COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS EXAMINES FOURTH TO SIXTH PERIODIC REPORT OF BELARUS
13 November 2013
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the combined fourth to sixth periodic report of Belarus on how the country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Introducing the report, Yury Ambrazevich, Head of the Directorate for Multilateral Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, said that the principles of equality and non-discrimination played a key role in the promotion and protection of economic and social rights, and a significant part of the State budget was allocated to education and health. Promoting gender equality, enhancing the competitiveness of women in employment, and eliminating gender stereotypes were among the top priorities. Measures were also taken to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, prevent domestic violence, and provide comprehensive assistance to the victims of trafficking in persons.
The Committee commended Belarus on its high-level delegation but said that there had been a huge delay in the submission of its report. Committee Members raised issues concerning the ratification by Belarus of the Optional Protocol to the Covenant and other human rights optional protocols, the establishment of an independent national human rights institution, the status of the Covenant in domestic legislation, and Belarus’s refusal to invite United Nations Special Rapporteurs to the country. Questions were also asked about the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of workers to form trade unions and exercise their right to strike, the rights of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, and the procedure followed in cases where individuals wanted to file a complaint about human rights violations.
In concluding remarks, Mr. Ambrazevich thanked the Experts for their interesting questions and said that recommendations made by the Committee would be given full consideration, even if there was disagreement on certain points.
Maria Virginia Bras Gomes, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Belarus, said that the Committee looked forward to the next report of Belarus so it could ascertain how much progress had been made in the meantime.
Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Chairperson, said that the purpose of the meeting was to help Belarus improve.
The delegation of Belarus included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, and the Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 14 November, when it will consider the combined second to fourth periodic report of Egypt (E/C.12/EGY/2-4).
The combined fourth to sixth periodic report of Belarus can be read here: E/C.12/BLR/4-6.
Presentation of the Report
YURY AMBRAZEVICH, Head of the Directorate for Multilateral Diplomacy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, said that the report had been drafted on the basis of information and data provided by all State bodies and with the participation of civil society representatives. The principles of equality and non-discrimination played a key role in the promotion and protection of economic and social rights, and a significant part of the State budget was allocated to education and health. A national plan to promote equality had been put together for the period 2011-2015, with the aim of ensuring equality between men and women at all levels, enhancing the competitiveness of women on the job market, and eliminating gender stereotypes.
Belarus would start gathering statistical data disaggregated by gender so as to develop more effective State programmes on various aspects of social and economic development. In recent years, the number of female Members of Parliament had increased and was now just over 30 per cent. In addition, more than 67 per cent of civil servants were female, about 20 per cent of managerial posts were held by women, and 53 per cent of judges were women. Ensuring the right to work was a priority of the country’s national policy. A State programme had been put in place to stimulate economic activity, incorporate into the labour market those in need of social support, boost employment for those in rural areas and young persons, and provide targeted social assistance to vulnerable groups.
Belarus had consistently had a very low level of unemployment, currently less than one per cent. The Government was considering introducing an unemployment benefit, while the monthly minimum wage was about 100 per cent of the minimal household budget. Concerning the work force, women were economically active members of society. Fifty-five per cent of working women had university-level education, compared with 37 per cent of men. Women with a higher level of education than men could occupy higher posts with better pay.
To ensure the right to favourable work conditions, Belarus was implementing a programme to help reduce occupational illness, assess the level of occupational risks, and boost production modernization. There were 37 trade unions registered in Belarus, in which more than 90 per cent of workers were members. Workers had the right to strike, but certain restrictions were imposed by law in the case of civil servants and staff working in emergency services. A benefit was paid to persons with disabilities, and families raising children with disabilities had favourable conditions for the acquisition of housing. During the first quarter of 2013, 73,000 persons had benefited from social assistance.
Belarus had taken a series of measures to prevent domestic violence, and was currently implementing two projects to help victims and increase the population’s level of awareness of the problem. As of 2013 a free hotline was available for the victims of domestic violence. Also, a law had been adopted on trafficking in persons, and there were 63 crisis centres where the victims of trafficking could receive help and assistance free of charge.
The number of those living in poverty had dropped from 42 per cent to 5.3 per cent in 2012, and one-off payments had been made to those out of work. Belarus had achieved on time its Millennium Development Goal to reduce infant mortality, which had decreased by 69 per cent, and child mortality, which had dropped to 2.5 per cent. To curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, Belarus was implementing a 2011-2015 State programme, thanks to which pregnant women and children were given full access to anti-retroviral treatment.
Concerning other areas, universal primary education was 100 per cent, over 96 per cent of the population was literate, more than 100 associations of ethnic minorities operated in the country, and the number of users of internet had increased by 52 per cent in recent years. Belarus was a socially-oriented State and its top priority was enhancing the standard of living of its people.
