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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL DISCUSSES SITUATION IN BELARUS

21 June 2016

The Human Rights Council during a midday meeting held an interactive dialogue with Miklós Haraszti, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

Mr. Haraszti said that the only positive developments since his last report were the release of six political prisoners and the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  There was a practically complete paralysis of civic freedoms in Belarus.  Any public activity was criminalized if not preliminarily authorized by the government.  The legal framework was based on Presidential decrees, the Parliament had no opposition, and the President singlehandedly appointed and removed all judges and prosecutors.  As much as 80 per cent of the economy was still controlled by the State, creating a climate of submission for both entrepreneurs and employees.  New amendments to the Law on Mass Media had allowed the authorities to arbitrarily block independent websites. 

Speaking as the concerned country, Belarus regretted that the Council was once more examining a report that did not reflect the situation in an impartial and objective way.  Belarus was cooperating with United Nations human rights mechanisms, and was elaborating a national human rights plan of action.  It had also engaged in human rights dialogues with the United States and the European Union, including on the issue of the death penalty and on national elections.  The Council should put an end to this unnecessary mandate, which only provoked an atmosphere of confrontation and polarization. 

During the interactive dialogue, speakers, while noting positive developments relating to the release of political prisoners and the adoption of a national human rights action plan, remained concerned about restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly, as well as restrictions imposed on the activities of human rights defenders.  Speakers also called on Belarus to adopt a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.  Other speakers, on the contrary, noted that, in view of Belarus’ engagement in human rights dialogues and its cooperation with United Nations mechanisms, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur was no longer necessary.  Country-specific mandates only contributed to further polarize the work of the Council, and were in contradiction to the principles of objectivity, non-selectivity and non-politicization. 

Speaking were the European Union, Russian Federation on behalf of a like-minded group of States, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Spain, Poland, United Kingdom, Iceland, United States, China, Norway, Australia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Albania, Uzbekistan, Germany, Cuba, Council of Europe, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Syria, Russian Federation, Armenia, State of Palestine, Finland, Venezuela, Myanmar, Azerbaijan in a joint statement with Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Eritrea, Iran, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Czech Republic, France, Nicaragua and Viet Nam.

Also speaking were Human Rights House Foundation, International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, Human Rights Watch and United Nations Watch. 

The Council will next hold an interactive dialogue with the Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea.    

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (A/HRC/32/48).

Presentation by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

MIKLÓS HARASZTI, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus, said that his mandate had been created against a background of a deeply entrenched system of oppression of human rights which had not changed since the establishment of the mandate.  The only positive developments since his last report was the release of six political prisoners before the presidential election in October 2015, and the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in September 2015.  Belarus had continued to refuse to recognize the mandate created by the Council, and there was a practically complete paralysis of civic freedoms in the country.  The essence of the 20-year-old regime was that any public activity remained subject to prior authorization, through a registration process that made such authorization entirely arbitrary.  Any public activity, be it media, association, or gathering, was not only forbidden but criminalized if not preliminarily authorized by the government.  The legal framework was based on Presidential decrees, the Parliament had no opposition, and the judicial apparatus was governed by the President who singlehandedly appointed and removed all judges and prosecutors.

Speaking about the report before the Council, he said his findings illustrated the absence of progress since 2010 on all key issues.  He gave details of the situation of capital punishment in the country, and noted that the President, within the limitless range of his powers, could commute death sentences into life sentences, but did not do so.  Among the basic human rights and fundamental freedoms prevented from being exercised for more than 20 years now were not only civil and political rights but also seminal economic and cultural ones.  As much as 80 per cent of the economy was still controlled by the State, creating a climate of submission for both entrepreneurs and employees.  Several generations of Belarusians did not know nor had no experience what the words “pluralism”, “free artistic creation”, “free media”, "labour rights", and "free enterprise" meant in reality.  Human rights violations and legal restrictions had continued, in particular regarding the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  As a result of new amendments to the Law on Mass Media, the authorities arbitrarily blocked independent websites.  He urged Belarus to develop a national human rights action plan in partnership with all human rights civil society organizations, and to address equally all rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural, in accordance with the principle of interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights.

