On Friday 18 September 2020, in the context of the 45th session of the Human Rights Council, which opened on Monday 14 September, an urgent debate was convened on the ‘situation of human rights in Belarus’.
The urgent debate was requested through an official letter from H. E. Ambassador Michael von Ungern-Sternberg of Germany on behalf of the European Union (EU) and addressed to the president of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, on 11 September 2020.
Urgent debates can be initiated during a regular session of the Human Rights Council to tackle urgent situations requiring a rapid response from the Council. The Council approved the request to adjust the programme of work by a vote of 25 in favour, 2 against and 20 abstentions.
Since the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006, ten resolutions have been adopted by the Council on the situation of human rights in Belarus under item 4. The first resolution on Belarus was adopted at the 17th Regular Session in July 2011 — after the 2011 Belarusian ‘silent protests‘ movement was triggered by the devaluation of the national currency — with the most recent one being adopted at the 44th session in July 2020. All the draft resolutions have been tabled and sponsored by the EU member State holding the rotating Presidency of the European Council on behalf of the EU, and had very similar vote results with on average 21 votes in favour, six votes against and 20 abstentions (21-6-20). The 2013 resolution got the most favourable vote result (26-3-18), while the least favourable result was obtained in 2016 with 15-9-23. European countries systematically vote in favour of the resolutions, while the same ten States voted against the last four resolutions: China, Philippines, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Cuba, Burundi, United Arab Emirates, Bolivia (Plurinational State of). African and Middle-Eastern member States tend to systematically abstain from the vote.
In 2012, Council Resolution 20/13 established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, whose mandate has since been renewed each year. Belarus has never recognised the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and does not engage with the mandate holder. The current Special Rapporteur, Anais Marin, presented her last report earlier this year during the 44th Council session, in which she regretted ‘the lack of meaningful progress towards the protection of human rights in Belarus’.
Her findings presented in the report pointed to the continued use of the death penalty in the country, lack of improvements related to the prevention of the use of torture, while arbitrary detention continued to target civil society activists, peaceful protesters and independent journalists. According to the report discrimination and forced labour continued to be prevalent in the country. The Special Rapporteur also noted with concern the use of homophobic language by State authorities and limitations on the freedom of expression of LGBTIQ+ persons. Her recommendations included the establishment of an independent national human rights institution (NHRI), the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, the abolition of the death penalty, the investigation of all allegations of torture, and the recognition of a diversity of opinions in the public sphere.
The urgent debate on Belarus was called following the events that occurred in the aftermath of President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election on 9 August 2020. Suspicions that the election results had been falsified to ensure his reelection triggered daily mass protests in Minsk, the capital, as well as other cities around the country. The European Union rejected the results of the election, saying it was ‘neither free nor fair’. There were also allegations of police brutality against peaceful protesters. Several opposition leaders have been arrested in the past couple of weeks, while others fled the country. After the election, an Internet blackout that lasted for three days, prevented people from protesting and organising online. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, in exile in Lithuania, along with other opposition leaders, civil society activists, lawyers and intellectuals, launched the Coordination Council to initiate a peaceful transfer of power. All but one of its leaders have been arrested or fled the country.
Against this backdrop, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the violent response of the Belarusian authorities to post-electoral peaceful demonstrations on 12 August. She called for the immediate release of all those who have been unlawfully detained, and for the investigation of allegations of human rights violations. ‘The right to peacefully protest online must be also protected’ she added referring to the Internet blackout in the country.
On 4 September 2020, an Arria-formula meeting of the UN Security Council was convened at the instigation of Estonia. Speakers included the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Ms. Anaïs Marin, and Belarusian opposition presidential candidate, Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. In her statement, the Special Rapporteur said the situation in Belarus had never been as catastrophic as during the past month, and continued to worsen. 450 cases of torture by law enforcement officials had been reported to her office, as well as several cases of police brutality leading to at least five deaths. Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the Belarussian population had three demands: the immediate termination of violence and repression by the regime, the immediate release of all political prisoners, and free and fair elections. She appealed to the international community and the United Nations to use all mechanisms to stop the violence in Belarus. ‘We, the Belarusian people, need the help of the United Nations in order to stop blatant human rights violations and cynical disregard for human dignity and rights’, she stated.
The Urgent Debate
After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by H.E. Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on Belarus (on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, via video conference), Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (via video message) and Ms. Ekaterina Novikava, (via video message).
