Since the violent attacks on peaceful protestors following the fraudulent presidential election in August 2020, human rights defenders and ordinary Belarusians have been living in fear. They are frightened of being kidnapped by plainclothes security men in black balaclavas and thrown into overcrowded prisons, where they are often denied basic needs, such as food and water, hygiene and bedding, or beaten and outright tortured. Such conditions and behavior by the law-enforcement apparatus appear to be endorsed at the very top. A leaked speech ostensibly by former Interior Minister Yury Karaeu, encouraging a brutal response to protestors, is one example. The failure to initiate criminal proceedings into any of the 4,644 complaints filed by victims of the violence is another.
Halting state violence and bringing the perpetrators to account is one of the most immediate concerns for Belarusians and human rights activists today. Help may be at hand. This week in Geneva, the UNHRC will address the issue through a resolution creating an accountability mandate for Belarus. The mandate will complement existing international and regional human rights mechanisms, both to identify those responsible for the most serious violations for future prosecution, and hopefully to signal accountability to Belarusian state employees to deter further repression and violations. The UNHRC’s action is the result of effective cooperation between Belarusian human rights and democratic forces and international human rights organizations, and is a reflection of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.
In creating this new mandate for Belarus, the UN relied on the experience of investigating human rights violations in other countries — such as the bloody end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2014 — with assistance from experts and UN Special Rapporteurs mandated to monitor global human rights issues and trends. Subsequent reporting by the High Commissioner provided impartial evidence which was critical to systematically addressing violations and seeking accountability for those responsible.
But passing a resolution is not enough. In order for this mandate to meaningfully and substantively address the human rights crisis in Belarus, UN member states and the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) must commit to and implement six key actions:
- Ensure sufficient funding. The UN’s current cash crisis has real implications for tasks agreed by the Council. Insufficient funds would leave the Belarusian initiative largely dead in the water.
- Appoint credible international experts with sufficient experience and expertise, including in international criminal law, to comprehensively examine all alleged human rights violations committed in Belarus since May 2020. The OHCHR must appoint experts who not only contribute their expertise and experience but can, by virtue of their reputation, mobilize the international community.
- Appoint sufficient investigators, forensic experts, gender specialists, and legal analysts to carry out the necessary work. OHCHR has deep experience in recruiting qualified investigators and must do so for this mandate, as well.
- Provide the maximum time possible to conduct a thorough investigation and report back to the Council.
- Report immediately and publicly to the Council on non-cooperation by the Belarusian authorities. OHCHR has a responsibility to Belarus to engage with the authorities on this mandate and a responsibility to the Belarusian people to publicly call out those authorities if they fail to do so.
- Share advanced copies of its interim oral report and a comprehensive written report with Belarusian, regional, and international civil society at the same time it is shared with UN member states and the Belarusian authorities. Civil society is a key partner in addressing human rights violations in Belarus and must be treated as such.
If implemented effectively, the mandate can provide further evidence and documentation to help to bring human rights abusers in Belarus to account through the establishment of new or additional sanctions and to bring about future legal action in Belarus, or under international jurisdiction. This approach is becoming more effective — 16 countries have heard cases under international jurisdiction to date, and the majority of cases have ended with convictions. The latest example is the conviction of a former Syrian official in February in Germany. Lithuania is currently investigating a case against the Belarusian flower shop owner who was severely beaten by Belarusian security officers last October.
Many more similar cases of abuse will become documented under the OHCHR new mandate, which may serve as an effective deterrent against ongoing human rights violations in Belarus.
Katia Glod is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. David Elseroad is Head of Advocacy and Geneva Office at the Human Rights House Foundation.