Appeal to business by Belarusian human rights organisations in connection with the human rights crisis in Belarus

5.11.2020

The presidential election held in Belarus on August 9th, 2020 was marked by unprecedented atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Repressions against those expressing alternative opinion began almost immediately after the start of the election campaign and have not stopped ever since.

Belarusian authorities have conducted the election with multiple breaches of international human rights undertakings, as well as with numerous violations of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the Electoral Code and the generally recognized OSCE / ODIHR standards of democratic election. The results announced by the authorities have not been recognized by many states, including the USA and the EU countries. Tens of thousands of Belarusians went out into the streets to peacefully protest against these violations. These protests were met with extremely disproportionate use of force and special equipment (such as flash grenades, rubber bullets, and water cannons) by special police forces.

These peaceful protests have been ongoing for three months. The authorities have been reacting by arbitrarily detaining more and more protesters (as of the date of this Appeal, more than 17,000 people have been detained). Law enforcement agencies resort to torture and inhuman treatment. Legal remedies do not work. People are denied fair trial.

We are aware of at least three cases where protesters have been killed by government security forces. Belarusian human rights defenders have documented, and passed over to the international organisations, the information about more than 500 cases of torture in detention centers and prisons. People have submitted hundreds of complaints against torture and inhuman treatment by police for investigation in accordance with the national legal procedures, however, none of the facts mentioned in any of these complaints has been investigated to date.

Belarus has never seen such a systemic and large-scale political and human rights crisis as the one happening today.

We are also seeing the rise in strikes of workers at state and private business enterprises. As of now, many Belarusians prefer not to purchase the goods and not to consume the produce coming from mala fide business enterprises (the companies which have been proved to have violated the rights of employees or consumers or which have been participating in the financing of the current regime and its repressions).

Due to the authoritarian nature of the Belarusian regime, the functioning of both state and private businesses is highly controlled by the authorities: state-owned enterprises are fully affiliated with the authorities and private businesses are subjected to excessive control and pressure from the state agencies. For these reasons, the authorities are currently using businesses as an element of repression, to go after political opponents and anybody else who actively expresses his or her civil or political opinion. Authorities are trying to suppress striking at state-owned enterprises by firing activists and by bringing in security forces in to intimidate others. Private companies that have suspended their work for a day in protest against violence have been targeted by the state agencies, and many of them have been forced to shut down and forced out of business.

Authorities have been targeting the activists and protest participants through state-dependent business enterprises by using the following methods of intimidation and persecution:

• on the direction of the authorities, the management of state companies has been intervening in the exercise of electoral rights by employees (in particular, by forcing employees to take part in heavily rigged early voting);

• state-enterprise employed activists have been facing discrimination, constant intimidation and threats of (or actual) dismissal, non-renewal of contracts at the end of the contract term, loss of bonuses and other types of persecution, including psychological pressure;

• any attempts to strike or join a protest at the workplace have been violently suppressed by the management (who are often backed by special police forces);

• employees have been forced to take part in rallies supporting the existing regime; they have been threatened with dismissal and other negative consequences in case they refuse to participate.

Authorities resort to these forms of persecution because they know they can keep people in submission due to the earlier introduced model of fixed-term employment contracts and systemic targeting of independent trade unions and their activists.

For the fear of being targeted, many companies choose to comply with the demands of the authorities, and they end up, in violation of human rights, taking actions against their employees, customers and local community members. For example, on a few occasions a number of shopping centres, cafes and restaurants have refused to let in peaceful protesters and common passers-by who were trying to escape from the violent actions of the police; for the fear of persecution the businesses have closed their doors right in front of people’s faces.

Due to the outlined facts and current circumstances, any public or private business enterprise which currently operates in Belarus or which has business ties with Belarusian companies and organisations is risking to be involved (directly or indirectly) in violations of human rights and to be in breach of international laws and its internal policies and codes of conduct, which will result in serious reputational and financial harm to any such business.

In this context, we would like to draw your attention to the standards of conducting business formed on the basis of and contained in the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN Global Compact, Conventions of the ILO, rules and standards of the OECD, World Bank, IFC, EBRD, policy documents of the EU and the Council Europe, national legislation of the EU Member States and corporate policies of international corporations. These standards have been applied by global business enterprises as cornerstones of business conduct in respect of each of their companies and affiliates, as well as in respect of their partners and suppliers.

We, the representatives of Belarusian human rights organisations, would like to emphasize the interest of the people of Belarus in bringing in foreign investments and in maximizing the development of economic ties with international community. Guided by the standards of business conduct, we are appealing to the international companies to take the following steps, without delay:

  • To make a public statement against violence and human rights violations in Belarus during and after the election campaign, including unprecedented violence against peaceful protesters taking place in 2020;
  • To make it explicit to your Belarusian suppliers and partners, that any company or management action that violates human rights and standards of business conduct, including any form of discrimination and persecution of employees and clients for expression of their political opinion is deemed unacceptable, and that any such action will negatively affect your partnership with such Belarusian suppliers and partners, and will likely result in termination of commercial contracts and ties.

In your future cooperation with Belarusian companies, we are also calling on you to:

Pay special attention to corporate due diligence of human rights risks. Please bear in mind that corporate social responsibility (CSR) and other non-financial reporting coming from many Belarusian companies cannot provide sufficient basis for the full assessment of such risks.

Ensure that the facts of human rights violations by your Belarusian partners and suppliers, and the measures directed at minimizing and overcoming of the outlined risks, have been reflected in your (and your Belarusian partners’) non-financial reporting. It is important that any plans for partnering and developing business ties with any potential or actual Belarusian partner or supplier, which has violated human rights, shall be made conditional upon the adoption of measures that prevent or sufficiently minimize the damage from such violations.

Understand that some human rights standards (for example, in the field of equality and non-discrimination, Freedom of Association, trade union rights, strikes) have not been sufficiently reflected in the Belarusian legislation (for more details, please see the Country Guide on Business and Human Rights in Belarus). In such cases, it is essential that the provisions of your corporate policies and codes of conduct, developed on the basis of generally recognized human rights standards, apply to and regulate the business conduct of your Belarusian partners and suppliers, and that they undertake to fully comply with such corporate policies and codes of conduct.

Introduce internal complaint, grievance and whistle-blowing mechanisms, as well as procedures aimed at restoring the breached human rights - because Belarusian courts, which are fully controlled by authorities, cannot guarantee and uphold the principle of fair trial when it comes to human rights violations. It is very important to ensure that any victim of human rights violations (employees, customers, representatives of local community) has access to corporate legal remedies in respect of such violations.

Promote among Belarusian partners and suppliers the understanding that reputational risks from partnership with a company that violates human rights may significantly exceed the average contractual risks, for example the risks arising of irregular supply of goods as per delivery contract.

 

This Appeal has been joined by the undersigned Belarusian human rights organizations.

Belarusian Helsinki Committee

Human Rights Center "Viasna"

Belarusian Documentation Center

Boris Zvozskov Belarusian Human Rights House

Legal Initiative

Advisory center on contemporary international practices and their legal implementation “Human Constanta”

Assembly of Non-Governmental Democratic Organizations of Belarus

FORB Initiative

Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

PEN Belarus

Center for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend)

Belarusian Association of Journalists

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The appeal is supported by the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU), an affiliate of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, which is formed by:

Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP)

Belarusian Free Trade Union (SPB)

Free Metalworkers’ Union (SPM)

Belarusian Trade Union of Workers of Radio Electronic Industry (REP)

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FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)

 

This Appeal is open for joining to any civil society organization that shares human rights values. To join this Appeal, please send us an email at: office@belhelcom.org