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AFTERNOON - Office of High Commissioner Describes a Climate of Repression in Belarus, a Deterioration of the Human Rights Situation, Serious Violations, and Rampant Impunity

Meeting Summaries

 

Human Rights Council Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine

 

Nada Al-Nashif, Acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, this afternoon updated the Human Rights Council on the Office of the High Commissioner’s examination of the situation of human rights in Belarus, saying that two years on from the August 2020 contested presidential elections, the climate of repression continued with a deterioration of the human rights situation, involving serious violations of civil and political rights, and rampant impunity.

Ms. Al-Nashif said the Office’s examination showed a massive crackdown on civil society, the media, political opposition, and trade unions, as well as on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and participation in public affairs.

Since the last update in March, Ms. Al-Nashif said the number of detained people on what the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had reasonable grounds to believe were politically motivated charges grew to 1,296, from 1,085 as reported in March. This included opposition candidates, political activists, human rights defenders, trade union activists, journalists and protesters. Authorities had raided the premises of civil society organizations and the homes of human rights defenders, undertaking arbitrary arrests and detention.

In addition, Ms. Al-Nashif said that trials against members of the political opposition, civil society activists, protestors, persons arrested near to protests, and journalists, were conducted in closed hearings, lacking respect for due process and the right to a fair trial. Of particular concern were 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 had already been charged with these crimes. Ms. Al-Nashif urged an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Belarus, speaking as a country concerned, said once again there had been a presentation that was not only far removed from reality, but deliberately distorted, leaving a sovereign State no other choice but to ignore it. Belarus would abide by the principles of impartiality and neutrality. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should instead investigate the presidential elections that took place in the United States, and issue similar reports. The sources and authors of the report were one.

Belarus said that people who broke the law were handed down sentences by the Courts, for specific offences or crimes. The report did not mention those who were pardoned, or those who walked free, or the upcoming amnesty. Belarus was carrying out constitutional transformations calmly and peacefully. Belarus welcomed all States to determine their own path of development.

In the ensuing discussion, some speakers said the human rights situation in Belarus was appalling. There were currently more than 1,300 political prisoners behind bars, and the authorities continued imprisoning and torturing persons for exercising their human rights, including their right to freedom of expression. The authorities had developed a widespread system of repression. Without a functioning independent judicial system, basic human rights such as the right to peaceful assembly and protest as well as the freedom of expression could not be protected and thus could not be realised.

Other speakers said the report was part a dangerous trend, namely interference in the sovereign affairs of a State, and was part of an attempt to manipulate the Human Rights Council in a context of political interest, demonising a sovereign State, aiming for forced political change. The selected targeting of countries was unacceptable.

Speaking in the interactive debate were Estonia on behalf of a group of the Nordic-Baltic countries, Luxembourg on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Finland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Norway, Switzerland, France, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Cuba, Austria, Venezuela, Malta, Russian Federation, China, Syrian Arab Republic, Czech Republic, Iceland, Estonia, United States, United Kingdom, Romania, Denmark, Republic of Moldova, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Sweden, Malawi, Albania, Latvia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan.

Also speaking were the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the following non-governmental organizations: Conscience and Peace Tax International, Centre for Reproductive Rights Inc., Human Rights House Foundation, World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations, Advocates for Human Rights, and International Commission of Jurists.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine.

In concluding remarks, Pablo de Greiff, member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said the Commission was committed to the protection of the confidentiality and safety of victims, and understood the process of accountability to include measures that improved the conditions of victims.

Jasminka Džumhu, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said the international community should provide assistance and support for victims, with a database for witnesses and a strengthening of forensic capacities.

Erik Møse, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said concerning forced deportation and filtration, the Commission would pursue these issues. On access to other territories, it would go into Izium, and would seek access to the occupied territories.

In the discussion, some speakers noted that there had been unlawful attacks on civilians and unlawful airstrikes on civilian infrastructure which amounted to war crimes. There had been a large rise in enforced disappearance committed by the Russian Federation. Those guilty of crimes needed to be held accountable. All parties to the conflict needed to respect international human rights law and protect civilians.

Speaking in the dialogue were Ukrainian Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights, as well as the following non-governmental organizations: Conscience and Peace Tax International, Centre for Reproductive Rights, Inc., Human Rights House Foundation, World Federation of Ukrainian Women's Organizations, Child Rights Connect, International Bar Association, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Amnesty International, World Organization against Torture, and iuventum e.V..

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-first regular session can be found here.

At the end of the meeting, the Council met in private to discuss its complaint procedure.

The Council will next meet in public at 10 a.m. on Monday, 26 September when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the independent international fact-finding mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. It will then hear the High Commissioner’s oral update on the human rights situation in Myanmar, followed by a general debate on its agenda item four on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine

The interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine started in the previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

In the discussion, many speakers welcomed the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry and thanked it for its work. There had been unlawful attacks by Russian on Ukrainian civilians and unlawful airstrikes on civilian infrastructure which amounted to war crimes. One speaker said that there had been a large rise in cases of enforced disappearances committed by the Russian Federation. Several persons had died as a result of torture in Russian detention facilities. Another speaker expressed concerns about recently uncovered mass graves.

