5 points of the human rights agenda for Belarus
The Republic of Belarus is considered one of the most unfree countries on the European continent. Social and political situation in the country develops in a cycle: in the run-up to the next elections the authorities try to create for the Western states an illusion of “liberalization” and readiness for reforms, hoping for "dialogue" in order to obtain economic aid, and when they are over, start a new crackdown, imprisoning political opponents, persecuting human rights defenders, journalists and civil society activists and adopting new repressive laws.
In response to the unprecedented repression of the political opposition and civil society following the last presidential elections in 2010, the European institutions have suspended dialogue with Alexander Lukashenko’s regime: sanctions were imposed on Belarusian officials and all high-level contacts with the authorities were cut off. The OSCE "Moscow Mechanism" was invoked with regard to Belarus, and the United Nations reestablished the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in this country. European institutions specified the conditions for resuming political and economic dialogue: positive developments in the field of human rights, the rule of law and respect for democratic principles in the country.
Today, 4 years after the previous elections and a year ahead to the next, again, we are beginning to see a gradual "warming" in relations between Belarus and the European institutions: the World Ice Hockey Championship has been successfully held in Minsk despite calls for boycott, Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs is received in European capitals, and some Western politicians are let to enter the country after longstanding bans. To date, the majority of political prisoners have been released by pardon or due to expiration of their prison terms, the shock caused by the events of late 2010 – early 2011 started to fade, and human rights issues in Belarus fell by the wayside against the background of the Ukrainian crisis. In European capitals a possibility to resume dialogue with the official Minsk is voiced again. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that none of the serious systemic problems in the field of human rights and the rule of law in Belarus, which were repeatedly raised by the international community, have in a slightest way advanced towards their solution over the years.
Not denying as such the possibility of dialogue with the Belarusian authorities, we believe that any negotiations with them should be used by representatives of other states and international institutions primarily as an opportunity to remind them of the need to address systemic problems in the field of human rights and the rule of law in the country and to insist, in particular, on the fulfilment of the following five key requirements:
1. Abolish the death penalty and introduce a moratorium on the execution of death sentences as a first step towards its complete abolition.
2. Take effective measures to combat torture, including:
- to introduce the concept of "torture" as a crime in the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus;
- establish a national preventive mechanism or a similar system of public oversight over the places of detention;
- ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture or the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture.
3. Cease politically motivated prosecution, including:
- immediately and unconditionally release and rehabilitate all prisoners of conscience recognised as such by the international community;
- ensure the review of sentences for other political prisoners by a competent and independent court in accordance with international fair trial standards;
- close all the cases based on politically motivated charges, which are currently at the stage of investigation or trial, and refrain from opening new such cases;
- stop the practice of arbitrary detention of civil society and political activists on the eve of public events and other significant public occasions.
4. Facilitate the operating conditions for civil society, including:
- abolish Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code stipulating responsibility for activities on behalf of unregistered organisations;
- repeal administrative and criminal responsibility for receiving and using foreign donations;
- decriminalise libel and defamation;
- stop the practice of using "anti-extremist" legislation to restrict freedom of expression;
- repeal all the other restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly recognized to be not in line with international human rights standards.
5. Ensure full cooperation with international human rights institutions, in particular:
- ensure the implementation of decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee on individual complaints against Belarus;
- fulfil the requests for country visits by the PACE rapporteur on the situation in Belarus, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, as well as representatives of the thematic UN special procedures;
- expand the mandate of the UN office in Minsk to include human rights issues;
- renew the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk;
- establish an independent national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles;
- seek expertise and take into account recommendations by intergovernmental organisations (UN, OSCE and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe) to change legislation affecting the observance of human rights;
- consider the possibility of accession to other international human rights treaties, in particular, ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
We are convinced that meeting these requirements is a prerequisite for improving the human rights situation in Belarus and gives a chance for further development of the country in line with the rule of law principles.