The statements were interrupted several times by the delegations of Belarus, the Russia Federation, Venezuela (Bolivian Republic of) and China who raised eight points of order in total. The delegations demanded that the broadcast of videos be stopped and the statements of H.E. Nada Al-Nashif, Ms. Anaïs Marin, Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Ms. Ekaterina Novikava be excluded from the minutes of the meeting. They said the format of an urgent debate does not cover speaking time for individuals, the Special Rapporteur nor representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The delegations of Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark also took the floor to indicate it was time to pursue the debate and voiced their support for the decisions of the Council President made in this regard. The President recalled the procedure, stating that this urgent debate was following the model of previous urgent debates, including the one held over the summer at the 43th Regular Session of the Council on racism. She stressed that the initiator of the debate —in this case Germany on behalf of the EU— can choose speakers to intervene before the discussion. After explaining the procedure multiple times, the President made a ruling to follow precedent and requested that the debate followed its course.
H.E. Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened the urgent debate by commending the work of successive Special Rapporteurs on Belarus. The Deputy High Commissioner described situations of torture —including sexual violence and reported torture of children, arbitrary arrests of journalists, near-systematic patterns of unnecessary or excessive use of force against peaceful protestors, restricted internet access, limitations of public freedoms, fear of retaliation for victims of torture, and violence. ‘We are seeing the same underlying systemic deficiencies leading to an intensifying cycle of serious human rights violations’, she pursued. The Deputy High Commissioner urged the Belarusian authorities to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law and to guarantee that no retaliation measures would be taken against those who speak out about their experience. She demanded that violations of freedom of expression, information and peaceful assembly, as well as reported harassment, intimidation, pressure and expulsion from Belarus of members of the opposition cease immediately, and that those detained for voicing dissent and participating in peaceful actions be immediately released. She urged the authorities to facilitate investigations regarding the allegations of human rights violations. Al-Nashif concluded by calling on the Council to facilitate dialogue and prevent the violence from further escalating.
Ms. Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, underlined that the human rights situation in Belarus is deteriorating and needs scrutiny from relevant UN bodies. The electoral process did not improve since her last report to the General Assembly in July 2019, she noted, as reports from the ground mention gross manipulations of the electoral process. Turning to the Internet blackout, she stressed that it was a disproportionate measure, incompatible with the right to freedom of expression and access to information. The Special Rapporteur went on to condemn the use of torture. Marin urged the Belarus government to free all people arbitrarily detained following the arrests made during the protests, and called on the police to stop the escalation of violence. She urged Belarus to prevent, investigate and punish crimes, and guarantee the right of victims of torture to obtain redress. The Special Rapporteur argued that the only possible way out of the deadlock in Belarus is through open, honest and inclusive dialogue. ‘Let me recall that human rights violations are not an internal affair: they are of interest to the international community’ she added.
Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in her statement, recognised that the current situation in Belarus is unprecedented. She placed emphasis on the extensive force used by the regime, in clear violation of international norms. She made several demands, on behalf of the Belarusian people: to immediately cease violence against peaceful citizens, to release all political prisoners, to allow entry and free movement to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, to launch an international monitoring mission to document the regime’s atrocities, and to hold a free and fair election. ‘It is very important to recognise that standing up for democratic principles and human rights is not interfering in internal affairs. It is a universal question of human dignity’, she concluded.
Finally, Ms. Ekaterina Novikava presented herself as an activist and gave her testimony of arbitrary arrest and violence. She said she had been arrested and described her experience in jail, where people are being beaten up, asked who they voted for, humiliated, undergo violence and ill treatment.
During the following debate, 24 member States, 44 observer States, two international organisations and nine civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the human rights situation in Belarus.
Webcasts of those statements can be found here.
Belarus spoke as the country concerned. They reiterated their disagreement with the format of the urgent debate and the way it was held. They stated that they didn’t agree with the accusations of human rights violations, and that these allegations were unjustified and unproven. The reality was that the protests were caused by people who lost the election and a minority of people who did not accept the election’s result, they added. They pointed out that many law enforcement officials suffered injuries due to the protests and the only use of force had been against protesters who were not respecting the law. They stressed that the people detained had also been disregarding the law, since the protests were not peaceful and some protesters had advocated for violent resistance to the police, who were trying to restore order. Belarus underscored that the State who initiated the urgent debate would have done the same if they had been in a similar situation. Only 1 to 5 people had been killed, Belarus highlighted, which is a figure similar to many other countries. They said that complaints of injury made by protesters had been investigated, but many were unfounded inasmuch as videos were fake. They ultimately denied the unfounded allegations of violence, disappearance and detention.
Germany gave a statement on behalf of the European Union and as initiator of the urgent debate. They stated that the European Union was deeply concerned by the situation in Belarus, where elections were ‘not free or fair’ —a phrase quoted by all the EU member States who took the floor— and freedoms were being limited. They mentioned torture, inhuman and degrading treatment suffered by those who had been arrested from the hands of law enforcement officials, and enforced disappearances. They said continued scrutiny and monitoring of the situation in Belarus by the Council and OHCHR was key. Finally, they called for support of the draft resolution.
