Oral Update by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights: No Improvements since September, the Human Rights Situation in Belarus Continues to Deteriorate

On 4 December 2020, pursuant to Human Rights Council’s resolution 45/1, the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, delivered her Oral Update on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

What did the High Commissioner report on?

  • No improvement in the human rights situation in the country. The situation continues to deteriorate particularly with respect to the right of peaceful assembly.
  • Since 9 August, more than 27,000 people have been arrested.
  • Allegations of injuries during dispersals and of ill-treatment during arrests continue to emerge.
  • Almost 20 senior citizens were detained during the pensioners’ peaceful march on 30 November.
  • More severe penalties imposed on protestors, with increased numbers of demonstrators charged under various articles of the Criminal Code.
  • Over 900 people have been treated as suspects in criminal cases in the context of the elections.
  • Peaceful protesters are systematically and violently dispersed, including through the use of tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
  • At least four persons lost their lives in the context of the protests.
  • Demonstrators and passers-by are randomly chased, kicked and beaten with batons during the dispersal of rallies, or during and after their transport to police stations or detention centres.
  • Masked men, without insignia or identification,have frequently taken part in the dispersal of protests, alongside riot police. Unmarked vehicles are used to transport those detained.
  • There are numerous allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in custody, with up to 2,000 complaints reportedly lodged by the end of October. OHCHR has no information on any outcome of investigations into these allegations.
  • Many victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of reprisals.
  • Detained people are held in overcrowded cells, without adequate ventilation, despite the risks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic; they are denied food, water, access to the toilet and medical treatment.
  • In numerous cases of arrests, due process and fair trial rights were not respected, particularly the rights of a person to be informed of the reason for arrest, be promptly brought before a judge, seek legal counsel and receive medical assistance; and the right to notify relatives.
  • The harassment and arrests of many human rights defenders and journalists continues. The arrests of 373 journalists  have been documented since August. Six journalists are currently in detention. Three of them face criminal charges and prison sentences.
  • Lawyers  associated with the opposition, or acting as counsel in cases involving human rights violations, are under pressure. Some face criminal charges, and others were disbarred.
  • Disciplinary sanctions are imposed on teachers and students.
  • People who participate in the protests are threatened with being stripped of their parental rights.

What did the High Commissioner called on the Government of Belarus?

  • To immediately release all those unlawfully or arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and participation;
  • To respect the right of peaceful assembly, and cease the violent dispersal of peaceful assemblies and  judicial retaliation against organizers and participants;
  • To create an enabling environment for all individuals, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers to participate in public affairs and carry out their activities safely and freely;
  • To ensure that prompt, thorough, independent, transparent and impartial investigations are conducted into all allegations of torture and other human rights violations, including the deaths of at least  four persons  in the context of the protests; to hold  perpetrators to account; and to provide justice, truth and reparations to victims and their families;
  • to take steps towards a genuine, respectful and inclusive national dialogue.

Next steps:

A technical team from the High Commissioner’s Office in Geneva has not been granted access to Belarus for monitoring purposes. It will nevertheless continue remote monitoring. As requested by this Council, Ms Bachelet will submit a comprehensive written report to its 46th session, with recommendations aiming to support strengthening human rights and the rule of law, and developing accountable institutions.

Interactive Dialogue

Apart from Belarus, the country concerned, taking part in the discussion were seven Ministers of Foreign Affairs, fifty representatives of states, and nine non-governmental organisations.

States and group of states that took part in the discussion: Denmark on behalf of Scandinavian countries, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, European Union, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on behalf of 39 countries, Germany, Canada, Iran, Cuba, Austria, Syria, Luxembourg, Russia, Switzerland, China, Sweden, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Ireland, Slovenia, Myanmar, Croatia, United Kingdom, Mexico, Nicaragua, Latvia, New Zealand, Norway, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Egypt, Malta, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Lebanon, Japan, Bulgaria, Australia, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Cambodia.

As per the established practice, the country concerned is usually the first to take the floor. The representative of Belarus, however, made a statement requesting to take the floor at the end of the dialogue, after all participants have spoken.

Foreign Ministers of Denmark (speaking on behalf of the Scandinavian countries), Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia and Lithuania delivered their statements condemning the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and reiterating that the violations should not go unpunished.

The international community regretted the lack of genuine steps to de-escalate the crisis. During weekly peaceful protests, violence is increasingly being used by security forces, including against the minors and the most vulnerable, such as the recent attacks against the elderly and people with disabilities. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment during and after the arrest are extremely preoccupying. Not a single criminal case has been opened concerning human rights violations by law enforcement officers. A number of Western states underlined the importance of following the Recommendations made by in the OSCE Rapporteur’s Report under the Moscow Mechanism.

