UN finds possible crimes against humanity in Belarus, Venezuela, Iran

Belarusian authorities have cracked down on opposition in the country since protests erupted against President Lukashenko’s 30-year rule in 2020. (Keystone/AP Photo)

Human rights violations by authorities in Belarus and Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity, the UN human rights council has heard.

The United Nations body in Geneva held a meeting on the situation in Belarus on Wednesday as the crackdown on human rights in the country continues to deepen. Nada Al-Nashif, UN deputy commissioner for human rights, told the council that her office had found “systematic, widespread and gross violations” committed in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath.

The UN launched an investigation into the rights situation in the country following the re-election of president Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020 in what was condemned by international monitors as a rigged vote. The latest report is the second by the UN human rights office into the suppression by authorities of opposition figures and the violent crackdown on protests that erupted following the poll.

Presenting the report, which was published by her office last week, Al-Nashif said authorities used “widespread, unnecessary and disproportionate” force against protesters after the 2020 election and during anti-war protests that broke out following the invasion of Ukraine by Lukashenko’s ally, Vladimir Putin.

The report said some 1,500 people were arrested on 27 and 28 February 2022 for taking part in peaceful demonstrations against the war in Ukraine and the constitutional referendum which saw Belarus ditch its non-nuclear status that coincided with the country becoming a staging-ground for Russian troops.

The report found that over the past two and a half years, authorities in Belarus arbitrarily arrested and detained tens of thousands of people, many of whom were subjected to ill-treatment including being denied medical care and a fair trial.

She said the UN had found widespread practices of torture and ill-treatment of individuals for “their real of perceived opposition either to the government or to the officially declared election results” as the government continues efforts to silence dissent.

The report found “numerous and systematic violations” of the right to due process, and that opposition figures such as politicians, activists, journalists, lawyers and civilians continued to be handed “severe and disproportionate sentences” by Belarusian courts.

Earlier this month, a court in Moscow sentenced one of the country’s leading human rights advocates, Ales Bialiatski, to ten years in prison. Bialitski, who won the Nobel peace prize in October, was sentenced alongside three colleagues from his human rights organisation, Viasna, just days before exiled Belarusian leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.

Addressing the Human Rights Council, Al-Nashif said the UN had reasonable grounds to believe the sentences were “politically motivated”. The report also found over 100 cases of sexual and gender-based violence, at least five unlawful deaths during the 2020 protests, and cited a “massive crackdown” on civil society and independent media.

Based on over 200 interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as analysis of thousands of pieces of evidence, the findings build upon the first report of the high commissioner’s office released in March 2022.

Former high commissioner Michelle Bachelet found “a situation of complete impunity” in Belarus, highlighting “authorities’ extensive and sustained actions to crush dissent and repress civil society, independent media and opposition groups, while at the same time shielding perpetrators”.

Al-Nashif said some of the human rights violations documented may amount to crimes against humanity due to their “intentionally-directed, widespread and systematic nature against the civilian population”.

Belarus rejected the report as biassed and claimed the country was being subjected to “pressure and hysteria” by a number of Western states and the UN human rights office. The UN human rights office has been denied access to Belarus since it launched the investigation.

Venezuela and Iran in the spotlight

An independent fact-finding mission on Venezuela also delivered its latest update to the council on Wednesday.

Marta Valiñas, chairperson of the investigation, said the mission continued to find “gross human rights violations and international crimes” in the country, including arbitrary detentions, attacks and threats against any opponents of the government, human rights organisations, journalists and civil society groups. The experts last reported to the council in September 2022.

Valiñas said there were reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, including torture and other ill-treatment, had been committed in detention centres of the civilian and military intelligence services. The mission conducted its investigation remotely, as the government of Nicolás Maduro does not recognise the body.

The report on Venezuela came a day after the UN high commissioner on human rights, Volker Türk, delivered his own statement on Venezuela following his visit to the country in January. Türk met with officials in the country as well as civil society groups and human rights defenders.

He expressed concern over “serious human rights challenges”, while saying that authorities had committed to work, with the UN human rights office, on protocols to investigate femicides and gender identity discrimination.

In the interactive dialogue that followed the presentation of the fact-finding report Wednesday, NGO representatives reported challenges for local experts to participate in that process.

On Monday, another UN-appointed expert told the council that Iran’s authorities have committed violations in recent months that may amount to crimes against humanity, citing cases of murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, rape, sexual violence and persecution.

Protests erupted in Iran last September following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman. Addressing the council, Javaid Rehman, special rapporteur on Iran, said he had evidence that Amini died “as a result of beatings by the state morality police”. Iran's state coroner has claimed that she died from pre-existing medical conditions.

The UN expert on Iran said that the scale and gravity of crimes that have been committed by authorities following Amini’s death, including the brutal repression of protests, “points to the possible commission of international crimes, notably the crimes against humanity.”

Some 527 people were killed in the protests including 71 children, some of whom were beaten to death by security forces, Rehman said, adding that a total of 143 people had been executed since January following “grossly unfair trials”.

He said that during demonstrations, women and girls were targeted and shot in the faces, breasts and genitals, while children were reportedly sexually abused and tortured by security forces.