Belarusian human rights organizations issued a joint position on the verge of the next following round of EU-Belarus dialog.
On the basic human rights situation in Belarus (2018-19)
Belarus' human rights community supports the continuation of the human rights dialogue between the European Union and the Republic of Belarus and believes that it is important to note the following in the run-up to its next round:
In one of the few positive developments in recent years, the government adopted a National Human Rights Plan, which gave rise to certain hopes in the human rights community that the institutional and legislative framework for defending and promoting human rights would improve. Unfortunately, the implementation of the plan has been largely inefficient, among other reasons, because of a lack of involvement of civil society organisations in its preparation, implementation and preliminary evaluation.
We would also like to note the positive practice of involving representatives of the human rights community in events held by state institutions to discuss important human rights issues, including legislative amendments, formats for cooperation within international human rights mechanisms. At the same time, we regret to note that not all interested human rights organisations are involved in the discussions. In addition, not a single proposal by the Belarusian human rights community for amending Belarus' national legislation has been implemented.
Human rights organisations welcome the fact that Belarus has submitted its first periodic report in the last 20 years to the UN Human Rights Committee and support the recommendations adopted by the Committee as well as recommendations by the other treaty bodies.
We consider the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the subsequent approval and implementation of the National Action Plan for implementing the Convention until 2025 as a positive step. We also note the rather active involvement of organisations of people with disabilities in the development and discussion of the National Plan and the draft Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At the same time, we note the superficial nature of the reforms from the standpoint of human rights, the low priority given to issues of legal capacity, rights protection mechanisms, protection against discrimination, and deinstitutionalization or a complete refusal to consider them.
In spite of these steps, we want to emphasize that significant positive changes in the legislative, institutional and practical dimensions of the promotion and protection of human rights in Belarus have not taken place over the past year.
Thus, the authorities have so far not made any serious progress in establishing a national human rights institution; comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation has not been enacted, effective mechanisms for ensuring equality and protection against discrimination have not been established; discrimination against vulnerable groups, in particular, the Roma, LGBT people, women, etc. persists.
The death penalty continues to be applied in Belarus. Despite a certain openness of the parliamentary working group on the death penalty, the results of its activities so far have not been reported to the general public, plans for its future work are unknown.
On the independence of the judicial system, there are still a number of problems that affect the independence of judges and the exercise of the right to a fair trial. The judiciary continues to be under the strong influence of the President and his Administration, in particular, on matters of the appointment, dismissal and disciplinary punishment of judges. In Belarus, there is no real independence and self-government of bar associations and freedom to pursue legal profession. The Ministry of Justice has the broadest powers of administration over the practice of law, in particular, as it grants access to this field through licensing and monitors the activities of both individual lawyers and bar associations as an institution.
In 2018, regulations were amended to substantially expand the government's control over the Internet in Belarus. In particular, authorities introduced a requirement for news websites to apply for registration as online media. Without this status representatives of news websites lose the status of journalists. In addition, a requirement for users of forums to undergo an identification procedure was put into place. Journalists cooperating with foreign media outlets without the foreign ministry's accreditation continue to be punished. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, at least 118 such cases were recorded in 2018, with the fines totalling about 44,000 euros.
Last year, there were more instances of pressure on journalists and bloggers using a number of anti-defamation articles of the Criminal Code as well as regulations against extremism. Criminal penalties remained a sentencing option for slandering (Article 188), insulting (Article 189), slandering the president of the Republic of Belarus (Article 367), insulting the president of the Republic of Belarus (Article 368), insulting an authority figure (Article 369), discrediting the Republic of Belarus (Article 369.1).
National regulations continue to unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly. The enactment of amendments to the Mass Events Law in 2018 that introduced a notification system for certain types of assemblies can hardly be described as progress. After the adoption of the Council of Ministers Directive No. 49 as a follow-up measure, the situation regarding freedom of peaceful assembly for the country's citizens deteriorated still further, as the costs of organizing assemblies stipulated by the directive became a serious hindrance to the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Significant restrictions on the freedom of association remain, in spite of certain steps to improve the situation in this area, in particular, the abolition of criminal penalties for activities on behalf of unregistered organizations (Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code). The procedure of the state registration of public associations, parties, their organizations, as well as foundations is complex and burdensome, leaving state registering bodies the option of arbitrarily denying registration to any nascent organization. Opportunities for non-commercial organizations to receive funding from both domestic and foreign sources are significantly limited. The existing restrictive practices raise concerns about the justice ministry's announced plans to add a provision to the Law on Public Associations that would require public associations to publish reports about the spending of the donations they receive.
We welcome the abolition of Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code and regard it as an important and necessary step towards improving the situation regarding freedom of association in Belarus. At the same time, we state that the replacement of criminal prosecution for activities on behalf of unregistered organizations with administrative liability indicates the absence of political will to ensure real freedom of association in our country.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, recognized by the Belarusian human rights community as a political prisoner, remains behind bars.
In the run-up to the House of Representatives elections expected to take place in the autumn of 2019, we would like to note the lack of any progress in implementing recommendations by the OSCE/ODIHR for reforming electoral regulations, which are not sufficiently robust for holding free and democratic elections.
There are serious problems affecting the implementation of economic and social rights in Belarus. Forced labour is widely spread, in forms such as compulsion to take part in free work in the interests of the state (so-called subbotniks, harvesting work, etc.), the compulsory isolation of citizens suffering from alcoholism in treatment and labour therapy centres, the forced labour of "obliged persons," forced labour in residential institutions under the guise of “labour rehabilitation”. Simultaneously, the government continues to exert pressure on members of independent labour unions.
People continue to be expelled from Belarus to countries where they may face torture and/or the death penalty in violation of international and national norms. This may be done using simplified expulsion or deportation procedures, not extradition procedures, which offer more serious procedural guarantees. This essentially amounts to disguised extradition (for example, of Mehrdad Jamshidian, Ismail Nalgiyev).
In connection with the above, Belarus' human rights community recommends:
1) that EU institutions:
should continue viewing human rights as an important item on the agenda of the Human Rights Dialogue and involve representatives of the Belarusian human rights community in the Human Rights Dialogue;
help create and develop platforms inside of Belarus for communication between governmental agencies and the human rights community for the efficient implementation of Belarus' human rights commitments;
should support Belarus' efforts to implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies, as well as other steps by the government aimed at securing a real improvement of the human rights situation in Belarus, in particular, provide expertise and other assistance to help the country reform regulations and the practice of their application based on the rich experience of EU member states;
should continue to support Belarus' civil society in its efforts to defend and promote human rights in Belarus;
should include human rights components in all projects carried out in Belarus with the financial support of the European Union and involve civil society representatives in their discussion and implementation.
2) that Belarus' authorities:
should take active steps to improve national regulations in order to bring them into conformity with international human rights standards;
should continue involving a broad range of representatives of the Belarusian human community in the discussion of amendments to regulations affecting human rights and freedoms;
should create standing platforms for cooperation between state bodies and the human rights community to generate proposals for improving the human rights situation;
should involve civil society in drafting periodic reports for UN treaty bodies and within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review as well as in assessing the current and devising the future National Human Rights Plan;
should replicate the positive examples and results of the dialogue on the rights of people with disability in all areas of human rights.
The Belarusian Helsinki Committee
The Viasna Human Rights Centre
The Belarusian Association of Journalists
The Centre for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend)
The Assembly of Pro-democratic Non-governmental Organisations
Pravavaya Initsyyatyva (Legal Initiative)
Initsyyatyva (Initiative) FORB
The Office for the Rights of People with Disability
The Belarusian Documentation Centre
The Belarusian Human Rights House