New laws will severely deteriorate human rights situation in Belarus

  • by EECA
  • 21 April 2021

On 21 April, the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus approved three new laws further restricting freedoms of expression, association and assembly in the country. The laws on ‘countering extremism’, ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’ and ‘mass events’ previously passed at both first and second readings in the House of Representatives of the national Assembly almost without any discussion. FIDH and its member organisation in Belarus, Viasna Human Rights Center, are concerned that these draft laws, if eventually adopted, will have a devastating impact on civil freedoms in Belarus.

The draft laws approved by the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament are:

• a new law on the prevention of rehabilitation of Nazism; an amendment to the Laws on Countering Extremism (particularly, to the Law of the Republic of Belarus No. 203-Z on Countering Extremism, and Part 2 of the Article 158 on the Terms of Consideration of Civil Cases by the Original Jurisdiction of the Civil Procedure Code of the Republic of Belarus); and
• amendments to the Law of the Republic of Belarus No. 114-Z on Mass Events in the Republic of Belarus.

The proposed changes to the laws concerning combating extremism would criminalise virtually any criticism or public dissatisfaction with the incumbent government. According to the broadened definition of the term, “extremism” would include violation of the procedure for organising and holding mass events, insulting or discrediting the organs of state power and administration, or representatives of power, and public dissemination of information “discrediting” Belarus. The amended Criminal Code would introduce individual liability for any “extremist” activity (at this time, only participation in or financing of extremist groups is a criminal offence), and expand the list of potential “extremists” to include trade unions, NGOs, and mass media.

It consequently appears that these amendments could pave the way for undue restrictions of freedom of expression and freedom of association in Belarus, in violation of Articles 19 and 22, respectively, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The law on the prevention of rehabilitation of Nazism might further curb freedom of expression. This law would introduce new terms, such as "Nazi criminals" and "accomplices of Nazi criminals” and impose criminal liability for acts such as “rehabilitation of Nazism” – namely justifying, practicing or disseminating Nazi ideology – or glorifying “Nazi criminals and their accomplices”. While it is not clear how the terms of the new law will be subsequently applied by the authorities, they appear vague and open to overly broad interpretation. The relevant monitoring mechanisms could therefore arbitrarily target and silence any undesirable organisations or individuals.

This law would also prohibit an expanded list of “Nazi symbols and attributes”, leading the way to a potential ban of the ongoing protest symbol, the white-red-white flag. While this flag has been a symbol of Belarusian freedom and independence, as well as the official flag of the state in 1918 and between 1991-1995, it was also used by Nazi collaborators during the Second World War and its display in the context of the current opposition movement could therefore be criminalised by the authorities under the false pretext of supposed glorification of Nazism.

The changes to the Law on Mass Events, if adopted, will severely restrict the right of peaceful assembly, in violation of Article 21 of the ICCPR. The bill would introduce almost a total ban on mass protests as it would only be allowed to hold public events with the permission of local authorities. A direct ban would be introduced on public calls (including in media and social networks) for organising and holding mass events. It would also become illegal, even for media resources, to offer live coverage of “mass events held in violation of the established procedure, with the aim of their popularisation or propaganda”.

The proposed laws would therefore severely undermine freedoms of assembly, association, and expression in Belarus, in violation of international law and the country’s own constitution. They would also run contrary to the recommendations of the relevant UN human rights mechanisms, which have repeatedly highlighted, among other things, that the legal framework governing mass assemblies in Belarus did not meet international norms and standards.

While they were not initially accessible to the public, the drafts of the laws finally appeared on or around 18 February; photos disclosing the details of the alleged laws began circulating on various Telegram channels. On 18 March, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus finally confirmed the content of the proposed amendments and submitted them to the Parliament for consideration. The latter did not take long to approve the proposals.

FIDH and Viasna therefore call on the Belarusian authorities and, more specifically, the president Aliaksandr Lukashenka, not to adopt the proposed legislations.