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Belarus

Volume 679: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2020

What recent discussions he has had with his Belarusian counterpart on (a) democracy and (b) the rule of law in that country. (905643)

What recent representations he has made to his Belarusian counterpart on the arrest and alleged torture of protesters by security forces in that country. (905649)

What diplomatic steps his Department has taken to help ensure media freedom for domestic and international journalists in Belarus. (905671)

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus on the political and security situation in that country. (905672)

The Government have been clear: we do not accept the results of the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus. We have strongly condemned the shocking scenes of violence by the authorities in Belarus towards peaceful protestors and the targeting of journalists, including representatives of the BBC. I have raised these concerns with the Foreign Minister of Belarus, and in my statements to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on 28 August and to the UN Security Council on 4 September. The Belarusian authorities must be held to account, and we are calling for an independent investigation through the OSCE. We support sanctions, and there must be dialogue between the people of Belarus and the authorities.

My constituents in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath do not view the suspension of military training to Belarusian forces as a cause for celebration. That the UK was supporting the last dictator in Europe does not square with the UK’s espoused role as a beacon of hope. Between 2018 and ’20, UK armed forces provided training to 17 of the 30 countries where the FCO is particularly concerned about human rights issues. Will the Minister urgently provide me with comprehensive detail on the specific training provided to the Belarusian armed forces and full details of police and military training being provided to Turkey, Bahrain and the Philippines?

With specific regard to Belarus, the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point around defence co-operation. The UK shares a co-operative relationship with the Belarusian armed forces, including mutual learning, winter survival training, language tuition and peacekeeping, but in the light of recent events we have suspended all defence engagement with Belarus.

There are protesters outside Parliament today trying to draw attention to the situation in Belarus. I hope that the Minister will find time to pop out to meet them, as it is really important that we talk to members of the diaspora community here. The EU is currently drawing up a list of Belarusian officials who they will make subject to asset freezes and travel bans. Is the UK looking to do likewise, and if not, why not?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She can rest assured that we will, at the very least, match that list.

As the Minister said, two BBC journalists have had their accreditation revoked in Belarus, and we have also seen entire shutdowns of the internet in that country to stop citizens both reporting on what is happening in their country and finding out information for themselves. Does she agree that this is completely intolerable and a violation of the rights of citizens of that country? What representations have we made to the Government of Belarus that they should stop these internet shutdowns and removals of accreditations for BBC journalists?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this with me today. The Belarusian authorities have indeed blocked internet access for the entire country on several occasions. I have made clear through my statements at the OSCE and the UN that the democratic values and rights of the Belarusian people, including freedom of expression and media freedoms such as access to information, must be respected, and those who violate them must be held accountable.

I know that my hon. Friend shares my deep concern about the violence we have seen to suppress the peaceful demonstrations in Belarus, and I welcome her comments so far. