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The report once again emphasizes that, in order to obtain data from sources based in Belarus, Anais Marin officially requested access to the territory of the country and sought a personal meeting with the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations Office in Geneva, but to no avail.
In her report, the Special Rapporteur talks about the practices forcing many Belarusians to leave their country, including searches in homes and offices, arbitrary detentions, criminal prosecution for political reasons, gross violations of the rights to due process and fair trial, the threat of force or coercion against them or their families, dismissal from work and exclusion from professional associations, as well as psychological pressure caused by the prevailing atmosphere of fear in the country.
Such migration is directly linked to policies pursued by the Belarusian government and to a purposefully hostile environment that prevents safe return.
Since May 2020 and continuing today, the Belarusian authorities have deliberately imposed legislative restrictions on the exercise of human rights and adopted heavy-handed practices meant to instill fear in the population. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) and the Investigative Committee, along with the Committee of State Security (KGB), systematically harass and persecute individuals, including prominent figures of the opposition, members of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and lawyers taking up human rights cases, members of the independent media and cultural workers.
Law enforcement bodies, the judiciary and the court system not only fail to provide adequate protection for the enjoyment of human rights, but often are used arbitrarily as a means of repression, intimidation and reprisal. Faced with threats of reprisal and pre-emptive coercion for doing their job and exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, Belarusians who disapprove of their Government’s policies were left with three equally unappealing options, which, borrowing from Albert Hirschman’s famous treatise, can be summed up as “loyalty, voice or exit”: censoring themselves as a means of survival (compliance with restrictive legislation); voicing their criticism, thereby exposing themselves and possibly their relatives to repression; or leaving the country.
Since February 2022, repressive measures have also been targeted at any group of people that has protested or voiced concerns about the role of Belarus in the ongoing Russian aggression on Ukraine. The protesters have been placed under administrative arrest, and some have had criminal cases opened against them for anti-war actions and expressions, such as posters, leaflets and inscriptions saying “No to war”, anti-war letters sent to State authorities, anti-war statements on social networks and the wearing of yellow-blue ribbons. The Special Rapporteur has also received reports about young men leaving Belarus for fear of the active involvement of Belarus alongside the Russian Federation in the war against Ukraine.
Moreover, the intimidation and harassment of people that participated in “unauthorized mass events”, such as the peaceful marches and protests during the second half of 2020, have intensified. Telegram chat groups created for coordinating women’s marches, tea parties among neighbors and solidarity pickets were later labeled as “extremist”, and the people that participated in them were retroactively prosecuted for acts that did not amount to crimes at the time, contrary to the Constitution of Belarus and international human rights law.
In addition, many had to leave the country due to threats to economic, social and cultural rights, in particular discrimination and arbitrary dismissal from employment. In 2021, almost 740,000 people were laid off, mostly in the manufacturing sector, reportedly as a result of the liquidation of organizations and “personnel optimization”. While, in theory, they have the choice and possibility of returning to Belarus without fear of imminent repercussions, in practice they cannot return because they cannot exercise their civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural, rights in the country.
Belarusian nationals compelled to leave their country experience a number of violations of their human rights, including the rights to work, privacy and family life, association and expression, and the right to engage in the conduct of public affairs. For example, Belarusians abroad could not participate in the constitutional referendum held on 27 February 2022. Belarusian nationals in exile face a limitation on their fundamental right to social protection, including access to their pensions. They also cannot access banking and insurance services and have difficulties undertaking some administrative procedures with civil registrars. This includes being denied consular services or fearing to enter a Belarusian consulate in order to seek such services.
Lawyers are also singled out among the groups that have been persecuted. The harassment and persecution that has forced lawyers into exile, especially lawyers working with politically sensitive cases or cases of human rights violations, is having a devastating effect on the administration of justice and the overall rule of law in Belarus. Some lawyers have recounted having their homes searched and receiving unsettling threats in connection with their work on defending protesters and/or for publicly expressing critical comments on the human rights violations perpetrated by the State. They left the country fearing arbitrary arrest and detention.
Belarusian nationals forced to live abroad start to experience difficulties. These include challenges related to the legalization of their stay in the host country, including administrative challenges in obtaining a residence permit, a lack of information and lengthy processes. A number of people reported that they had been denied consular services abroad and advised to return to Belarus to renew their identity documents and other civil status certificates.
In addition to recommendations to the government of Belarus (to create conditions for safe return, etc.), the Special Rapporteur proposes a number of measures for other states, the international community and NGOs. Among them are, for instance, promoting safe and accessible pathways for Belarusians compelled to leave their country and ensuring the availability of humanitarian pathways to entry; promoting an enabling environment and conditions for Belarusians in exile to continue meaningfully participating in Belarusian public life; establishing effective mechanisms to provide legal status to Belarusian nationals who are unable to return; paying special attention and providing support to Belarusian nationals who were in exile in Ukraine and were compelled to leave again due to the war in Ukraine, etc.