Last week UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet presented a report on the situation of human rights in the context of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council. In brief, it says that the actions of the authorities before and after the election were aimed at curtailing the rights to freedoms of Belarusians and led to an unprecedented human rights crisis. After the report, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Liz Throssell gave TUT.BY an interview.
UN monitoring showed that in Belarus, before and after the elections, the rights to fundamental freedoms: peaceful assembly, speech, expression of opinion were systematically violated. But these rights have been violated before, perhaps not on such a scale. However, what can the UN actually do to ensure that these rights are respected? What levers can be that can help change the situation for the better?
It is the responsibility of the Belarusian authorities to ensure that human rights are protected. Belarus is bound by the obligations it has agreed to respect in a range of international treaties. In addition to the recommendations included in the report presented on 25 February at the Human Rights Council, the UN has regular human rights reporting and review mechanisms that are intended to promote respect for human rights and will continue to be used to identify areas of concern and ways to address them. In addition, should the authorities be open to such assistance, the UN can offer its technical advice and support to Belarus to introduce those changes that are urgently needed to ensure human rights are protected in Belarus.
The UN High Commissioner gave recommendations to Belarus on what can be done. It includes, among other things, the release of illegally detained persons, the abolition of administrative and criminal cases, and a reform of the legal and regulatory framework. But what will happen if the Belarusian authorities ignore all of them?
The UN has no instruments to directly enforce the implementation of its recommendations in its Member States. Through its human rights mechanisms, the UN can act as a platform to discuss and report on the steps taken by the authorities to meet their human rights obligations, and on areas of concerns. The UN human rights mechanisms can formulate recommendations, but it is up to the authorities to implement them.
There are nine journalists behind bars in Belarus now. Two journalists of the Belsat TV channel were sentenced to two years in prison each. Now there is a closed trial over our colleague Katerina Borisevich, who wrote that the deceased Roman Bondarenko was not drunk. In fact, any journalist in Belarus can end up in prison today. How can the UN really influence this situation?
Freedom of the media and the ability of journalists in Belarus to carry out their work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and the risk of being arbitrarily detained are very much on the human rights agenda for Belarus. The serious problems that exist in this area were addressed during the Human Rights Council discussion on 25 February, in the speech of the High Commissioner, and in the report OHCHR prepared. Belarus must immediately and unconditionally release all those unlawfully or arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their human rights, including human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers, and cease and reverse any administrative or criminal judicial action against such individuals.
How should journalists work in this situation?
As documented in our report, the environment for journalists is extremely challenging in Belarus, and journalists face, or are exposed to the risk of, serious human rights violations for simply doing their job. The fact that Belarusian journalists continue to work even in such circumstances is testimony to their impressive courage. But clearly, the undue pressure and restrictions imposed by the authorities on journalists make their work extremely difficult and are a very real impediment to the free flow of ideas and information which must always be protected.
Let’s fantasize. Belarus does not compromise and does not react in any way to the recommendations of the UN High Commissioner. This is an absolutely real perspective. In your assessments, what can life be like in the country and what will happen next with human rights in it?
The human rights violations we documented, and which continue to be reported, have created an atmosphere of lawlessness, fear and impunity in Belarus. Unfortunately, this situation appears to have only worsened in the last months and weeks. Such widespread and systematic violations, and the complete impunity that exists for past violations will continue to breed injustice and cannot be the basis for any true development and security.
With which country would you compare the human rights situation in Belarus? Why?
We do not make such comparisons but consider each country according to its own unique situation.
Have you studied the situation with the rights of prisoners in Belarusian temporary detention facilities and remand prisons? I mean, there may be more people in cells than places, people sleep on the floor, for several weeks administratively detainees were not allowed to receive and they did not even have toothbrushes. Can the UN somehow influence this situation?
The UN has received worrying reports of inadequate treatment or conditions of detention in various places of deprivation of liberty, in some cases potentially amounting to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In our report, we recommend taking effective measures to eliminate overcrowding in places of detention, including by using non-custodial alternative measures and by taking immediate measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. More broadly, we recommend that regulations regarding conditions of detention be brought into line with international standards, to ensure that the human rights of all detainees are respected.
According to the UN, those who have been arbitrarily detained or ill-treated for their peaceful expression of dissent need to be provided with justice and reparation. How can this be done in a situation where human rights are not respected in the country?
One crucial step to ensure that victims of human rights have access to justice and reparation is a functioning justice system. The independence of the judiciary and of lawyers must be ensured, with full respect for a fair trial and due process rights. A judicial self-government body for the selection, appointment, promotion, dismissal and disciplining of judges should be established; the full independence of bar associations and the protection of lawyers against undue interference or retaliation in connection with their professional activity must be established.
In addition, judicial control of all forms of deprivation of liberty, including administrative detention, and the right to challenge the legality of detention must be firmly established and protected. The latest thematic report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, presented to the UN General Assembly on 26 October, was dedicated to the administration of justice and has a detailed set of recommendations to the Belarusian authorities; we call upon the authorities to implement these recommendations.
How do you assess the position of the official representative of Belarus to the UN, who stated that Belarus does not agree with the very fact of consideration of the report of the High Commissioner by the UN Human Rights Council?
The representative of Belarus was exercising the right of reply, which is normal procedure at the UN Human Rights Council.
What are the next steps in relation to Belarus planning to take in the Human Rights Council?
Following the presentation of the High Commissioner’s report and the interactive dialogue in the Council, it is now up to the Member States to decide the next steps, including whether or not to propose a new resolution with a specific course of action. In any case, OHCHR will continue its monitoring of the human rights situation in Belarus – as per our regular global mandate.