Statement by the Concerned Country

Belarus, speaking as the concerned country, regretted that the Human Rights Council was once more examining a report that did not reflect the situation in Belarus in an impartial and objective way.  The country’s situation was not a threat to regional peace or stability.  Instead, Belarus was undergoing efforts for development and the protection of human rights, in accordance with the will of its population.  It cooperated with United Nations human rights mechanisms, including the Universal Periodic Review and treaty bodies.  Belarus was planning on ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this year.  It was in the process of elaborating a national plan of action on the implementation of Universal Periodic Review recommendations, which would lead to further improve the human rights situation in the country.  Belarus had issued standing invitations to Special Procedures, and had engaged in cooperation with a series of actors, with a view of improving the situation of human rights.  As an example, it was engaging in bilateral discussions with the United States and the European Union, during which it was ready to address any issues, including the death penalty and national elections.  The Council should put an end to this unnecessary mandate, which only provoked an atmosphere of confrontation and polarization. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus

European Union urged Belarus to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and other mechanisms, and expressed concerns that no improvement had been made regarding the human rights situation.  It called on Belarus to adopt a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and supported the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.  Russian Federation, on behalf of 14 like-minded countries, expressed deep concern over the continuation of country-specific mandates, which ran contrary to the principles of non-selectivity and non-polarization.  Belarus had shown its commitment to improve its human rights situation.  It was cooperating with United Nations human rights mechanisms.  The mandate should be terminated.  Democratic People’s Republic of Korea reiterated its principled position against country-specific mandates, and strongly opposed the discussion of the report on Belarus.  The imposition of politically-motivated mandates was counter-productive and did not advance the cause of human rights.  Human rights issues should be addressed through genuine dialogue and cooperation, free from confrontation, double standards and politicization. 

Spain regretted the lack of cooperation by the Belorussian authorities with the Special Procedures.  The systematic denial of human rights of citizens continued in Belarus.  Spain hoped that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur was renewed.  It regretted the application of the death penalty by Belarus, noting that the Special Rapporteur had indicated that lack of progress could indicate there was no political will on this topic.  Poland regretted the lack of freedom of the media, expression and assembly, as well as the limited civil society space in Belarus and the refusal of the authorities to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur.  Poland urged the Belarus authorities to ensure that the upcoming elections in September 2016 would be conducted to the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  United Kingdom stated that in spite of progress, the human rights situation in Belarus remained of concern.  The United Kingdom noted that the freedom of expression and association, particularly among the media, continued to be limited, in spite of undertaken actions.  It called upon Belarus to adopt a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its abolition.  Iceland said providing access to the Special Rapporteur would provide a strong signal that the Government of Belarus was serious about fulfilling its international obligations.  Iceland encouraged Belarus to engage in reform of the civil society space, and to ensure that former political prisoners and human rights defenders were released. It also encouraged it to end the death penalty.

United States called for the Human Rights Council to support the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.  The release of six political prisoners was a welcome development, but the United States continued to have significant concerns about the human rights situation in Belarus.  The Special Rapporteur was asked to identify additional steps that the international community could take to improve the human rights situation in Belarus.  China said it had noted the report by the Special Rapporteur, and underlined China’s opposition to country-specific mandates established without the approval of the country concerned.  The report of the Special Rapporteur focused on civil and political rights and ignored economic and social rights.  Norway said the human rights situation in Belarus remained of great concern, and regretted the many missed opportunities.  One such opportunity was declining its invitation to participate in the World Congress on the abolition of the death penalty, which opened in Oslo today.  The Special Rapporteur was asked for his views on the political impact of the Minsk conference on the death penalty.  Australia recommended that Belarus ended the practices of preventive arrest and arbitrary detention ahead of parliamentary elections in September 2016.  Australia further recommended that Belarus establish a formal moratorium on the death penalty.

Lao People’s Democratic Republic said that the Universal Periodic Review mechanism was the only appropriate mechanism to discuss country-specific human rights situations, and noted that Belarus had sent an open invitation to the High Commissioner and certain Special Procedures mandate holders.  Estonia regretted the lack of cooperation by the Government of Belarus with the Special Rapporteur.  It expressed hope that Belarus would continue its collaboration with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and noted that the forthcoming elections would constitute a test for Belarus’ legislative reforms.  Ireland deeply regretted that Belarus did not cooperate with the Special Rapporteur, and fully agreed that, despite the release of some political prisoners, there had been no improvements in the protection of civil and political rights in the country.  Ireland was also concerned about the continued use of the death penalty in the country, and noted that progress on this issue was possible if Belarus showed the necessary political will.  Austria welcomed the release of political prisoners and the beginning of discussions on a national human rights action plan, but remained concerned about continued restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, and on the activities of human rights defenders, as well as cases of torture.  Austria called on Belarus to put an end to the use of the death penalty.