Arbitrary arrests and systematic prosecution of peaceful protesters, opposition leaders, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders should stop. The delegates expressed their concern regarding the emerging climate of impunity, and called for all human rights violations to be investigated in a thorough and transparent manner, and all political prisoners to be immediately released.

In the ensuing dialogue, the delegates brought to the attention of the High Commissioner the following issues:

  • Dismissal of professors, lecturers, and students from the universities, with latter facing military conscription.
  • The need to protect women human rights defenders.
  • The need to ensure safe return of those who are currently in exile.
  • The need to investigate the faith of those people who went missing.
  • The need to address the deteriorated children’s rights, both because children are often arrested and because parents are threatened with deprivation of parental rights.
  • The need to re-store the independent judicial system.
  • The need to ensure a genuine dialogue with civil society without any pre-conditions.

The representative of the United Kingdom, speaking on behalf of 39 states, raised the issue of media freedom and excessive use of force against journalists. “Punishing journalists for doing their job is unacceptable”, said the statement. Belarusian reporter Katsiaryna Barysevich who was arrested while investigating the death of 31-year old Raman Bandarenka, should be immediately released.

Raman Bandarenka’s death in custody was widely condemned by a number of speakers, including by the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, representatives of European Union, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland, Slovenia, Croatia and the Nobel peace prize winner Sviatlana Alexievich who took the floor during the speaking segment of non-governmental organizations, among others.

A number of countries evoked the allegations of sexual violence used against the detained, including Germany, Canada, Luxembourg, and Finland, among others.

Czech Republic brought up an initiative of creating Independent mechanism for investigation, and decried repression of foreign diplomats. The United Kingdom echoed this call saying that two British diplomats were expelled for observing the peaceful protests. Ireland spoke on the need to stop politically motivated persecutions and release Maria Rabkova, Marina Dubnina and Irina Sukhy. Croatia condemned the revoking of accreditation for foreign journalists. Malta raised up the issue of the LGBTIQ persons’ right to freedom of expression.

At the same time, a number of countries in their statements focused on the need to avoid politicization of the Council’s work and ensuring objectivity. Among the states who advocated for the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference into the domestic affairs were Iran, Cuba, Syria, Russia, China, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Laos, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Lebanon, Tajikistan, and Cambodia. A number of the countries also brought up the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the situation inside the country.

Iran said that the discussions should not be based on unverified and unreliable information, while Cuba expressed their solidarity with President Alexander Lukashenko and the brotherly people of Belarus, and Syria welcomed President Lukashenko’s announcement of the upcoming changes in the Constitution. Russian Federation, in turn, said that the European states were “hyping up”  the Belarusian subjects but closing their eyes against other situations, like those of the violent protests in Germany, France and the United States. China commended Belarus for its achievements in promotion and protection of human rights, and said they were convinced that under the leadership of the President Lukashenko, people of Belarus can maintain stability and social order through their own efforts. Venezuela said that the August elections were “fair and transparent”. Azerbaijan сalled the Office of the High Commissioner to contribute to dialogue, by providing its assistance and expertise.

Nine civil society organizations took active part in the discussion, including

  • Human Rights House Foundation: in the complete absence of a domestic process for independently investigating violence and torture by Belarusian security forces, the Council mandate should consider its own investigative mechanism to document serious violations.
  • Human Rights Watch: the close monitoring and reporting by the High Commissioner should be continued and intensified beyond the 46th Council’s session.
  • World Organization Against Torture (OMCT): international, systematic and wide-spread acts of torture of the peaceful citizens may amount to crimes of humanity. Independent Investigative Mechanism should be created and the use of universal jurisdiction is recommended.
  • Article 19 & Human Constanta: the popular Telegram channel Nexta was added to the list of extremist materials. Access to 72 websites remains blocked.
  • CIVICUS (joint statement): if the domestic mechanisms are proven ineffective than the international community should take further steps.
  • Amnesty International: independent voices are brutally repressed. No criminal case opened against the police. The human rights situation has worsened, despite the fact that the protests remain remarkably peaceful.
  • FIDH: there were more than 31,000 arbitrary arrests to date.
  • Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights: spoke on persecution of lawyers.
  • PEN International: statement read out by the Nobel-prize winner Sviatlana Alexievich, including on the death in custody of Raman Bandarenka.

