Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections

Праваабарончы цэнтр «Вясна» беларускі хельсінкскі камітэт

Belarus in EU Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy in the World in 2016

On Monday 16 October 2017 the Council adopted the EU Annual Report on Human Rights And Democracy in the World in 2016.

2016 was a challenging year for human rights and democracy, with a shrinking space for civil society and complex humanitarian and political crises emerging. In this context, the European Union showed leadership and remained strongly committed to promote and protect human rights and democracy across the world.

This report gives a broad picture of the EU's human rights efforts towards third countries in 2016, and encompasses two parts: The first part is thematic, and pays particular attention to the human rights approach to conflicts and crises, main human rights challenges and human rights throughout EU external policies. The second part is geographical and covers EU actions in third countries, thus mapping in detail the human rights situation across the globe.

Republic of Belarus

While there were no substantial improvements in the field of human rights in Belarus in 2016, for the first time the government adopted a national human rights action plan which aims at implementing the UPR recommendations accepted by Belarus. Restrictive laws impacting on fundamental freedoms have not been amended, and the death penalty is still applied. An independent human rights institution has not been established.

The EU continues to follow a policy of critical engagement towards Belarus, which translates into incremental steps towards deeper cooperation with the country. In the February 2016 Council Conclusions on Belarus, the Council reiterated its firm commitment to strengthening the EU’s engagement with the Belarusian people and civil society, and stated that ‘tangible steps taken by Belarus to respect universal fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and human
rights will remain key for the shaping of the EU’s future policy towards Belarus’.

The human rights situation remains marred by systematic violations. Freedom of association and freedom of expression are severely restricted and many stakeholders critical of the regime have to operate from abroad. Shortcomings in the implementation of fundamental ILO Forced Labour Convention were scrutinised in 2016 by the International Labour Conference. The EU called on the Government to amend the elements of its legislation which could lead to
situations amounting to forced labour. The ILC urged Belarus to take all measures to suppress the use of forced labour and prosecute it and to accept technical assistance by the ILO.

The electoral process is severely criticised by the OSCE/ODIHR inter alia for a lack of transparency and the use of the state machinery to support the incumbent. Opposition political parties face administrative obstacles in terms of registration and action outside registered organisations is a criminal offence.

Despite the lack of concrete progress in terms of political rights and fundamental freedoms, the authorities showed a greater willingness in 2016 to discuss human rights issues with international partners and civil society. The positive trend in EU-Belarus relations was strengthened as of February 2016, after the Council lifted most of the restrictive measures against Belarus, mainly in response to the release of the remaining political prisoners in August 2015. The Belarusian government has been more open to engaging with the EU on human rights questions, as demonstrated by EUSR Lambrinidis’s March 2016 visit to Minsk. This was reinforced by the organisation of a conference on the death penalty, the hosting of the EU-Belarus human rights dialogue, parts of which allowed for the participation of civil society organisations, and the adoption of a national action plan on human rights.

The September 2016 parliamentary elections took place in a more open atmosphere with greater possibilities for opposition candidates to run, and resulted in the election of one opposition and one independent candidate.

The EU continued to engage in human rights and democracy discussions with Belarus in various settings, including the EU-Belarus Coordination Group (April 2016 in Brussels and November 2016 in Minsk) and during the annual human rights dialogue (June 2016 in Minsk). These occasions allowed for open discussions on a range of issues, including but not limited to free and fair elections, freedom of association, freedom of expression, the independence
of the judiciary, the reinstatement of the civil and political rights of former political prisoners, and capital punishment.

The EU and the MS constantly lobby for the inclusion of civil society in consultations on human rights issues and regularly meet with human rights defenders during high-level visits. By supporting a number of projects implemented by NGOs and human rights organisations, the EU helps strengthen and develop the capacity of civil society. In 2016 the EU considerably increased its involvement with civil society by drawing on the expertise of NGOs and the
Eastern Partnership Civil Society Platform and informing them about the EU’s policy vis-à-vis Belarus.

In 2016, the EU continued to provide financial support for projects funded through the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI), the EIDHR, the Civil Society Organisations and Local Authorities programme (CSO-LA) instrument and EU Member State funds. NGO participation is also an important feature of projects in other areas, such as economic development and environment. This has provided a forum for policy dialogue between the administration and civil society, and has contributed to establishing trust between the two.

Belarus is party to a number of international human rights conventions. The country has ratified 10 international human rights conventions, and has accepted the competence of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to receive and consider communications from individuals subject to its jurisdiction. Belarus has recognised the inquiry procedure under the Convention against Torture and under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Belarus does not recognise the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

In the February 2016 Council Conclusions on Belarus, the EU urges the Belarusian authorities to swiftly take forward the recommendations of the OSCE/ODIHR; recalls the importance it attaches to improvements in this area and to respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law; condemns the application of the death penalty in Belarus; and urges Belarus to establish a moratorium as a first step towards the abolition of the death penalty.