Poland expressed grave concern about the systemic human rights violations in Belarus. They were alarmed by the large-scale repression, and were appalled by reports of enforced disappearance and violence against women. They called on Belarus to fulfil their responsibilities under international law, respect freedoms, and bring the perpetrators of violations to justice. Poland insisted on its continued support to the Belarusian people and the importance of inclusive dialogue.
Ukraine focused on the fact that Belarus was going against the principles of the Human Rights Council. They said that the protesters’ goal is to defend their right to choose. Ukraine condemned foreign influence on the protests, stating that States had absolutely no right to interfere. They argued that UN human rights mechanisms can and should help improve the situation in Belarus.
The Marshall Islands recalled explicit warnings expressed by the Council prior to the election in Resolution 44/19, which contained suggestions for preventive measures that should have been implemented to better protect human rights. They stated that it was apparent that these warnings had been disregarded. ‘We are hopeful that, going forward, better prevention is achieved to avoid further deterioration of the situation, as well as access to justice and full accountability’, they concluded.
Lithuania condemned the institutionalised use of torture as well as gender-based violence in Belarus. They called for an international investigation and requested that the Council and Special Procedures remain seized of the matter.
The Russian Federation stated the urgent debate had been requested by a group of aggressive States. Non-interference is the basis of international law and relations, they stressed, and the problems in Belarus were domestic issues. The Russian Federation claimed that a neighbouring country was trying to undermine stability in the region. They further stressed that mass arrests had also been taken place in France, Germany and the United States, yet there had been no debate then. They underlined that the debate was an attempt to create more division within the Council.
China opened their statement by claiming their opposition to the urgent debate and the blatant politicisation of the Council. They put emphasis on the attempts of foreign countries to undermine the social order and sovereignty of others. Impartiality is inscribed in the UN Charter, they said, thus it should be how the Council works.
Mexico expressed concern due to the multiple reports of alleged human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, gender-based violence and limits on freedom of expression and assembly. They highlighted that it is necessary to follow up on complaints and ensure true accountability in cases where violations are shown. Mexico called on Belarus to investigate all complaints and engage in national dialogue.
Indonesia recalled the principles of the UN Charter (respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty, political independence of States), stating that they should continue to be upheld by the Council. They further recalled the obligation of States to protect their own people, and to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights. Indonesia said they were confident that the government of Belarus would take all necessary steps to de-escalate the situation and continue their efforts to achieve human rights for Belarusian citizens.
State speakers were divided into two groups with opposing views. The first group of States was concerned by human rights violations in Belarus. They called for a transparent and independent investigation of the situation of human rights in the country. They demanded that the perpetrators of violence and violations be prosecuted and that all those who had been detained following the protests, as well as opposition leaders and members of the Coordination Council, be released. They urged Belarus to engage with the Special Rapporteur and allow full, free and unhindered access to the country to the mandate holder. They expressed concern regarding restrictions to freedom of expression and the Internet blackout, underscoring that freedom of expression ought to be guaranteed both online and offline. State speakers also called for free, fair and transparent elections, and exhorted Belarus to engage in an inclusive dialogue with relevant stakeholders. They insisted that the Council continue to closely monitor the situation. Some State speakers noted the prominent role of women in the democratic movement.
The second group of States denounced interference of the Council in the internal affairs of Belarus. They stated that the debate was impeding the sovereignty of Belarus and emphasised that the Belarusian people and institutions in the country are capable of re-establishing a consensus. State speakers further denounced the politicisation of the Council, pointing to its lack of impartiality and selectivity in choosing the themes of the debates, and arguing that this urgent debate was politically-motivated. They said human rights need to be addressed through dialogue within the country, instead of through political pressure.
UN Women delivered a statement, voicing their deep concern about numerous reports of gender-based violence, as well as ‘alleged intimidation, abduction and attempted or successful arbitrary expulsion from Belarus of women politicians and female opposition leaders’. They noted the central and active role of women in the recent peaceful protests. UNICEF expressed concern about the reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, including against children. They noted that 240 adolescents are currently facing administrative charges for engaging in demonstrations. They called on Belarusian authorities to fully respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all children, and said they will continue to monitor the situation.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) urged the Council to support the draft resolution. Human Rights Watch quoted testimonies of Belarusian citizens who faced violence. They described cases of police brutality and torture, and noted that lawyers reported their work was being made difficult by authorities. Human Rights House Foundation said human rights violations in Belarus follow a cyclical pattern. They recalled Resolution 44/19, stating that the Council had warned Belarus to take preventative action to avoid an escalation of human rights violations around the time of the Presidential election, but that Belarus chose to ignore those warnings. The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) mentioned that hundreds of testimonies and evidence of torture had been compiled. Amnesty International stressed the fact that the Council must enhance its response.
The live webcast of the vote process for draft resolution L.1 on the ‘Situation of human rights in Belarus in the run up to the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath’ can be found here.
