United Nations human rights experts spoke out today against newly adopted legislative amendments in Belarus, warning that the changes could severely curtail basic rights such as those of freedom of assembly, association and expression.
The three independent experts issued a joint statement in Geneva in which they said the amendments recently adopted by the Eastern European country's National Assembly could worsen the "current climate of fear and intimidation" in Belarus.
Under the new laws, organizing public assemblies without the prior and explicit consent of the authorities is a criminal offense, and organizers also face reporting liabilities regarding the financial resources used for any assemblies. Public calls for initiating assemblies and disseminating information – including through social media platforms – about assemblies without permission is also banned.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are prohibited from storing funds in banks on foreign territory, and receiving foreign grants or donations could also be a criminal offense in some circumstances.
One of the experts, Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, described the amendments as representing "a direct affront to the exercise of fundamental civil and political rights which are at the core of any democratic society."
He noted that the changes to existing laws on public associations, political parties, public gatherings, the criminal code and the election code were done without proper consultation with civil society.
Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, voiced particular concern with criminal sanctions for the "staging of seminars" or the distribution of "propaganda materials."
He said the measures "will undermine the ability of all individuals to disseminate information and to express their legitimate grievances and concerns peacefully."
Margaret Sekaggya, the UN expert on the situation of human rights defenders, stressed that defenders must be able to carry out their work without undue obstacles, including restrictions on funding.
"When defenders are allowed to associate but cannot effectively seek, receive or utilize funding resources, the right to freedom of association becomes void," she said.
The three experts voiced fears that the amendments may be linked to the situation of Ales Bialiatski, the head of Viasna, a human rights centre. He is currently facing legal proceedings for alleged tax invasion.