure. All recommendations made by the countries participating in the dialogue are recorded by the UPR Working Group, which then publishes the report. The reporting country may accept certain recommendations at its discretion.
It should be noted that even accepted recommendations are not legally binding for the states in question. However, the UPR assumes that the states voluntarily undertake to follow the recommendations of their choice. Normally, each country will agree to implement about two-thirds of all the recommendations made.
On November 6, the final document of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group on Belarus with a summary of the review progress was presented at the UN Headquarters in Geneva. The final version of this document will be available on 20 November 2020.
During the third cycle of the UPR on Belarus, representatives of 92 countries made 266 recommendations to improve the human rights situation in the country. The Belarusian delegation, which took the floor after the presentation of the outcome document, estimates that the recommendations received address around 100 thematic issues.
In response Yuri Ambrazevich, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the UN in Geneva, stated that “Belarus opposes any attempt to politicize the review mechanism, including through the introduction of the recommendations unacceptable to any sovereign state that could undermine the dialogue established within the mechanism”.
In accordance with the established practice, the Government of Belarus will express its position on all recommendations made during the review before the next session of the Human Rights Council (February-March 2021).
Belarusian-Swiss Association RAZAM.CH will monitor developments.