UN convention suspends Belarus for crackdown on environmentalists

Belarusian minister for natural resources and environmental protection Andrei Khudyk, rejected his country’s suspension as “politically” motivated. (Credit: Geneva Solutions)

Countries voted on Thursday to sanction Belarus under an international environmental treaty following its closure of an anti-nuclear NGO, in an unprecedented move.

Belarus will be losing some of its rights and obligations to the Aarhus Convention on public participation in environmental matters unless it reinstates the NGO Ecohome, which it shut down on 31 August. 

The convention’s compliance committee, which reviews victims complaints of environmental rights abuses by the countries, had found that the liquidation of the Belarusian organisation by the Supreme Court constituted “a further incident of persecution, penalisation and harassment”.

The group of environmental advocates had collaborated with the committee in the past on a complaint brought forward against the Belarusian government for arresting a group of anti-nuclear activists back in 2012.

“It's a fundamental right not to be persecuted for your activities,” Maryna Dubina, Ecohome’s executive director who was present at the meeting, explained to Geneva Solutions.

Hundreds of Belarusian organisations have been closed in a sweeping crackdown on civil society since protests broke out against President Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020. 

The committee’s findings faced unprecedented resistance from Belarus and a handful of sympathetic countries including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia delegations were called to vote for the first time in the history of the treaty.

The Belarusian minister for natural resources and environmental protection Andrei Khudyk, present at the meeting, called the decision “discriminatory”, “unfounded” and “politically” motivated.

“For three days we tried to find a [compromise] with different countries and Belarus,” said Dubina.

This is the first time the convention has taken such harsh steps against one of its members. “The Compliance Committee would never intervene for just any organisation, but here they acted very strongly and very quickly because [the organisation] was a communicant on a case,” Yves Lador, Geneva representative for the US-based NGO Earthjustice, told Geneva Solutions.

“It is unprecedented, but it's also the first time that we're having such a severe repression against an organisation,” he added.

However rare the move is, it’s only “a slap on the hand”, Lador said. From February on, Belarus will lose certain rights and obligations such as chairing expert groups of the convention, but will keep its voting rights.

Asked if she feared reprisals for participating in the meeting, Dubina said: “for me it's important to participate here just to say that it's not a normal practice at all.”

The 46 governments from Europe and Central Asia and the European Union – the only regional group to be a member – that have signed up to the treaty also passed the creation of a rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders.

“Among the parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalisation and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries since January 2017,” the Aarhus Convention said in a statement, citing cases in France, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Romania. 

“It’s very important that we got a rapid response mechanism which precisely is trying to act in a preventive way, not wait for the situation to degrade, but to have someone from the meeting of the parties that can act as early as possible once we have the very first indications [of a violation],” Lador added.

The countries will elect a special rapporteur in 2022 – in the image of those of the UN Human Rights Council – who will be tasked with receiving complaints by victims and raising the issue with the accused governments. Austria and Ireland have announced they will be co-leading the initiative.