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UN experts concerned about new law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations in Belarus

2024 2024-02-23T11:51:56+0300 2024-02-23T11:51:56+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

UN experts* expressed grave concern about recent amendments to Belarusian legislation on freedom of conscience and the activities of religious organisations, which appear to contravene Belarus’ obligations under international human rights law. 

The law “on amending laws on the activities of religious organisations” (No. 334-Z) was adopted by the Upper House of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus on 13 December 2023 and signed by the President on 30 December 2023. On 28 August 2023, the experts had sent a communication (BLR 7/2023) to the Government of Belarus expressing concerns about several provisions of the draft law, which remains unanswered to date.

“The provisions on compulsory registration unduly restrict the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” the UN experts said, stressing that they are in contradiction with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as highlighted by the Human Rights Committee during its last review of Belarus’s periodic review in 2018.

The experts noted that the law prohibits the activities of unregistered religious organisations, following up on 2022 amendments of the Criminal Code which criminalised the organisation of and participation in unregistered public associations, religious organisations or funds. The law subjects all religious organisations to mandatory State registration and requires existing organisations to re-register within a limited timeframe to avoid becoming illegal.

“The law establishes broad yet imprecise legal grounds for the State to suspend and dissolve religious organisations, such as conducting an activity directed against the main direction of domestic and foreign policy of the Republic of Belarus, discrediting the Republic of Belarus, humiliating the national honour, engaging in political activities or other undefined extremist activities,” they said, reminding that anti-extremist legislation has been used in recent years to repress and harass all those holding dissenting opinions, including people criticising Belarus’ support to Russia’s aggression of Ukraine.

The experts warned that the law imposes extensive State control over religious education and literature, stipulating that religious education, religious literature or any other material with religious content must not contradict “the generally recognised traditional values of the Belarusian people and the ideology of the Belarusian State”.

“We are concerned that the vague terms contained in the law are likely to encourage arbitrary decision-making and create a climate of intimidation for religious leaders, communities or activities deemed to be unwelcome by governing authorities,” the experts said.

The law stipulates that religious organisations can only be led by Belarusian citizens with permanent residence in the country, which appears to discriminate against certain religions. The experts reminded that according to publicly available data, more than 70 clergy and religious leaders have been persecuted, forced to flee the country or subjected to other forms of pressure, reportedly for political reasons, since August 2020.

“The law appears to be aimed at further strengthening the overarching control of the State over all aspects of the existence of religious communities, which could have serious implications for the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and other human rights in the country,” the experts said.

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