I welcome the opportunity to update the Council today on the human rights situation in Belarus, pursuant to Resolution 49/26.
The OHCHR examination of the human rights situation in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath continues its work, with information relevant to alleged violations in Belarus being comprehensively documented and preserved.
Two years on from the August 2020 contested Presidential elections, the climate of repression continues with a deterioration of the human rights situation, involving serious violations of civil and political rights, and rampant impunity.
We observe a massive crackdown on civil society, the media, political opposition, trade unions and, more generally, on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and participation in public affairs.
Since my Office’s last update in March, the number of detained people on what OHCHR has reasonable grounds to believe are politically motivated charges grew to 1,296, from 1085 as reported in March.This includes opposition candidates, political activists, human rights defenders, trade union activists, journalists and protesters.
Authorities raid civil society organizations’ premises and the homes of human rights defenders and undertake arbitrary arrests and detention often on charges related to “extremist” activity, tax evasion, public order, involvement in activities of unregistered organizations, insult of public officials, and even high treason. Since August 2020, at least 370 organizations have made the difficult choice of closing their doors, to avoid potentially facing criminal charges. Over 634 organisations were or are in the process of dissolution by the authorities, including virtually all human rights groups working in the country.
In July 2022, the Supreme Court dissolved the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions along with its four member organizations, effectively dismantling the independent trade union movement.
Almost all independent media outlets are labelled as “extremist formations” and banned, forcing them to either close or relocate editorial offices abroad, compared to only one outlet before the 2020 presidential election. Hundreds of social media channels and blogs have also been banned.
The troubling amendments to the Law on Countering Extremism are enabling an increasing number of prosecutions of dissenters. According to the Investigative Committee, between 9 August 2020 and 1 July 2022, more than 11,000 criminal cases were opened related to “extremism”, with penalties foreseen of up to ten years imprisonment. We have received reports of individuals facing such charges merely for subscribing to groups in social networks or Telegram channels, as well as for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and areas. These measures raise serious concerns about compliance with the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality.
Trials against members of the political opposition, civil society activists, protestors, as well as persons arrested nearby protests, and journalists, are conducted in closed hearings, lacking respect for due process and the right to a fair trial. Recent amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code instituting special criminal proceedings (in absentia) against persons who are outside Belarus further erode fair trial and due process guarantees.
Of particular concern are amendments brought to the Criminal Code extending the death penalty to “attempts to carry out acts of terrorism and murders of government officials or public figures”. Dozens of political activists have already been charged with these crimes. Consistent with our general position of principle on the issue of death penalty, I urge an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty, as a step towards legal abolition of this penalty, along with a clear timeline for a comprehensive review thereof.
Furthermore, no genuine and impartial investigations into allegations of torture and cases of deaths are being conducted. On the contrary, we continue to receive credible reports of authorities harassing and intimidating those seeking justice in relation to such allegations, including relatives of victims, further undermining the rule of law and the judicial system.
Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. The crackdown’s human rights impacts, particularly on women, children and persons with disabilities, are of specific concern. There are also reports of seizures of assets, and unlawful evictions of relatives of those who left the country.
Belarus’s withdrawal from the UNECE Aarhus Convention is a regrettable step. Equally concerning is the Bill submitted by the Council of Ministers to the House of Representatives seeking to denounce the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If adopted, it would further diminish effective human rights protection by withdrawing the important right by all persons in Belarus to submit individual communications before the Human Rights Committee.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank all those – victims, survivors and others – who have shared their experiences with our Office.
I reiterate our call on the Government of Belarus to grant unhindered access to our Office, in order to best enable us to discharge the Council’s mandate to us. I also call on the Government to immediately release all prisoners arrested, charged or sentenced on politically motivated grounds, and cease all other ongoing human rights violations, including the systematic repression of civil society, independent media, and opposition groups.
I urge prompt, effective, transparent, and independent investigations into all past human rights violations or crimes under national or international law, with provision of appropriate remedies. The international community should pursue its calls to the Government, publicly and bilaterally, to meet its international human rights obligations, including combating impunity.
I am grateful for the continued engagement and support to OHCHR’s examination by the three experts – Ms Karinna Moskalenko, Ms Susan Bazilli and also Ms Monika Platek who replaced Mr. Marko Milanovic – and by the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus. The Office will present a detailed report and recommendations at the next session of this Council.