Questions by Experts
MARIA VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Belarus, said that the report covered a period of 13 years and that extensive information had been provided to the list of issues drawn up by the Committee, with statistics disaggregated by gender. She noted with concern that Belarus had not accepted the recommendations of the 2010 Universal Periodic Review to ratify a number of optional protocols, including the Optional Protocol to the Covenant. Had Belarus changed its mind about ratifying those international instruments?
What had Belarus learnt about dealing with regional disparities and had it adapted its approach to economic, social and cultural rights accordingly? The Committee was concerned that Belarus still did not have a national human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles. Ms. Bras Gomez said that specialized committees were Government bodies and could not become a substitute for an independent human rights body. She also recommended that Belarus adopt a comprehensive non-discriminatory legal framework.
An Expert noted with satisfaction that the Belarusian delegation was gender-balanced, and asked to what extent the Covenant was invoked in national courts. What did Belarus mean when it said that the Covenant had not been invoked since 2010? Was it invoked before that?
An Expert wondered why there had been such a long delay in submitting a report, as a result of which the current combined report spanned a period of almost 15 years. She said that timely submissions were important when it came to ensuring that domestic laws were in line with the Covenant. Concerning measures taken to promote gender equality, the Expert said there was only one woman Minister and that the representation of women in high Government positions was not satisfactory. What were the obstacles to promoting and appointing women in high positions in State administration and in the judiciary?
An Expert said that submitting combined reports was sometimes a sign that the Covenant was not among the State party’s priorities, and invited the delegation to explain the long delay in submitting its report. The Expert also said that in her recent report, the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Belarus had painted a disturbing picture of the human rights situation in the country. Belarus’s economy had gone through different stages, so the overall macroeconomic policy of the country was unclear. Was the Covenant taken into consideration whenever national macroeconomic policies were adopted? Concerning complaints about human rights violations, the delegation had said that a specific procedure was in place for individuals who wished to complain and that courts might invoke international agreements. Could Belarus provide information on how an individual would go about lodging a complaint?
An Expert asked what safeguards the judiciary had vis-à-vis the Government and the Head of State. Also, to what extent were economic, social and cultural rights subject to regulations introduced by the Parliament itself and to the will and actions of the Executive? Were decisions about human rights issues subject to a process of participatory consultations with civil society? The Expert noted that Belarus had not extended a standing invitation to Special Rapporteurs dealing with thematic matters to visit the country. Special Rapporteurs were of great assistance to Governments regarding the implementation of international instruments, so would Belarus reconsider its position?
An Expert said that there had been a consistent increase of Gross Domestic Product in Belarus since the submission of its last report, and wanted to know what percentage of the Gross Domestic product and the State budget was allocated to economic, social and cultural rights.
Another Expert asked whether the concepts of indirect discrimination and systemic discrimination existed in Belarus. Concerning persistent gender stereotypes, what had Belarus done to change the approach of society in general and of employers in particular to such matters?
Also, what was Belarus’s policy regarding trade unions? Were trade unions free to exercise their rights? Was the creation of trade unions subject to authorization from the State? How did Belarus calculate its impressive unemployment rate of one per cent?
Several Experts said that the Committee had received information that corporal punishment was still practised in Belarus, that the number of disadvantaged persons and persons living in poverty had increased since Belarus had been hit by the economic crisis in 2011, and that the general population had little understanding of HIV/AIDS and how one could contract the disease. The Experts asked the delegation to comment on those points.
An Expert wanted to know if Russian was the dominant language in the country and asked whether there was a sufficient number of teachers and professors to teach Belarusian at all levels of the education system.
Response by Delegation
The delegation began by thanking the Experts for their comments, and said that Belarus remained committed to meeting its obligations under the Covenant. The delay in submitting its report was due to the country going through a transitional period, during which it was in the process of rebuilding its social security system, reforming its legislation, and establishing its sovereignty.
Belarus would consider adopting a comprehensive non-discriminatory legal framework in the future and was willing to have a study conducted on that matter, but at the present stage it was not possible to adopt such a general legal framework. In 2015 Belarus was expected to undergo its second Universal Periodic Review, by which time it hoped that further improvements would have been made to the human rights situation in the country. Concerning the implementation of its first Universal Periodic Review, the delegation said that it had requested methodological assistance. The issue of establishing a national, independent human rights institution had been given due consideration but no decision had been made yet.
In 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had issued a survey of how human rights issues were dealt with in other countries, especially in the West, and had found that none of the countries which had a human rights ombudsperson had received any complaints about human rights violations through their ombudsperson. Belarus would not set up institutions just because other countries had done so, but only whenever it felt that it could truly benefit from such institutions.