A speaker raised serious concerns about the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Such children had limited ability to contact their families in Ukraine. Efforts to protect child rights needed to be prioritised.

The international community needed to support efforts to investigate war crimes, some speakers said. Those guilty of crimes needed to be held accountable. Civil society needed to continue to speak up about the atrocities being committed. The Commission should establish an international tribunal to hold Russian perpetrators of human rights abuses to account, one speaker said. All parties to the conflict needed to respect international human rights law and protect civilians. Some speakers called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

A number of speakers noted that all men in Russia faced the prospect of military call-up. Such action had only been taken in Russia once before by Stalin in 1930. The right to conscientious objection to military service should be respected.

A speaker said that women and girls faced barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health care. States were obliged to ensure access to such services and provide appropriate rehabilitation for survivors of sexual violence. Humanitarian organizations needed support in providing such services.

Nuclear power plants had been taken hostage in the war, increasing the risk of nuclear disaster, a speaker said. Such actions were unacceptable in food producing regions, and were of deep concern.

Concluding Remarks

PABLO DE GREIFF, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said concerning the Commission’s understanding of a victim-centred approach, the Commission was committed to the protection of the confidentiality and safety of victims, and understood the process of accountability to include measures that improved the conditions of victims. The notion of accountability was broad, and the Commission was committed to judicial accountability, but also made recommendations as to things that victims needed, probably immediately. This would come up in the next report in March.

JASMINKA DŽUMHU, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said that concerning what could be done to make the situation better, the international community should provide assistance and support for victims, with a database for witnesses and a strengthening of forensic capacities. A focus would also be put on children with special needs and women.

ERIK MØSE, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said concerning forced deportation and filtration, the Commission would pursue these issues. On access to other territories, it would go into Izium, and would seek access to the occupied territories. The Commission appreciated the support of the Human Rights Council and would look into its suggestions.

Interactive Dialogue on the Update of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

Presentation

NADA AL-NASHIF, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, updating the Human Rights Council on the Office of the High Commissioner’s examination of the situation of human rights in Belarus, said two years on from the August 2020 contested presidential elections in Belarus, the climate of repression continued with a deterioration of the human rights situation, involving serious violations of civil and political rights, and rampant impunity. The Office had observed a massive crackdown on civil society, the media, political opposition, and trade unions, as well as on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and participation in public affairs.

Since the last update in March, the number of detained people on what the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had reasonable grounds to believe were politically motivated charges grew to 1,296, from 1,085 as reported in March. This included opposition candidates, political activists, human rights defenders, trade union activists, journalists and protesters. Authorities had raided the premises of civil society organizations and the homes of human rights defenders, undertaking arbitrary arrests and detention.

Since August 2020, at least 370 organizations had made the difficult choice of closing their doors to avoid potentially facing criminal charges. Over 634 organizations were in the process of dissolution by the authorities, including virtually all human rights groups. 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 were labelled as “extremist formations” and banned. Hundreds of social media channels and blogs had also been banned.

Ms. Al-Nashif said that 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 10 years imprisonment. There were reports of individuals facing such charges merely for subscribing to groups in social networks or Telegram channels. These measures raised serious concerns about compliance with the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality. Trials against members of the political opposition, civil society activists, protestors, persons arrested near to protests, and journalists, were conducted in closed hearings, lacking respect for due process and the right to a fair trial.

Of particular concern were 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 had already been charged with these crimes.Ms. Al-Nashif urged an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty, as a step towards the legal abolition of the death penalty, along with a clear timeline for a comprehensive review thereof.

No genuine and impartial investigations into allegations of torture and cases of deaths were being conducted in Belarus. The Office continued to receive credible reports of authorities harassing and intimidating those seeking justice in relation to such allegations.

Tens of thousands of people had been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. There were also reports of seizures of assets, and unlawful evictions of relatives of those who left the country.

Ms. Al-Nashif called on the Government of Belarus to grant unhindered access to the Office to best enable it to discharge the Council’s mandate. She also called 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. Prompt, effective, transparent, and independent investigations into all past human rights violations or crimes under national or international law were needed, with the provision of appropriate remedies. The international community should pursue its calls to the Government to meet its international human rights obligations, including combatting impunity.

The Office would present a detailed report and recommendations at the next session of the Council.

Statement by Country Concerned

Belarus, speaking as a country concerned, said once again there had been a presentation that was not only far removed from reality, but deliberately distorted, leaving a sovereign State no other choice but to ignore it. Belarus would abide by the principles of impartiality and neutrality. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should instead investigate the presidential elections that took place in the United States, and issue similar reports. The sources and authors of the report were one. The report created the impression that the human rights entrepreneurs were vying with each other so as to vilify Belarus as much as possible.

