Belarus: Action by a UN committee
concerning religious oppression
Belarus has yet to meet a 2005-NOV-12 deadline, set by a UN committee, for
confirming the correction of a religious freedom violation against Hare
Krishna devotees, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In a decision with
implications for other religious communities (such as the New Life charismatic church), the UN Human Rights Committee found that Belarus had
violated citizens' rights under the International Covenant for Civil and
Political Rights by refusing to register a nation-wide Hare Krishna association. Two devotees, Sergei Malakhovsky and Aleksandr Pikul,
complained to the Committee, which set a 90 day deadline from 2005-AUG-23
for correcting the violation. Aleksandr Kalinov, of the State Committee
for Religious and Ethnic Affairs, initially claimed to Forum 18 that all
Krishna communities had registration, but then, questioned about the
nation-wide association, claimed it did not have the right to register. Sergei Malakhovsky told Forum 18 that Krishna devotees had taken the UN
Committee's decision to the State Committee and other government
departments, "but they just shrugged their shoulders and said nothing."
As of 2005-NOV-04, Belarus has not yet formally responded to a 2005-NOV-12 November deadline, set by a
UN committee, for confirming that the country has corrected a religious
freedom violation against Hare Krishna devotees, Forum 18 News Service has
In a decision with clear implications for other religious communities, the UN Human Rights Committee established under article 28 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), found that Belarus had
violated the religious freedom guarantees of Article 18 of the ICCPR. The
2005-AUG-23 resolution (Communication 1207/2003) came in response to a
formal complaint by two Krishna devotees, Sergei Malakhovsky and Aleksandr
Pikul, and the Committee found that their rights had been violated by
Belarus' refusal to their republic-wide Hare Krishna association. The UN
Committee examines alleged violations of the Covenant, which entered force
for Belarus in 1976.
The ninety-day period in which the UN Human Rights Committee specified
that it should receive confirmation from the Belarusian state that it has
taken measures to correct the violation expires on 12 November. (The 90
days deadline is set from the date of the resolution - 23 August - and not
the date of the meeting on 26 July.) On 3 November, however, UN Committee
media liaison officer David Chikvaidze told Forum 18 from Geneva that it
had not yet received a response from the Belarusian state.
Also asked on 3 November about the state's reaction to the UN Committee
resolution, Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and
Ethnic Affairs initially maintained to Forum 18 that all Krishna
Consciousness communities in Belarus held registration. Asked specifically
about the republic-wide association, he said that it did not have the right
to register under the 2002 religion law. When Forum 18 pointed out that its
registration application was submitted prior to that law's adoption, he
remarked "we are currently examining these issues." On 28 October Sergei
Malakhovsky told Forum 18 that Krishna devotees had tried taking the UN
Committee's resolution to the State Committee and other government
departments, "but they just shrugged their shoulders and said nothing."
In their complaint to the UN Committee (see F18News 27 January 2004
Pikul argued that, by refusing to register the Belarus-wide Krishna
Consciousness Society at the building used as a temple by the 500-strong
Minsk community since 1992, the state authorities had denied them "certain
activities which are essential to the practice of their religion," such as
establishing monasteries, missions and educational institutions, and
inviting foreign clerics to Belarus to preach or conduct other religious
activity, "resulting in a decline of spiritual standards due to their
inability to associate with more spiritually advanced believers."
Under the 2002 Belarusian religion law, these rights are not enjoyed by
individual religious communities, only republic-wide associations with a
minimum of ten affiliate communities in at least four out of six regions,
of which one must have conducted its activity for no less than 20 years.
The country's Krishna devotees are unable to meet these criteria.
Malakhovsky and Pikul submitted their association's registration
application on 10 May 2001 - well before the 2002 religion law came into
effect. They finally received a refusal on 2 August 2002, however, on the
grounds that the temple building was unsuitable for use as a legal
address. Appeals against this refusal were rejected at all levels of the
Belarusian court system (see F18News 27 January 2005
Like the charismatic New Life Church in Minsk (see most recently F18News 25 October 2005
the Minsk Krishna
Consciousness Society does not have the state approval required by the
2002 religion law to use its own premises for worship, and was refused
re-registration as a result.
In its 2004 submissions to the UN Committee, Belarus insisted that
Malakhovsky and Pikul "are able to practice their religion unobstructed
both personally and in association with others," and that the authorities'
refusal to register their association at the requested address was
justified, since inspection of the premises revealed violations of
sanitary conditions and fire safety. The state also claimed that the 2002
law's provisions "are not discriminatory in nature."