Belarus believed that the Universal Periodic Review was a very important mechanism, and the country had acceded to almost all human rights instruments. Concerning the optional protocols which it had not yet ratified, the delegation did not exclude that Belarus might ratify those instruments in the future, including the Optional Protocol to the Convention.
The delegation said that there were no regional differences in the implementation of the laws. Concerning health, the provision of medical assistance was free and there was no difference in the amount spent on citizens in each region. Hospital availability and pharmaceutical provisions were sufficient for all, and every effort was made to reach and accommodate all patients.
Concerning the questions asked about the status of the Covenant, the delegation said that following the ratification of any international treaty, Belarus ensured that the provisions of that treaty were incorporated in domestic law. That had been the case with the Covenant, the provisions of which were only rarely invoked directly in the courts but were part of domestic law.
There were several laws ensuring the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, who received special benefits and assistance from the State, including in terms of social and medical rehabilitation, housing and employment. A special system was now in place for the provision of social assistance to persons with disabilities, comprising many regional departments which dealt specifically with such matters. The psychological needs of persons with disabilities were also taken into consideration, and specific job creation measures were taken to improve their situation.
Questions by Experts
An Expert asked whether all minorities (linguistic, ethnic and religious) were treated in the same way in Belarus. Could minority members use their mother tongue when communicating with the State administration? Also, were minorities allowed to print their own textbooks or did they have them printed in neighbouring countries?
The Committee had received information that Belarus placed restrictions on certain minority groups who wished to organize cultural events, and on writers who belonged to dissident writers’ unions. Could the delegation comment on those points?
An Expert said that it was essential for Belarus to set up a specific mechanism and separate institution for citizens who wanted to file a complaint about human rights violations.
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation said that the independence of the judiciary was enshrined in the Constitution of Belarus. In addition, in 2007 a code of legal proceedings was drawn up and provided detailed information on how judges would administer justice. Judges were appointed through a system which involved specialized exams and only citizens of the highest calibre were selected to serve as judges. Exerting pressure on a judge with a view to influencing a court decision was sanctioned under the criminal code. Concerning appeals against court decisions, two different appeal options were available to those who may have been dissatisfied with a court judgment. There were several different types of courts in the country.
To ensure gender equality, a conceptual framework had been drafted and a council had been set up. The aim was to achieve equal participation of both genders in the political and public life of the country. There was also a Working Group whose job was to oversee the implementation of gender policy. Frequent online conferences for young persons, competitions, and other events were organized in order to promote gender equality.
There were no quotas for the participation of women in politics and each political party was free to decide how many women were put forward for election. Nevertheless, the situation was clearly improving in recent years in terms of women’s participation in State affairs. The Chair of the National Bank was one of several female senior officials. There were also several female Deputy Ministers, and the three Deputy Heads of the National Statistical Agency were all women.
Concerning direct discrimination, the question of establishing the same pensionable age for men and women had been much discussed for several years. In the end, the age of 55 years old had been established as the pensionable age for women. Increasing that age limit could not happen overnight because women and society in general would have to be prepared first. Regardless of that, women had the right to choose not to leave their employment at the age of 55 years old, but could continue to work and receive more money when they retired.
Belarusians and foreigners all had the same rights as citizens of Belarus, which was also enshrined in the law. Asylum requests had increased in recent years by as much as 25 per cent. Requests for permanent residency were also on the rise, which showed that residency in Belarus was perceived by non-Belarusians as something positive. There were several points where refugees could be received by State authorities in the presence of non-governmental organization observers and asylum requests could be filed. Waiting time for the processing of residency applications had been shortened.
On macroeconomic policy, the delegation said that Belarus drafted forecasts for the economic development of the country on an annual basis. Those forecasts were connected to indicators of the standard of living and various other parameters. Concerning State expenditure, healthcare was allocated 4 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and education 5 per cent. Overall, 41 per cent of the State budget was spent on social affairs.
The protection of social, cultural and economic rights in Belarus was a top priority and was ensured through a series of laws. The complexity of the protection of those rights was taken into account. The civil code regulated all civil rights and had a major role to play in this. A cultural code was currently being drafted, which would become effective alongside many other existing laws on cultural rights. The transition from a former Soviet legal system to a codified system was a complex process which needed time.
Concerning the questions about a standing invitation extended to thematic Special Rapporteurs, the delegation said that Belarus was unlikely to change its practice vis-à-vis Special Rapporteur mandates, which had the tendency to politicize matters and single out States.
In employment, contractual forms of hiring were used in the private and public sectors, and in all such cases the employee and employer agreed in advance on the employment period. Employees had the right to break a contract unilaterally, and there was nothing in the legislation which could be used to put pressure on someone to leave their job.
