UN High Commissioner On Belarus: Human Rights Crisis Of Unprecedented Magnitude

The actions of the authorities in Belarus before and after the election were aimed at curtailing the rights to freedoms of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the right to participation in political affairs and led to a human rights crisis of a magnitude unprecedented in Belarus. This is stated in the report on the situation of human rights in the context of the 2020 presidential elections, which UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will present today at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Michelle Bachelet’s report, published on the UN Human Rights Council website, covers the period from May 1 to December 20, 2020. It examines the events during the election campaign and the situation during and after the presidential elections in Belarus.

The document primarily notes that on 5 October, the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) addressed a note verbale to the Permanent Mission of Belarus in Geneva in which it requested access to the country. In its reply, on 16 October, the Government of Belarus reiterated the position it expressed during the urgent debate, namely, that it did not recognize Human Rights Council resolution 45/1. Unable to visit Belarus, OHCHR prepared the report on the basis of remote monitoring.

“In accordance with its methodology on human rights monitoring, OHCHR exercised due diligence in assessing the reliability and credibility of sources and when cross-checking the information gathered. It also took all appropriate measures to ensure the confidentiality of some sources.”

Systemic restrictions of human rights

The report indicates that the rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Belarus in 2013, 2016 and 2019 dedicated three reports to human rights and fundamental freedoms in the context of electoral processes.

In 2018, the Human Rights Committee called upon Belarus to bring its electoral regulations and practices into full compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by ensuring full and meaningful enjoyment of electoral rights, including by opposition political candidates, freedom to engage in pluralistic political debate and in peaceful demonstrations, and to refrain from using criminal law provisions to exclude opposition candidates. These recommendations remained largely unimplemented.

Three opposition candidates or potential candidates were notably barred from running in the 2020 presidential election. More than 1,000 people were arrested during the pre-electoral period. Hundreds were fined or sentenced to administrative detention; criminal cases were opened regarding 23 persons, including individuals who intended to run for the elections, bloggers, journalists, and organizers of and participants in signature collections, civic initiatives and other peaceful activities.

The use of force during protests should always be a measure of last resort

An analysis of the many accounts, reports and footage of the marches consistently shows that, although participants were overwhelmingly peaceful, they were systematically and in many cases violently dispersed by security forces.

“The use of force during protests should always be exceptional, proportionate and a measure of last resort; even if some participants are held responsible for isolated acts of violence, the entire assembly should not be seen as losing its overall peaceful character. Regardless of relevant international norms and standards, almost all peaceful protests held before and after the election were dispersed in an indiscriminate manner. Security forces used unnecessary or excessive force, including beatings with batons, as well as chemical irritants, water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades,” reads the report.

Although overwhelmingly peaceful, all the gatherings were dispersed, often violently, and hundreds of people were detained each week for demonstrating. Since 9 August 2020, some 30,000 people have reportedly been arrested. Moreover, at least four people lost their lives in the context of protests; according to official sources, more than 2,600 people were injured between 9 August and 23 November.

United Nations human rights mechanisms have repeatedly highlighted the fact that the legal framework governing assemblies in Belarus does not meet international norms and standards, and have made recommendations thereon. International standards are based on the assumptions that all peaceful assemblies are protected; that the State has a positive duty to facilitate peaceful assemblies; that assemblies should not require authorization, but only a notification; and that assemblies are peaceful, and therefore than isolated acts of violence by some participants should not be attributed to the assembly as such. They also lay out permissible grounds for restrictions, which should meet the requirements of necessity, legality and proportionality.

According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures, pretrial detention should be used as a measure of last resort; the systematic placing of persons in custody or of keeping them in pretrial detention, in overcrowded facilities with poor conditions of detention, is therefore of particular concern at a time when the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases is surging. International agencies advocated wherever possible to refrain from pretrial detentions as a measure to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in prisons.

Conclusions and recommendations

The report concludes that the information collected by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights indicates the widespread violations committed in the context of the elections, the systematic denial of fundamental freedoms, the mass arbitrary arrests and detention of people who organized or participated in protests or voiced criticism or dissent, and the hundreds of alleged acts of torture and ill-treatment, harassment and intimidation targeting opposition members, journalists and human rights defenders and citizens in general have created an atmosphere of fear and impunity. The situation has been further compounded by the lack of action to ensure accountability for such human rights violations.

“This situation reflects long-standing, chronic patterns of systemic violations and impunity, which have been highlighted by various international human rights mechanisms, including the treaty bodies and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.”

The situation has been further compounded by the lack of action to ensure accountability for such human rights violations.

The High Commissioner, therefore, recommends that the Government of Belarus:

  • Ensure that independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations are conducted into all allegations of human rights violations in the context of peaceful protests, including loss of life and injuries, and torture or ill-treatment, including acts of sexual violence, and that perpetrators are brought to justice and adequately sanctioned;
  • Ensure that all victims of human rights violations obtain redress and remedy, including compensation, rehabilitation and the right to know the truth; and take steps to prevent the recurrence of human rights violations, including acts of reprisal against victims and witnesses;
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all those unlawfully or arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly or their legitimate functions, including human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers, and cease and reverse any administrative or criminal judicial action against people for exercising their human rights, including the rights to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly;
  • Cease the exclusion of persons from workplaces and educational institutions, and acts of intimidation and threats made publicly by State officials and institutions;
  • Initiate a comprehensive review and reform of the national legal framework to address systemic issues and prevent the recurrence of human rights violations.

Besides, the High Commissioner recommends that the government initiate in Belarus a review and reform of the national legal framework to address systemic problems and prevent the recurrence of human rights violations, including revising the law on mass events and the law on the media in order to bring them to international standards.