However the UN Committee noted in response to these claims that Article 18
of the Covenant does not permit any limitation whatsoever to freedom of
conscience, but that the right to manifest this freedom may be subject to
limitations "necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals
or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, directly related to and
proportionate to the specific need on which they are predicated."
Inviting foreign clerics and establishing monasteries and educational
institutions form part of the Krishna devotees' right to manifest their
beliefs, the UN Committee affirmed. While the requirement for premises
adhering to relevant public health and safety standards is a reasonable
limitation of the right of a religious association to carry out its
religious activities, it agreed, there is no reason for such premises to
be required for the act of registering such an association at a legal
address: "Appropriate premises for such use could be obtained subsequent
Concluding that the registration refusal thus amounts to a
disproportionate limitation of the Krishna devotees' right to manifest
their religion under the ICCPR, the UN Committee considers that
Malakhovsky and Pikul "are entitled to an appropriate remedy, including a
reconsideration of the authors' application in accordance with the
principles, rules and practices in force at the time of the authors'
request" - that is, prior to the adoption of the 2002 law.
In an individual opinion, committee member Ruth Wedgwood, professor of
international law at Yale Law School, stated that the issues that the Hare
Krishna devotees' complaint specified were not the only serious problems in
the 2002 religion law. She observed that "the right of a religious
community to establish monasteries, educational institutions, or missions,
and to invite foreign religious figures to speak, has been sharply
restricted by the government of Belarus. Only those groups officially
registered with the state as 'religious associations' can enjoy these
aspects of the free practice of religion."
Professor Wedgwood noted, for example, the 20 year registration delay
imposed by the 2002 law and the law's barring of newer faiths from
engaging in religious education. She commented that "it is well to
remember that the Covenant recognizes and guarantees the freedom of every
person 'either individually or in community with others and in public or
private to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance,
practice and teaching.' See Article 18(1). This right is not limited to
old and established religions, or to large congregations, and it is
fundamental to the freedom of religious conscience."
The Minsk Krishna community was also refused compulsory re-registration
following the 2002 law's 16 November 2004 deadline (see 10 November 2004
and 25 November 2004
as were for example
autonomous Orthodox communities. The Minsk Krishna community has since
continued to seek re-registration as well as to register a new local
organization in the city, Malakhovsky told Forum 18. While the community's
charter (which is essential for registering) for the latter was
"practically dictated" by state officials, he continued, it too was
rejected by Minsk City Executive Committee on 4 October 2005. A copy of
the decision, received by Forum 18, lists the charter's alleged faults,
including "numerous contradictions connected with outlining the competency
of administrative bodies of the community" and "other shortcomings."
Malakhovsky also told Forum 18 that the original Minsk community is still
unable to re-register for want of a suitable legal address: "Whatever
state officials suggest is OK for commercial organizations, but we can't
afford it." The community likewise sought re-registration at its temple
building, in which, according to Malakhovsky, it has invested tens of
thousands of dollars worth of renovation. He added, however, that there
has been no move by the state to liquidate either the Minsk community or
that similarly refused re-registration in Bobruisk [Babruysk] in Mogilev
[Mahilyow] region (see F18News 27 January 2005
"Everything is up in
the air, and this suits the authorities, I think - on the one hand we
exist, on the other we have no rights."
Aleksandr Kalinov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs
told Forum 18 that the executive committees in Minsk and Mogilev region
were currently dealing with the relevant re-registration applications.
Religious organizations registered prior to the 2002 law's adoption are
now able to function only to the extent that their charters conform to its
provisions. For fear of heavy fines (which have been imposed in the similar
case of the Minsk New Life Church), the Minsk Society for Krishna
Consciousness is consequently unable to meet for worship at its temple
building (see F18News 11 May 2005
An 8 October 1997
analysis by experts attached to the State Committee for Religious and
Ethnic Affairs declared the organization a "destructive totalitarian sect"
and recommended its closure.
Besides New Life Church and the Hare Krishna devotees, other religious organizations (such as a Baptist church) - particularly in Minsk - are
also unable to worship legally on the grounds that they do not have
suitable premises (see F18News 12 May 2005
and 28 July 2005
- Geraldine Fagan, "Belarus: Will UN decision help religious
communities," Forum 18, 2005-NOV-04, ISSN 1504-2855.