In the draft resolution, the Human Rights Council ‘expresses deep concern about the overall situation of human rights in Belarus’ and its recent deterioration (OP 1) and regrets that the government of Belarus has not fulfilled its obligations regarding the electoral process (OP 2). It expresses serious concern ‘at credible allegations that human rights violations were committed in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath’ (OP3) as well as ‘at the credible allegations of numerous acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by law enforcement and prison officers’ (OP4).
Furthermore, the draft resolution ‘calls upon the Belarusian authorities to cease using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators’ (OP 5) and ‘to enter into a dialogue with the political opposition, including the Coordination Council and civil society’ (OP 6). It also ‘recognises the important role played by civil society, including human rights defenders’ in documenting and monitoring allegations of human rights violations (OP 7). The resolution ‘urges the Belarusian authorities to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law’, especially in terms of freedom of peaceful assembly and association (OP8). It also ‘urges the Belarusian authorities to enable independent, transparent and impartial investigations into all human rights violations’ committed in the context of the election (OP9) and ‘to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, in particular by granting her free, full and unhindered access to the territory of the country’ (OP10).
Finally, the draft resolution requests the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to (1) monitor closely the situation of human rights in Belarus; to (2) present to the Council, before the end of 2020, an interim oral update on that situation with recommendations to be followed by an interactive dialogue; and to (3) submit a comprehensive written report on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the lead-up to, during and after the 2020 presidential election during an enhanced interactive dialogue at the forty-sixth session of the Council (OP 11).
Germany introduced the draft resolution, stating that it had only been two months since the European Union introduced the last resolution on Belarus, urging authorities to ensure a free and fair election and facilitate a peaceful process. However, elections were not free, fair nor transparent, and a brutal crackdown had been witnessed. Thus, EU members had no other choice but to request this urgent debate. They called for other delegations’ support on the resolution.
The Russian Federation introduced 17 amendments to the draft resolution. In their statement, they underscored that the European Union was using the Human Rights Council to impact elections in Belarus and destabilise the situation in the country. They insisted that the debate was politically motivated, discrediting the work of the Council and that they were forced to introduce amendments to establish a balance in the text. For the Russian Federation, it was clear that the Council did not have the mandate to assess the implementation of international conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture, as this mandate lies with the UN treaty bodies. Their amendments would correct these mistakes and guarantee non-interference in internal affairs. The amendments would also include a reference to capacity-building. The Russian Federation turned to Belarus’ cooperation with the Council, stating that the country had been cooperating with both the Council and treaty bodies. To conclude, if the European Union was interested in the electoral process in Belarus, why did the EU not send election monitors, they wondered. The Russian Federation called for support on the amendments and requested that they be considered separately.
In response, Germany stressed that a majority of the member States present actively participated in both formal and informal consultations and made a number of additions to the draft resolution. Turning to the amendments, they stated that some of them were clearly aimed at fundamentally altering the focus of the draft through the deletion of key paragraphs. The amendments were threatening the carefully-crafted balance of the resolution, they further stressed, calling for a vote on each of them. They stated that EU members that were Council members would vote against the amendments, and urged other Council members to do likewise.
Belarus made general comments, regretting that the Council be dragged into this urgent debate. The fact that foreign States questioned the results of the presidential election was a violation of the exclusive right of the Belarusian people, they said. They underlined that if the Council was to issue conclusions on elections in a sovereign State, it would create a dangerous precedent, and be in breach of key principles of the United Nations. They highlighted that the sources used for the text of the draft resolution were the OHCHR and Special Procedures, but neither of them tried to make contact with the Belarusian government, therefore information was not objective nor impartial. Belarus asked member States not to support the proposed resolution, vote against it and vote in support of the amendments proposed by the Russian Federation.
All of the 17 proposed amendments were rejected.
Subsequently, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) called for a vote on the draft resolution, stating that politicisation and odious practices that led to the fall of the UN Commission on Human Rights in the past should be avoided. Multilateralism should be valued for common good and not as a pretext to demonize countries of the South, they argued. They concluded by saying that the urgent debate was yet another attempt at manipulating a country that had shown the highest standard of respect for human rights.
The draft resolution was adopted by a vote of 23 in favour, 2 against and 22 abstentions.
The full text of HRC resolution 45/1 can be read here.
Feature image: Belarusian_protests_—_Minsk,_16_August_p0024. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
During the debate on the human rights situation in Belarus during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya [opposition candidate in 2020 Belarusian Presidential elections] (video message) at a debate on the human rights situation in Belarus during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Yury Ambrazevich, Permanent Representative of Belarus ( Concerned Country ) to the United Nations Office at Geneva at a the debate on the human rights situation in Belarus during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Andrei Taranda, Representative of Russian Federation ( Concerned Country )to the United Nations Office at Geneva before voting during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A voting during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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