Belgium regretted that Belarus still refused to cooperate with the United Nations human rights mechanisms.  Accepting monitoring and recommendations was crucial to the upcoming parliamentary elections.  In the framework of the Universal Periodic Review, Belgium had recommended a facilitating procedure for civil society organizations, and was very disappointed that this had not been undertaken and that no substantial changes had been made with regard to the legal framework.  Switzerland regretted the lack of cooperation by Belarus with the mandate and was concerned that the situation remained unchanged and that violations of human rights were systemic and systematic.  It regretted that the Government had not undertaken steps to address human rights violations.  Albania deeply regretted that the Belarus authorities refused access to the Special Rapporteur.  Much more effort had to be undertaken to bring Belarus to pluralistic society and human rights standards.  There was no progress on the freedom of expression and assembly, nor on enabling civil society space, all of which were a vital part of civil society and democracy.  Uzbekistan regretted the report and the new mandate which had been established under Special Procedures mechanisms and had not been accepted by all States of the Human Rights Council.  There were problems in Belarus, but the report did not reflect improvements and achievements made by the country.  Politicized country resolutions did not lead to a climate of dialogue. 

Germany remained concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus, where civil society experienced many problems in exercising their right to peaceful assembly and association.  The recent execution of Sergei Ivanov was a stark reminder that Belarus was the last country in Europe to still apply this cruel punishment.  Cuba was against selective initiatives against developing countries and said that the report presented today was clearly directed against the political order of Belarus.  There was doubt about the effectiveness of such mechanisms and the credibility of those who supported them.  Council of Europe noted that Belarus had not taken the required steps to establish the moratorium on the death penalty with a view to abolishing it and said that this punishment was not compatible with European laws and standards.  The way in which the death penalty was implemented was also an issue of concern.  Lithuania said that despite the positive changes, the human rights situation in Belarus continued to be of concern, particularly with regard to the exercise of the freedom of expression and of association.  Belarus should urgently address the issues related to the registration of political and civil society organizations, adopt the moratorium on the death penalty, and implement comprehensive electoral system reform.

Tajikistan emphasized the constructive cooperation of Belarus with United Nations mechanisms, and said that it was unacceptable to use the human rights machinery for politically-motivated reasons.  Tajikistan said that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur should not be renewed.  Syria reiterated its continued position against selective, country-specific mandates, which did not serve the protection of human rights.  Syria noted that the report showed tangible progress on the part of Belarus, including its adhesion to human rights instruments.  Russian Federation said it did not recognize the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, nor the resolution on which the mandate was based.  It was not clear why the Special Rapporteur had referred to human rights violations in Belarus as “systematic”.  A further resolution on Belarus during this session would be counterproductive and unacceptable.  Armenia noted that Belarus continued to constructively engage with United Nations human rights mechanisms, and welcomed the inclusion of civil society organizations in the elaboration of its national human rights action plan.  Bilateral dialogues between the European Union and Belarus were an important forum for improving the human rights situation in the country.  

State of Palestine said the mandate of the Special Rapporteur should not be criticized.  The Human Rights Council promoted human rights that were universal, interrelated and interdependent.  All human beings were equal and all violations had to be condemned.  Palestine recommended that Belarus further promote human rights and accept the Special Rapporteur.  Finland called on Belarus to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and stated that though Belarus had taken positive steps by releasing prisoners and accepting the Universal Periodic Review, the death penalty remained a concern, as did limits on freedom of expression, association and assembly.  Venezuela, said the biased report denied the impartiality that needed to govern the work of the Human Rights Council.  The Rapporteur had the intent of forcing change of the political system in Belarus.  Venezuela rejected the politicisation, selectivity and double standards represented by this hostile mandate.  Myanmar said that country mandates could be counterproductive.  The Universal Periodic Review was the best mechanism to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights.  The Human Rights Council had to promote and protect the universality and indivisibility of human rights and not be subject to double standards and politicization.

