Open letter to: Ambassadors of Member States of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC)


We, the undersigned human rights organisations, write to urge your delegation to support the renewal of the Special Rapportur on Belarus, and the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism to build upon and take forward the work of the OHCHR Examination on Belarus this session. We consider both mechanisms to be crucial to addressing the dire human rights situation in Belarus – ensuring comprehensive oversight of the situation, addressing the impunity fueling grave abuses, and supporting human rights defenders and victims and survivors of human rights violations.

While we understand the EU’s desire to rationalise its approach by merging the two annual UN HRC resolutions on Belarus, it is essential that the message is clear that this does not signal any softening of approach, as the situation has continued to deteriorate since 2020.

The authorities continue their widespread and systematic politically-motivated repression, targeting not only dissent inside the country, but also Belarusians outside the country who were forced to flee for fear of persecution. Today, almost 1,500 prisoners jailed following politically-motivated charges in Belarus face discriminatory treatment, severe restriction of their rights, and ill-treatment including torture. Some high-profile political prisoners also face prolonged incommunicado detention and others’ whereabouts is being concealed which constitutes an enforced disappearance. The authorities have fostered a climate of fear, outlawing human rights work and bullying families and lawyers of those detained into silence.

In late November 2023, Belarusian authorities carried out over a hundred searches of homes in connection with the ongoing criminal case against the opposition’s Coordination Council in exile, followed by orders to seize their property.

In its 2023 report, the Examination by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR Examination) concluded that some of the documented violations committed in the context of the 2020 presidential vote may amount to crimes against humanity. Such findings, in context of the lack of access to justice domestically and limited access to remedy at the international level, merit a robust and credible response by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to pursue accountability. A reinforced advancement of accountability at the UN level, with a particular focus on steps to address the crimes documented by the Examination, is critical for sending a strong and clear message to Belarusian authorities ahead of the expected 2025 presidential elections.

In this regard we encourage the UN Human Rights Council to evolve its approach in 2024, ensuring full renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur (SR) and further developing the HRC’s efforts to advance accountability to reflect the evolving situation. In particular:

Recommendation 1: Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus 

The SR mandate remains an essential “lifeline” to Belarusian civil society, and should be fully renewed in 2024 [while this would usually be anticipated in a dedicated resolution, we understand the EU is proposing to merge the initiatives this session in the interests of rationalisation]. The annual reports, statements and other work carried out by the mandate ensure continuous international scrutiny of the latest developments in the human rights situation in Belarus and provide an important record of human rights trends and patterns of violations. The mandate has an important role to act on individual cases and legal developments, and provides valuable support to besieged civil society in the country and Belarusians in exile. In 2023 alone, working in conjunction with other mandate holders, the mandate issued communications in relation to 69 alleged victims (through communications BLR 3/2023, BLR 4/2023, RUS 17/2023), as well as intervening on amendments to the criminal code and the proposed Bill on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations (BLR 1/2023, BLR 3/2023, BLR 4/2023, RUS 17/2023.

Recommendation 2: Establish a fully independent investigative mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of potential international crimes beyond the 2020 elections period, with a view to advancing accountability. 

The OHCHR Examination – distinct from, and complementary to the role of the SR – has played a vital role not only documenting, exposing, and providing authoritative legal qualification of grave rights abuses, but also collecting and preserving evidence for future prosecutions, of potential international crimes committed in the context of the 2020 elections and the aftermath. The OHCHR Examination has also been an important tool to advocate for accountability.

However, more needs to be done to forge a path towards accountability. A particular focus should be put on: documenting and providing further authoritative legal qualification under international law of continuing grave abuses; advancing accountability at national levels, including via promotion and cooperation on universal jurisdiction cases; and the attribution of responsibility for international crimes. An independent investigative mechanism, mandated to focus on past and ongoing grave human rights violations that may amount to international crimes, could play a key role on these issues.

With a view to challenging impunity for potential international crimes in 2024, we encourage the UN HRC to evolve the work of the OHCHR Examination in the following ways:

  1. The temporal scope should be widened beyond the 2020 elections period, to cover ongoing grave abuses and any abuses committed in the lead up to the next round of general elections in Belarus (2025). This would allow for the documentation and reporting on abuses in real time, with a view to contributing to future accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims. It would make the work more relevant, build on the solid work already done by the OHCHR examination on the 2020 elections, and serve as a deterrent to further abuses including in the context of the upcoming
  2. The examination should also be given more independence with wider discretion over which grave rights abuses that may amount to international crimes they investigate and with regard to how they report on their findings. In this respect, the HRC should mandate this work to be taken forward by a new, independent mechanism, to elevate and raise the profile of the work.

The UN HRC has played – and should continue to play – a vital role in ensuring robust documentation of human rights violations, elevating the voices of Belarusian civil society as they are silenced at the national level, and working to challenge the climate of total impunity in Belarus. We consider that these measures in 2024 – in the context of efforts to “rationalise” and “streamline” – would ensure that the Council’s approach to the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus is strengthened, enhanced, made clearer and more sustainable.

We would welcome an opportunity to discuss the human rights situation in Belarus, as well as the above recommendations on how the UN Human Rights Council could best address it and support the work of civil society. We stand ready to support efforts to continue and enhance the HRC’s important work on Belarus.

Yours faithfully,

  • Amnesty International
  • Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
  • Belarusian Association of Journalists
  • Belarusian Helsinki Committee
  • Civil Rights Defenders
  • Human Constanta
  • Human Rights Center Viasna
  • Human Rights House Foundation
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • Lawtrend
  • Legal Initiative
  • Office for the rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • PEN Belarus
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)