Concerning the job market, the delegation said that there were approximately three vacancies for each unemployed person, which explained the low unemployment rate. Active measures had been taken to achieve a decline in unemployment. Wage levels varied from region to region, and job-seekers were free to choose the job that suited them best. Concerning women’s unemployment, there was a significant downward trend and, overall, less than half of all unemployed persons were women.
The gap in wage levels between men and women was due to the high concentration of men in economic activities which had high stress levels but also higher pay, whereas women were traditionally employed in the areas of health and education, which were less well remunerated. In any case, men and women received the same salary for doing the same job, men were allowed to take parental leave to look after the children, and there were many women who were self-employed and provided for the family financially. All of these were signs of a high degree of gender equality in employment.
There was no separate legislative act on sexual harassment in the workplace. Whether or not to adopt separate legislation for sexual harassment was a controversial issue. Such offences were covered by the criminal code, however, which provided for harsh punishments for crimes against women.
The legislation on the minimum wage dealt with all employees irrespective of their professional activity or area of work. All employers were required by law to pay the minimum wage. That was established in keeping with labour laws and the idea was to provide protection to workers in the private sector. The Labour Inspectorate carried out regular inspections to ensure that the minimum wage was paid to employees.
There was a significant stability in labour relations between social partners, which were further facilitated by a bilateral group in the National Council. No restrictions were placed on trade unions participating in collective bargaining in Belarus, and there were about 200 labour counsellors handling labour agreements, the number of which had increased in recent years. The Government, in conjunction with social partners and the International Labour Organization, had taken steps to protect and strengthen the rights of trade unions.
The delegation stressed that the provisions of the Covenant and the implementation of labour standards were strictly observed in the area of employment, both in the public and in the private sector without any distinction made. There were many inspectorates which ensured that socio-economic rights were upheld in all employment settings.
2011 was a difficult economic year for Belarus, but protective measures were taken to maintain levels of salaries and pensions and protect vulnerable groups. For example, free medication was provided to children up to the age of three, and benefits paid to persons with disabilities had not been reduced. The level of poverty had dropped in 2012 and continued its downward trend in 2013. The current percentage of those living in poverty was less than 5.6 per cent.
Belarus was aware of the problems facing persons living with HIV/AIDS and had criminalized the refusal by a doctor to provide medical treatment to patients. The mobility of HIV infections was being carefully monitored. The Global Fund was currently paying for 70 per cent of antiretroviral drugs, but Belarus would soon take over and provide 100 per cent of the medication needed by HIV/AIDS patients.
Concerning the questions about the use of corporal punishment, the delegation said that parents who abused their parental power could be held criminally liable for harm caused to their children. A national plan was being developed to deal with domestic violence and aggressive husbands, in particular, and the possible contents of a bill were being considered. In cases where parents were stripped of their parental rights under Decree 18, the State took over and looked after the child. Every effort was made to facilitate the return of the child to the family, wherever possible, and ensure that the child was raised in a safe environment.
Belarus had taken a huge number of initiatives to fight against trafficking in persons, including sexual and labour exploitation, and efforts to identify further issues to be tackled in that area were on-going. The emphasis was placed on providing assistance to the victims of trafficking, but steps were also being taken to criminalize traffickers.
The delegation said that there was no statistical data on school drop-outs, but any withdrawal from school was usually temporary. There was a database providing information on drop-outs, so that as soon as a child stopped going to school measures were taken.
A wide variety of subjects were taught in the Belarusian language in schools, not just history. Regardless of that, there were two official State languages, Belarusian and Russian. Ethnic minority languages could also be used but not in State administration. As far as education was concerned, most of the teaching was carried out in Belarusian and parents were encouraged to use the language at home as much as possible. Books written in ethnic minority languages were sometimes printed in neighbouring countries because that was an easier and more economical option, not because there were restrictions of any kind on writing in ethnic minority languages.
Roma children attended mainstream schools and their right to education was fully upheld. However, difficulties arose whenever the family did not wish to send its children to school.
YURY AMBRAZEVICH, Head of the Directorate for Multilateral Diplomacy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, thanked the Experts for their interesting questions and said that he was pleased that the interactive dialogue had been constructive. Recommendations made by the Committee would be given full consideration, even if there was disagreement on certain points, and Belarus would seek to improve on the issues which had been discussed today.
MARIA VIRGINIA BRAS GOMES, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Belarus, thanked the delegation for their detailed replies to the Experts’ questions, and said that the Committee looked forward to the next report of Belarus so it could ascertain how much progress had been made in the meantime.
ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for their responses and cooperation, and said that the purpose of the meeting was to help Belarus improve.
For use of the information media; not an official record