Already an IBA member? Sign in for a better website experience

Attacks on the legal profession in Belarus condemned in new report by IBAHRI and legal groups

Tuesday 27 July 2021

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has announced the publication of a new report that analyses 24 cases of retaliatory acts against lawyers who have defended prominent opposition figures or publicly raised concerns about human rights and rule of law violations following the controversial presidential elections of August 2020 in Belarus, which saw the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko, retain power.

Prepared in collaboration with the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights (ABA CHR) and Lawyers for Lawyers (L4L), the report, titled Lawyers Under Threat: Increasing Suppression of the Legal Profession in Belarus, provides details of infringements of the independence of the legal profession in Belarus. It also contains recommendations to the country’s government to ensure the legal profession is afforded full independence in accordance with international law and standards.

IBAHRI Co-Chair and former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996–2006), the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG stated: ‘It is the duty of all lawyers, wherever they may be, to defend the rule of law and human rights, especially when blatant abuses are taking place, as is the case in Belarus. The targeting of lawyers specifically, whether it relates to whom they represent or for exercising their own freedom of expression and assembly, is in clear contravention of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers’. He added: ‘A legal profession targeted by the government, or any other authority, cannot effectively perform its duties. The undeniable consequence is an adverse effect on the administration of justice to the detriment of citizens. This is unjust and intolerable and must be stopped’.

In seven out of the 24 case studies, the government of Belarus arrested, detained and prosecuted individual lawyers seemingly because of their work defending human rights protestors or opposition figures. In other cases, disbarment was used as a punitive measure against lawyers who were critical of the Lukashenko administration or voiced concern around matters of injustice.

Furthermore, the report illustrates how, in addition to targeting lawyers on an individual basis, the Belarusian authorities have taken measures to restrict and undercut the independence of the legal profession across Belarus. Through amendments to the ‘Law on Bar and Advocacy’, which is due to come into force in November 2021, the Ministry of Justice will prohibit both individual lawyers and private firms from representing people charged with certain criminal and/or administrative offences. Only lawyers who are part of a state-created system of ‘consulting offices’ will be allowed to practise.

The report also highlights the misuse of power by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Through its Qualification Commission there have been several re-certification examinations for lawyers representing clients who the authorities in Belarus deem adversaries. The usual result is that the lawyer fails to pass the exam, is not recertified, and can no longer work as a lawyer. The MOJ will also assume the right to draft codes of professional conduct for lawyers. This is a clear breach of interference by the executive branch. It violates the right of lawyers to practice law independently, free from undue third-party pressure.

The Report concludes by urging the Belarusian Government and relevant authorities to take adequate measures to ensure the independence of the legal profession in Belarus. The key recommendations include:

  1. Taking all necessary measures to guarantee the physical safety and security of lawyers;
  2. Immediately and unconditionally ceasing all acts of harassment against lawyers, including office raids, politically motivated investigations and criminal prosecutions, extraordinary certifications, and disbarments;
  3. Guaranteeing that in all circumstances, lawyers in Belarus will be able to carry out their legitimate professional activities and engage in the legitimate exercise of their fundamental human rights without fear of reprisal;
  4. Reinstating the lawyers that have been disbarred since August 2020, including those in the cases summarised in the report;
  5. Introducing adequate protections for the integrity and independence of lawyers, through the establishment of a fully independent bar association; and
  6. Repealing the new amendments to the ‘Law on the Bar and Advocacy’ in Belarus and amend the Law to remove oversight and control of the legal profession by the MOJ, as well as any other provisions that restrict the independence of the legal profession in contravention to international standards.

IBAHRI Co-chair and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, Anne Ramberg Dr Jur hc, commented: ‘The 24-hour rolling news cycles of today move so swiftly, that international attention on a situation is fragmented. However, we must not overlook the continuing deterioration for lawyers, human rights defenders, dissidents, journalists and others in Belarus. Together with our partners at the ABA Center for Human Rights and Lawyers for Lawyers, we aim to focus attention on the plight of these individuals in Belarus. So, we continue to call for adherence to the rule of law and for an end to the harassment of lawyers in Belarus for simply carrying out their professional duties. We call for arbitrary detentions to cease, for the Belarusian government to ensure the safety of the country’s legal professionals and for the international community to not remove its focus, but to do more to rectify the situation’.

Comments from the IBAHRI’s co-authors of the report:

‘The ABA has repeatedly called on the government of Belarus to end the flagrant human rights abuses and adhere to its constitutional and treaty law obligations to ensure basic rights and the rule of law,’ ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said. ‘Unfortunately, the government has only grown bolder in its attempts to silence critical voices.’

Lawyers play a vital role in the administration of justice, and in upholding the rule of law and the protection of human rights,’ said Sophie de Graaf, Executive Director of Lawyers for Lawyers. ‘Their work is indispensable for the public confidence in the administration of justice and to ensure effective access justice for all. The role of lawyers in protecting the rule of law and human rights is all the more fundamental in the context of the current crackdown in Belarus. It is therefore of fundamental importance that the international legal community continues to support lawyers at risk in Belarus’.

ENDS

Notes to the Editor

  1. Download the report Lawyers Under Threat: Increasing Suppression of the Legal Profession in Belarus from the IBA website here:
  2. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
  3. Find the IBAHRI (@IBAHRI) on social media here:
  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

For enquiries please contact: the IBA’s Human Rights Institute at: IBAHRI@int-bar.org

Website page link for this news release:

Short link: tinyurl.com/rpjk8epd