Belarus had people who broke the law, and they were handed down sentences by the Courts, for specific offences or crimes. The report did not mention those who were pardoned, or those who walked free, or the upcoming amnesty. Law enforcement officers did not differ from those in Western countries when upholding law and order, except for the restrained use of tear gas and water cannons in Belarus, where they were only used rarely, unlike in the West. The situation of the United Nations human rights work was now an open subjugation of an entire system to the task of eradicating pluralism and variety, an open intention of the West, which sought to make pariahs out of unruly States, in blatant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Belarus was not erecting barbed wire fences to keep migrants out, and was not closing its borders and destroying regular contact between people. The opportunity to enter Belarus freely was ever expanding. What fostered friendly relations between peoples and nations was not iron curtains, nor the sowing of chaos in their countries. Belarus had not yet become another experiment of democracy - it was carrying out constitutional transformations calmly and peacefully. Belarus welcomed all States to determine their own path of development.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, some speakers said the human rights situation in Belarus was appalling. There were currently more than 1,300 political prisoners behind bars, and the authorities continued imprisoning and torturing persons for exercising their human rights, including their right to freedom of expression. The authorities had developed a widespread system of repression, and also targeted national minorities, mostly from Lithuania and Poland, with the exception of Russians. The crucial work of human rights defenders, non-governmental organizations and media was hampered by systematic repression. Some speakers said that all restrictive laws must be revoked. Belarus should take appropriate steps to ensure a fully functioning, independent judicial system and to address impunity.

Accountability and the rule of law were an imperative cornerstone of a democracy. Without a functioning independent judicial system, basic human rights such as the right to peaceful assembly and protest as well as the right to freedom of expression could not be protected and thus could not be realised. The absence of an independent judicial system left room for human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment. The Belarusian regime should understand that lasting political stability could not be secured by violating human rights. Many speakers called on the Belarusian authorities to stop its brutal crackdown, release all political prisoners, and choose the path of dialogue instead of violence.

Belarus should respect, protect, and fulfil human rights in compliance with its obligations under international human rights law, and fully adhere to the principles of democracy and the rule of law. Some speakers urged the Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, including human rights defenders, journalists, and persons belonging to national and other minorities, and cease harassment and reprisals against individuals exercising their human rights.

Some speakers also strongly condemned the human rights consequences of Belarus’ involvement in Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine and urged Belarusian authorities to adhere fully to its international obligations by stopping this involvement. Some speakers also supported international initiatives to hold all perpetrators of human rights violations in Belarus to account, including through the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur, and the International Accountability Platform for Belarus, and called on Belarusian authorities to grant these mechanisms access to the country.

A number of speakers said the report was part of a dangerous trend, namely interference in the sovereign affairs of States, and was part of an attempt to manipulate the Human Rights Council in a context of political interest, demonising a sovereign State, aiming for forced political change. The selected targeting of countries was unacceptable. The measures taken by Belarus to protect the constitutional order, protect and promote human rights, and ensure stability and order in the country were commended. The Council should avoid bias, selectivity, politicisation and double standards in human rights.

Concluding Remarks

NADA AL-NASHIF, Acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had tried to call attention to the massive crackdown against Belarussian civil society and independent media. It was important that support was extended to non-governmental organizations and journalists. Administrative, technical, and resource support was needed.

The Office continued to receive testimonials from detainees kept in inhumane conditions. Women were in most cases guarded by male staff. The pleas of detainees for water, food and lavatories were ignored, and detainees were often beaten for complaining. Access of lawyers to clients and files was obstructed. Hearings of high-profile dissidents were closed, and lawyers who had brought cases to United Nations human rights mechanisms were harassed and faced reprisals. There were no effective remedies for victims of these violations, and no efforts were made by authorities to hold perpetrators to account. Such perpetrators needed to be held to account through international fora. Information sharing and the provision of mutual legal assistance was helpful in this regard.

Ms. Al-Nashif said the use of lengthy pre-trial detention and the use of solitary confinement was of extreme concern. Belarus needed to provide unhindered access to independent monitors to detention facilities. Belarus also needed to continue to uphold the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. No one should be arbitrarily deprived of their citizenship. States needed to provide safeguards to prevent statelessness.

The Office was concerned about the crackdown on civil society. It had held regular consultations with members of civil society, who played an important role in documenting violations and providing justice for victims. The responsibility to guarantee the rule of law lay with the authorities of Belarus, and they had failed to live up to those responsibilities. It was important that human rights organizations were encouraged and strengthened through collaboration and support from regional mechanisms.

The mandate was based in Austria, and although it had not been given access to Belarus, it had conducted interviews and investigations in neighbouring countries.

The situation of human rights in Belarus had caused many to relocate to Ukraine, and since the start of the war, these people had been forced to relocate once again. The Office was working to document violations in Belarus, and encouraged online submissions through the Office’s webpage. Updated information was at the heart of the mandate’s work. The mandate would continue to consult with victims and ensure a victim-centred approach. A dynamic discussion on themes for the next report was ongoing.

 

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.

 

HRC22.098E