UN experts slam Belarus for exiting environmental rights convention

The construction site of Belarus's first nuclear power plant outside the town of Ostrovets, some 170 km northwest of Minsk in 2017. Belarus launched its controversial Russia-built nuclear power station in 2020, despite safety concerns from neighbouring states. (Credit: Keystone/AFP/Sergei Gapon)

Belarus takes another step back from environmental rights as it decides to leave the Geneva-based convention.

Belarus was rebuked on Wednesday for its decision to withdraw from the Aarhus convention on the right to information on environmental matters, as Moscow’s ally further isolates itself from the international scene.

The UN experts said in a statement that the agreement, which is composed of 46 countries from Europe and Central Asia and the European Union, is key for the implementation of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree on 18 July to pull out from the Aarhus convention on claims of discrimination and bias against his country. Belarus saw some of its rights and privileges under the agreement suspended in October 2021 for shutting down an anti-nuclear NGO that was collaborating with the international body.

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Since the 2020 protests against Lukashenko, the Belarusian government has deployed a widespread clampdown on civil society, including environmental activists. The convention’s compliance committee, an expert body tasked with seeing that countries are implementing the agreement, concluded that terminating the NGO was a form of “persecution”. Belarus described the decision to sanction it as politically motivated.

The UN experts, which include special rapporteur on environmental defenders Michel Forst and special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin, said: “A country dissatisfied with the outcome of cases decided by the compliance committee, rather than withdraw from the convention, should strengthen its commitment to human rights, sustainable development and environmental democracy.”

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Yves Lador, Geneva representative for the US-based NGO EarthJustice, told Geneva Solutions that Belarus’s decision was “unfortunate” and meant that people in the country were “losing an international protection that ensures that they can exercise their rights to information, public participation and justice in environmental issues”.

Lador also pointed out that it weakens environmental protections for the surrounding region as Belarus has significant heavy industrial activity with elevated risks of pollution.

Belarus is due to formally exit the agreement on 4 October 2022, according to the UN experts, who stressed that “measures for the protection of environmental human rights defenders are urgently needed in Belarus and elsewhere in the Aarhus space”.