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Belarus

Executive Summary

Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections after 1994, including the August 2020 presidential election and 2019 National Assembly elections, were not considered free and fair.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the Committee for State Security, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, also exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to the president’s personal command. Lukashenka maintained effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces aggressively, intentionally, and routinely perpetuated abuses to stifle political dissent and repress human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and others.

Starting in late May, credible media outlets and nongovernmental organizations reported that Belarusian authorities purposefully orchestrated and profited from the entry into the country of thousands of irregular migrants mostly from Iraq, but also from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Afghanistan. These migrants often traveled through state-owned or state-affiliated travel agencies in partnership with travel agencies in the origin countries, with the aim of facilitating these individuals’ travel overland to enter the European Union. Once the migrants and asylum seekers reached Belarus, authorities facilitated their travel to the borders of the neighboring countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland and encouraged and, in some instances, forced the migrants to attempt irregular border crossings. When migrants and asylum seekers failed to enter the European Union, there were credible reports that Belarusian security services beat the migrants and asylum seekers and forced them to remain at the border to attempt additional border crossings, sometimes under dangerous circumstances. When the migrants sought asylum in Belarus, authorities generally refused these requests.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture in detention facilities and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom, including site blocking and internet blockages; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of NGOs and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement and abuse of migrants and asylum seekers seeking to irregularly cross the border into the European Union; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; and outlawing of independent trade unions and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.

Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity as directed by Lukashenka and routinely failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived either by birth within the country or from one’s parents. A child of a citizen is a citizen regardless of place of birth, even if one parent is not a citizen. Births were generally registered immediately.

Child Abuse: The law stipulates minors’ rights to education, health care, personal integrity, and protection from exploitation and violence, among others. The law provides for the inviolability of the child’s person and protects the child from all types of exploitation, including sexual, physical, and psychological abuse; cruel or abusive treatment, humiliation, and sexual harassment (including by parents, guardians, caregivers, and relatives); involvement in criminal activities; use of alcoholic beverages; use of drugs, toxic or other intoxicating substances, and tobacco products; and coercion into prostitution, begging, vagrancy, participation in gambling, actions related to child pornography, and work that may harm physical, mental, or moral development.

Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Conviction of a person older than 18 for engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children were common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted beating their children. Authorities identified families in vulnerable conditions and generally intervened to prevent child abuse linked to domestic violence, providing foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government continued to prosecute child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate, and it lacked effective capabilities to detect violence and refer victims for proper assistance in a timely manner.

The government instituted a comprehensive national plan for 2017-21 to improve child care and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, but it acknowledged its inefficiency in executing certain protective measures absent assistance from international organizations and NGOs. For example, in one case authorities in the Hrodna region charged both foster parents with beating, abusing, torturing, and depriving their foster children of freedoms from 2016 through 2021. Authorities recognized eight children as victims in the case, including a minor who was 10 months old at the time and was physically abused. Local prosecutors claimed that authorities took disciplinary action against seven local officials in charge of monitoring foster families and living conditions.

With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities employed procedures for on-the-record, one-time interviewing of child-abuse victims in the framework of investigations or criminal cases at specialized facilities under the direct supervision of psychologists. Courts often used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child-abuse victims for hearings, but experts continued to raise concerns that in some cases, judges summoned victims to testify at hearings. More-experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and interests of minors.

As of January 2020 the Ministry of Education ran 138 social-educational centers nationwide for minor victims of any type of violence or minors in vulnerable and dangerous conditions, but independent observers questioned the quality of services. General health-care institutions provided a wide range of medical aid to child abuse victims free of charge.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18, although girls as young as 14 may marry with parental consent. There were reports of early marriages in which girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 married with parental consent.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Sex trafficking of children was a problem, and authorities took some steps to address it. From January through September, authorities identified 540 minors as victims of child sexual abuse, up from 354 in the same period in 2020. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for producing or distributing pornographic materials depicting a minor. Authorities generally enforced the law. Authorities claimed the law does not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 91 minors who were trafficking or trafficking-related victims used for commercial sexual exploitation. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods such as sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January 2020 adopted a separate 2020-22 plan of action to protect minors from sexual abuse and exploitation. There were no reports on the implementation of the plan as of December 2020.

In April the Internal Affairs Ministry reported that on February 16, it identified and arrested a 37-year-old foreigner who had legally resided in the country since 2017 and had engaged girls between ages five and 13 in producing pornographic materials. Four mothers of the children were arrested for providing their children for filming and commercial sexual exploitation. Police also stated one of the victims was removed from the family and taken into the government custody, while the others remained in the custody of their fathers.

Institutionalized Children: There was no system for monitoring child abuse in orphanages or other specialized institutions. Authorities did not report any child-abuse incidents in institutions. There were allegations of abuse in foster families; the government opened or continued investigations into some of these cases.

According to a 2018 UNICEF study, more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either physical or psychological violence. Approximately one in four children participating in the survey reported exposure to physical violence at institutions. The children living in institutions appeared significantly more vulnerable compared with children living in families, and they had two to three times more exposure to violence than children from secondary schools. Children from special closed-type educational institutions and penitentiary institutions reported greater exposure to violence both at home and in the institutions.

As of January 1, there were nine institutions for children with disabilities that held at least 1,300 minors. Institutions provided basic medical and social care to their clients. Although experts assessed the services as being of better quality than at adult institutions, these institutions had problems with proper diagnostics, education, and social reintegration as well as public accountability and transparency.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

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