Belarus has come in for strong criticism at the 35th session of the Human Rights Council, leading to the adoption of a new resolution and the extension of Miklós Haraszti’s mandate as the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus.
The situation in Belarus has deteriorated significantly over the past year, and civil society organisations have been waiting for a strong response from the Council according to a report published by Miklós Haraszti last April. However, as has been the case with previous such reports, Haraszti was denied access to the reclusive state and was unable to meet with authorities. He therefore relied on information provided by human rights actors on the ground, including the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, one of the country’s leading human rights organisations, despite the government’s refusal to allow it register as an NGO.
One of the main themes of the resolution is the increased repression of the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association, a fundamental right constantly flouted by the ruling power. The excessive use of force by the police during the peaceful protests of March 25 against the tax on the unemployed, the reappearance of the practice of “preventive measures” such as preventive arrests or the raid by police on the premises of the Viasna Center are all measures in respect of which the Council has reaffirmed its continued concern. As the Special Rapporteur says, the aim of the government is to “silence human rights defenders and the most ardent. political opponents” using methods of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, harassment, and even threats of physical or sexual violence.
Another crucial aspect of this resolution is the death penalty. In the hope of lifting the sanctions against them from the European Union, the authorities suspended executions in 2015. This led to the lifting of sanctions in February 2016, but the wave of executions resumed, with four in 2016 and one so far this year. Two other convicts are on death row. According to the report, the use of the death penalty is all the more worrisome given that the right to a fair trial is not respected in Belarus and the Belarusian justice system lacks independence.
A petition launched by Viasna for the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus has collected more than 16,000 signatures. The international community has strongly condemned the resumption of executions, and the resolution now calls on the Special Rapporteur to continue to monitor developments in this area and to make recommendations.
Belarusian media too as come in under scrutiny recently after lawmakers passed a bill that critics argue will lead to censorship of the press. Ostensibly designed to combat so-called fake news, the legislation would allow government to shut down social networks that don’t comply with the law.
In a statement on the matter, the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the Belarusian government has “jumped on the bandwagon of ‘fake news’ not because it wants to shield citizens from falsehoods but because it wants more power to decide what information they receive.”
At a recent meeting with EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka said “talks about democracy, freedom of speech, political prisoners, abolishing capital punishment are surely necessary, we keep those issues on the agenda, taking about them boldly and openly.”