Statement delivered by the representative of Belarus, Permanent Representative of Belarus H.E. Yury Ambrazevich

  • The situation of human rights in Belarus does not deserve special consideration in the United Nations. Belarus received positive comments on the progress made during the UPR review a month ago.
  • Resolution 45/1 serves the unique objective of putting pressure on a sovereign state and is in breach with the UN Charter principle of non-interference into the internal affairs.
  • In other countries, such as Germany and Poland, protests are much more widespread and often brutally suppressed. 
  • In Belarus, most people are continuing with their normal lives, the government is functioning and so are factories and offices; there is no famine, no wars, no threat to the neighbouring countries.
  • The protests took to the streets for the first time in 10 years. Some people continue to participate in political life, but this activity is slowing down (not more than 1/10 of 1% of the population of a city, or 10-20 people in small towns). The reduction of the number of protesters is taking place thanks to creating of platforms for a dialogue. Those who continue to protest are the individuals who reject the opportunities for a dialogue created for them.
  • The President of Belarus announced the convening of the All People’s Assembly at the end of January 2021.
  • The unprecedented number of press releases issued by the UN that accuse the government in crimes and use the unverified information, nobody quotes the sources, nobody awaits the official responses of the government nor uses these responses.
  • Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine directly fill their pockets as a result of what is happening in Belarus. Lithuania since 1990 has lost 1/3 of its population, Ukraine want Belarusian programmers to come work for them, Poland expects the same with the Belarusian doctors. This is what protection of democracy and humanitarian visas actually mean. Poland continues to support the activities of some citizens of Belarus who administrate Telegram channels of extremism nature. The individuals in question should be extradited to Belarus.
  • The UN member states should refrain from laundering the Belarusian question in the UN.
  • The European Union should return to action that prevailed in the last three years, instead of opting for the use of sanctions.
  • Other member states should reject the use of universal coercive measures against Belarus.
  • To paraphrase the quote by Hemingway, The Bell Tolls for Each and Every One of Us.

Concluding Remarks by Ms Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

  • After the rectors of Belarusian universities received instructions on the 26 of October to expel students who took part in the protests, 133 students were expelled. Academic staff were also targeted, and several professors were fired.
  • The authorities are criminalizing the work of human rights defenders, when their work is most needed in documenting violations and supporting victims of such violations. Women defenders have been particularly targeted by the administrative and criminal charges.
  • The implementation of the recommendations made by the UN experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Belarus, will be the best way to ensure accountability for human rights violations. E.g. after so many recommendations, including those made during the UPR, Belarus still has not created a National Human Rights Institution.
  • Recording and reaction to complaints of the human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests, police brutality, torture and ill-treatment, is needed by the UN member states. Thorough, independent and impartial investigations should be launched into these reports. The perpetrators of these violations should be brought to justice, redress should be provided to the victims.
  • International community should also continue with assistance with the work and independent investigations of those who are in Belarus, civil society, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders… There is a need for further coordination and collaboration among various human rights organizations and regional organizations.
  • The international community should provide peer support to relevant Belarusian authorities, such as guidance, advice and assistance.
  • As immediate steps, the international community should insist on the release of all persons detained for expressing their opinions. International community should also insist on the Belarusian authorities’ implementing of the relevant recommendations made by the international mechanisms related to democracy and ensuring the rule of law.
  • Hundreds of children, mostly 15 and 16 years old, were arrested during the protests. The arrests should always remain as a matter of the last resort. Sanctions against parents for failing to stop their teenage from participation in the protests are unacceptable. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has already expressed concern on the deprivation of parental rights that could be applied as a measure to punish parents. It is alarming to see that this practice is used to intimidate the parents and restrict their right of freedom of assembly and expression.
  • The UN mechanisms have provided Belarus with a broad set of recommendations to reform its judicial system. The independence and the integrity of the judiciary continues to be undermined.
  • For the genuine and inclusive dialogue to take place, Belarusian authorities should first stop repressions, violence and intimidation.
  • LGBTIQ persons remain vulnerable to various forms of discrimination, e.g. limitations on the freedom of expression of the LGBTIQ activists or artists. Incidents were reported of the State officials using the homophobic language in their official capacity. Belarus needs comprehensive, anti-discriminatory legislation which will need to be applied in practice.
  • Lack of cooperation of Belarus with the OHCHR limits their capacity of monitoring the situation in the country, particularly, of collecting the first-hand information. As a result they are compelled to do the remote monitoring and collect information from other sources, including remote interviews. OHCHR has an established Methodology, which is vigorously applied. If OHCHR had access to Belarus, it could verify the information and also have information from the government.
  • Accountability is critical for the prevention of further violations and ensuring durable solutions. The primary responsibility for that lies with the State which should investigate violations and take action to hold those responsible to the account, provide victims with effective remedies, and take legislative and other measures to prevent the recurrence of such violations.