Azerbaijan, speaking in a joint statement with Pakistan, welcomed the openness of Belarus to continue its cooperation with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, and its open invitation to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit the country.  Kazakhstan said that the work of the Council must be guided by the principles of impartiality, universality and neutrality and that the prolongation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur would contravene this.  Belarus was actively cooperating with the United Nations human rights treaty bodies and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on electoral issues.   Eritrea continued to maintain its opposition to country-specific mechanisms and deplored that human rights were now used as a new frontline to subdue sovereign countries.  Belarus had shown its commitment to human rights through cooperation and engagement on many challenging issues, and should be supported with technical assistance predicated on its own priorities and ownership.  Iran said that the promotion and protection of human rights must be based on the principles of cooperation and genuine dialogue and aim at strengthening the capacity of States to fulfil their human rights obligations and commitments.  Belarus had taken steps to improve its national human rights system, including through cooperation with treaty bodies and with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

Sudan reiterated its view that the Special Procedures should not be used as a political instrument and without a country’s agreement.  The Universal Periodic Review was the appropriate venue for addressing specific situations in an equal and non-politicized way.  Sudan welcomed Belarus’ engagement with this mechanism.  Turkmenistan believed that the situation in Belarus did not require the urgent attention of the Council, and therefore that the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur was meaningless.  Turkmenistan welcomed Belarus’ constructive engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms and with regional organizations on human rights issues.  Czech Republic welcomed the release of some political prisoners in Belarus, but underlined that, without the restoration of their civil and political rights, this process was not complete.  It welcomed Belarus’ cooperation with civil society and regional organizations on the electoral process, but called for more transparency.  Finally, it expressed concerns about the use of the death penalty, and the treatment of prisoners.  France was concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus, continued violations of freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and the use of arbitrary detention as a way of repressing the use of freedom of expression.  France hoped that the liberation of political prisoners would lead to more dialogue by Belarus on human rights issues.  France called on the authorities to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Nicaragua was alarmed that country-specific mandates could be used to advance political agendas, especially when they did not enjoy the consent of the country concerned.  The report categorically questioned key institutions of Belarus and Nicaragua rejected foreign pressure on domestic systems in any country.  Viet Nam shared concerns expressed by many today and did not see value in the politicisation of the Council.  Constructive discussions could only be based on verified, credible and reliable information. 

Human Rights House Foundation said that the human rights situation in Belarus had not improved and that the highly restrictive legislation remained in place, allowing the authorities to, at any given time, arrest dissenting voices, human rights defenders, journalists, activists or anyone else.  International Federation for Human Rights Leagues said that despite sporadic and marginal changes, the situation in Belarus remained marked by systemic curtailment and a repressive legal and political framework.  The Council must not forget that human rights defenders and journalists were monitored and harassed, and that the death penalty continued to be applied.  Human Rights Watch said that Belarus had taken no meaningful steps to improve its poor human rights in the country since 2010.  Instead, it had imposed further legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and of assembly and association and had not yet revised legislation that imposed severe restrictions on the work of non-governmental organizations.  United Nations Watch was particularly concerned that for two decades the opposition was absent from the Parliament, which did not have the power to legislate since the President ruled by decree.  Ordinary citizens had seen no improvement in the exercise of their right to organize and associate and the State remained in full control of public life.

Concluding Remarks

Belarus, speaking as the concerned country, thanked all delegations for their participation in the discussion.   Unfortunately, the Council was being held hostage by the European Union and others.  On the question of eliminating the special mandate, all observers were invited to the upcoming elections.  Regarding the question on the death penalty, the impression was given that the European Union thought that abolishing it was a universally recognised standard in the world, which was not the case.  The position of Belarus was that the adoption of country-specific mandates was a dead-end street for human rights.  Belarus was ready to be constructive.

MIKLÓS HARASZTI, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, responding to the delegate of the Russian Federation who had asked why the report called the human rights violations systemic, said that it was because all measures were aimed at eliminating pluralism.  It was also because de jure, everyone who exercised their rights without prior authorization by the authorities was a criminal, and it was up to the authorities to say when they became criminals.  That was structural and that had to change.  He urged Belarus to investigate complaints and put an end to impunity.  He expressed satisfaction that Belarus had consented to the consideration of a human rights action plan, and urged the country to base the plan on all recommendations that all human rights mechanisms had made over time, without picking the ones that would only please those who wanted to “maintain the sorry state of human rights” in Belarus.  On elections, he said that vote counting was fully un-transparent.  There would be, however, a “miraculously quick” way to restore the situation.  Removing article 193.1 in the penal code, which criminalised every civil activity not authorized by authorities, would be a great step.  He said the general application of human rights and freedom of media had to be restored, as Belarus was the only country in Europe where no modicum of private broadcasting existed. 


For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC16/082E