Belarus and its allies have repeatedly tried to muzzle speakers at the UN amid warnings of a new iron curtain falling across Europe during an ill-tempered debate on alleged human rights violations.
The body’s 47-member human rights council voted by 23 votes to two with 22 abstentions to adopt a resolution condemning rights violations in Belarus and requesting the UN high commissioner on Human Rights to take up the issue and report back to the council.
The debate was repeatedly interrupted by the Belarus representative, backed by delegates from Russia, China and Venezuela, who tried to limit presentations – including from Alexander Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, on procedural grounds.
Tikhanovskaya’s short video message had barely begun when the Belarusian representative, Yuri Ambrazevich, demanded it be switched off. He repeatedly interrupted the screening, raising procedural objections and insisting her words had “no relevance on the substance … on the events that are taking place today”.
He was overruled by the council president, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger.
Anaïs Marin, the UN’s special rapporteur on Belarus, described the human rights situation in Belarus as “catastrophic” and warned: “Let’s not allow another iron curtain to descend on the European continent.”
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 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 Lukashenko.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko 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, 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”, she said in the 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”.
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, visited Washington this week to urge stronger action from the US against the Lukashenko regime. After meetings with US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and congressional leaders, Linkevičius told the Guardian: “As we have said to our European Union colleagues, we would like to have some more tangible, visible reaction, not just statements. In exactly the same way, I would expect US leadership, and it has to do with the sanctions … and also support for civil society.”
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, also visited Pompeo this week and called for US and European solidarity on Belarus. Pompeo said on Wednesday the US was “coordinating” with Europe on sanctions and “on ensuring the spotlight remains on the legitimate aspirations of the Belarusian people”.
The resolution adopted by the council raises 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.
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.”
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.”
Ambrazevich demanded Tikhanovskaya’s be cut off and blamed “mass media and social networks” for publicising what he said was a distorted picture. He and his counterparts from Russia, Venezuela and China also voiced multiple objections to statements by the UN deputy high commissioner for human rights, Nada al-Nashif, and by Marin, saying they had no place in the debate.
“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.”
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”.