A United Nations investigator has warned of the danger of “another iron curtain” falling across Europe during an ill-tempered debate in Geneva on alleged human rights violations in Belarus.
“Let’s not allow another iron curtain to descend on the European continent,” Anaïs Marin, the UN’s special rapporteur on Belarus, said, in an urgent session of the body’s 47-member human rights council that also heard from the Belarus opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
In a debate repeatedly interrupted by procedural objections from Belarus, Russia, China and Venezuela, Marin said the human rights situation in Belarus was “catastrophic”.
More than 10,000 people had been “abusively arrested”, she said, with more than 500 reports of torture and thousands being “savagely beaten”. She called on authorities to release those held on “politically motivated charges” and for the charges against them to be dropped.
Germany called the urgent all-day talks on behalf of the EU, which has tabled a draft resolution to demand the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, monitor the crisis and report back by the end of the year, after what the bloc has called “fraudulent elections” officially won by Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, denies rigging the 9 August vote which, according to official government results, he won by a landslide. He has since cracked down hard on protesters demanding his resignation.
Tikhanovskaya, who officially finished second in the election and has since fled her homeland for Lithuania, also demanded an end to violence and a free and fair presidential election. She urged the international community to respond vigorously to abuses in her country.
The situation in Belarus “demands immediate international attention,” Tikhanovskaya said in a video message, adding that the country’s violation of its international obligations to respect “human dignity and basic human rights … means the international community has a right to react in strongest terms.”
Germany’s draft resolution raised concerns about torture, arbitrary deprivations of life, and sexual and gender-based violence as well as the intimidation, harassment and detention of opponents of Lukashenko’s government before and after the vote.
It called on the Belarus authorities to stop using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, halt arbitrary arrests on political grounds and release all political prisoners, journalists and others detained for protesting.
The debate was repeatedly interrupted by the Belarus representative, backed by delegates from Russia, China and Venezuela, who tried to limit presentations – including from Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya– on procedural grounds but were denied by the council’s president.
In a statement read by her deputy, Bachelet said: “We are witnessing thousands of arrests. Hundreds of reports of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence and the reported torture of children. It is vital for the future of Belarus to break these cycles of increasing repression and violence.”
The Belarus ambassador, Yury Ambrazevich, said allowing UN human rights advocates and other speakers to address the council violated its rules and only national envoys should be able to speak. The council president, Austria’s Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, dismissed his arguments.
Tikhanovskaya said she wanted to “emphasise our willingness to talk with the authorities and look for peaceful solution to the crisis. We demand an immediate end to violence against peaceful citizens. We demand immediate release of all political prisoners.”
The Belarus ambassador interrupted her too, demanding Tikhanovskaya’s link be cut and blaming “mass media and social networks” for publicising a distorted picture presented by the losers in the elections.
“We deny the unfounded accusations of sexual violence against protesters,” Ambrazevich said. “There is no official record of this. There is no confirmation also of claims that people disappeared in association with the protests. As with regards to political detentions, this has not taken place. Some people have been taken into custody in compliance with the legal procedural code.”
In Belarus, borders remained open on Friday despite Lukashenko announcing they would be closed because of a possible “war” with neighbouring countries, which he accused of supporting the opposition. The country’s border guard service said on its Telegram channel that “checks have been stepped up” and “tactical reinforcements have been deployed”, but that “checkpoints are permitting people to enter and leave”.