Human Rights in Belarus

  • Date / 29 September 2006

One of the more thankless tasks that the old UN Human Rights Commission set its experts was to report on specific country situations. These reports typically take years of work to prepare and are invariably torn to shreds by the countries in question and their allies while the reporters are subject to personal abuse. In this Second Session of the new Human Rights Council the existing mandate holders were asked to report. The countries in the spotlight were Somalia, Cuba, the occupied Palestinian Territories, Cambodia, Haiti, North Korea, Burundi, DR Congo, Myanmar, the Sudan and Belarus. One of these reports will suffice to give you the flavour.

In his report on the human rights situation in Belarus, Adrain Severin UN Special Rapporteur, painted a detailed picture of a country moving rapidly towards dictatorship. The government had consistently failed to co-operate with the Special Rapporteur, failed to respond to his inquiries and had prevented him from visiting the country. Information received from a plethora of sources however showed a highly dysfunctional society far removed from the norms of western democracy. Corruption was rampant. Serious concerns regarding human rights defenders, freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, religious intolerance, lack of independence of the judiciary, and the use of torture had gone unanswered. At least seven other mandate holders, including the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders and others, had addressed urgent appeals to the government of Belarus, most of which had gone unanswered. All had converged on the same opinion of human rights in Belarus.

Mr Severin’s opinions and assessments had been fully confirmed by the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Council and European Parliament. It was impossible to believe that all of these were wrong and biased. There were a few international players that supported the actual situation – most of which themselves had a problematic record with regard to human rights. Under such circumstances, the mobilisation and action of the international community was essential if the situation of Belarus and its people was to be improved. The Human Rights Council should ask the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to join the efforts of other international organizations to organise an international conference to discuss the situation of human rights in Belarus.

In reply, the Belarus Ambassador said that his country rejected the mandate of this Special Rapporteur. The content of the report was a clear attempt to stigmatise and slander Belarus in the best tradition of Cold war propaganda. He had criticized the Belarusian political and economic model, the national system of education, healthcare and social protection. He was claiming to have used reports of international organizations for this purpose yet his statements were in full contradiction with the conclusions contained in those reports.

Belarus wondered how the mandate of the Special Rapporteur had become possible. The answer was evident. The Special Rapporteur on Belarus was a remnant of the atmosphere of politicisation, which marred the Commission on Human Rights and logically brought this body to a well-know end.

Piling in

Criticism of the report by Belarus was echoed by many other States. The Cuban ambassador said that in his long carrier with the United Nations he had never witnessed a report such the one presented against Belarus. It was completely unacceptable to present such a report against a UN Member State. The Special Rapporteur had set himself up as a leader of the political opposition of Belarus. It was an insult to Member State of the United Nations. It was an anti-communist crusade of the cold war. Cuba was repulsed by the report; it was a shameful report.

Indonesia observed that a wide contradiction of views, in such an issue as human rights, usually involved politicised positions. Without prejudging the case, Indonesia wished to stress that dialogue and cooperation were important.

Pakistan said the information presented in the report sounded as if it came from a Byelorussia opposition party. The analysis and recommendations of the Special Rapporteur lacked focus, and Pakistan was not fully convinced he had observed impartiality and objectivity in carrying out his mandate.

Russia said that the establishment of the post of Special Rapporteur on the situation of Belarus had nothing to do with concerns for human rights in that country, but showed a tendentious and controversial character, and these concerns had been reaffirmed today. The report showed a clear bias, and contempt for the country and its people, along with appeals to overthrow the Government and to put pressure on it. The conclusions and recommendations recalled directives to conduct special operations to overthrow the Government. This was a flagrant violation in internal affairs, and was in contradiction with human rights, discrediting the institution of Special Rapporteurs. The politicisation, double-standards and bias were what had led to the disbanding of the Commission on Human Rights. The Russian Federation was therefore in favour of terminating the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.

Iran said that the Special Rapporteur went beyond the scope of his mandate, and gave the impression that he was directing the political opposition to overthrow the Government. The Council had not authorized the Special Rapporteur to deal with issues such as arms and bilateral trade agreements.

Algeria agreed that the Special Rapporteur had gone well beyond his mandate; it was not in his mandate or purview to make certain judgements, and he should remove these from his report, as they reflected a selective and biased approach. Mr. Severin suggested applying an embargo, and recommended that this be imposed on Member States, and this was unacceptable. Special Rapporteurs should put emphasis on dialogue and cooperation, and seek to identify best practices.

Morocco said the Special Rapporteur had a limited mandate that was not infinitely extendable. His report made a value judgement that was tendentious and unacceptable. This was an instance of exceeding a mandate which the Human Rights Council could not endorse or tolerate.

North Korea asked how positive cooperation could be established when such a report which advocated confrontation was submitted. They rejected the report.

India, China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Tunisia, Yemen and the Sudan also had criticisms of the report. He had exceeded his mandate, and the report was too political. Yet none of the States critical of the report addressed the gross violations of human rights that had been reported. .

But what about human rights?

Several Western States did however address the issue of human rights in Belarus. They appreciated the difficulties that Severin had experienced. Finland, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the EU regretted that the Government of Belarus had not permitted the Special Rapporteur to visit the country. The EU shared his concerns regarding civil society, which had been the subject of repression by the Government of Belarus.

Canada, Lithuania, Poland and the United States all expressed concern at the human rights situation in Belarus.

In a spirited defence of his report, Adrian Severin said that human rights were intimately linked to the political situation in a country. Human rights was a global issue and required a global approach. It was not just about assessment, it was about reforms and changes that were required to translate commitments into respect for human rights. For a real dialogue, there was a need for two sides, and both of them to be of good faith. If the Government of Belarus had engaged in dialogue, then its opinions would at least have been quoted in the document,.
On progress, he had not been able to identify any. He had tried to prepare the report to the best of his capacities whilst remaining unbiased and neutral, and did not accept any accusations of the contrary. Incantations did not protect human rights, nor the ordinary people from violations of human rights. The Human Rights Council should look to realities, and do something specific to make changes to the situation.

Algeria, speaking in a right of reply, had the final word. “Such a politicized report did damage to the very values the Special Rapporteur was supposed to uphold and risked damaging the very spirit in which this Council was supposed to operate.”

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