24 June 2021
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On June 26, the world marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. This date was proclaimed in 1997 by the UN General Assembly in a special resolution No. 52/149 aiming at the complete eradication of torture and ensuring the effectiveness of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984).
According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, torture is a crime against humanity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population. Prohibition of torture is also included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 5), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (Art. 7), and in other conventions.
Let me remind you that Article 2 of the Convention against Torture states that:
- Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
- No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
- An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
Belarus (Belarusian SSR) ratified the Convention against Torture on 13 March 1987, however, despite repeated recommendations by the Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Committee, as well as by other UN human rights mechanisms, the Criminal Code of Belarus still does not define torture as a separate and specific crime. The Belarusian laws do not apply to all acts of torture and do not provide for punishment for such acts commensurate with their seriousness. Due to the atmosphere of impunity, there is a systematic and widespread occurrence of torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment of persons in detention, including minors, in Belarus.
Unfortunately, we still receive complaints from victims and witnesses of torture in Belarus. They were especially widespread after the well-known events of August and subsequent months of 2020, when the citizens of Belarus, who used their rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly, and opinion and expression, faced disproportionate cruelty during the dispersal of peaceful demonstrations by law enforcement agencies, and were subjected to torture, beatings, physical and psychological punishment and other humiliation of human dignity. There were thousands of victims of torture and inhumane treatment. Even the Government reported that the preliminary investigation bodies in Belarus received 4,644 complaints about the use of physical force and special measures by the Ministry of Internal Affairs officers to suppress unauthorized protests in 2020. And the Government itself admitted that most of these complaints were either rejected or the victims were informed that the investigators had no grounds to initiate criminal proceedings.
Various UN mechanisms have repeatedly made recommendations to the Government, including instructions that it is important at the level of law to prohibit any torture under any circumstances and to impose a proportionate criminal punishment for it; that confessions obtained under torture should not be admitted in court; that it is important to create a national human rights institution and, under its auspices, a national preventive mechanism for dealing with cases of torture; that it is important to conduct independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations into all allegations of human rights violations, especially those involving torture or ill-treatment, and that those who commit such offenses must be brought to justice.
Unfortunately, these recommendations were ignored by the Belarusian authorities. In view of this situation, the Member States of the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 46/20 on 24 March 2021, mandating the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to create a mechanism to conduct examination of violations that have occurred since 1 May 2020. In particular, the Council requested the High Commissioner, with the assistance of relevant experts and special procedures mandate holders, “to establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations, and to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze information and evidence with a view to contributing to accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims and, where possible, to identify those responsible”. On 19 May, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet announced the appointment of three high-level experts; these are Karinna Moskalenko (Russian Federation), Susan Basilli (Canada) and Marko Milanovic (Serbia). As far as I know, a team with a dedicated secretariat is being set up in Geneva to support this accountability mechanism. Experts with knowledge of the Russian language and the Belarusian context will be involved.
It is important to understand that this new mandate will work in parallel with the country mandate (i. e. the mandate entrusted to me) and the work of the Committee against Torture. Of course, as is the case with all UN human rights mechanisms, these mandates and mechanisms will closely cooperate. To what extent the current Government of the Republic of Belarus will cooperate with them is another question...
In conclusion, I would like to say that today, when we remember all the victims of torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment and punishment, I would like to express my sympathy and empathy to people – residents of Belarus of various categories, ages, professions – who, due to different circumstances, had faced abuse from the authorities. The international community, UN human rights mechanisms, and other human rights platforms must continue their coordinated efforts to turn Belarus into a country free from torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. And I sincerely believe that our joint efforts will achieve this goal.
Thank you for your attention, and I apologize that due to my other commitments, unfortunately, I cannot take a more active part in this event.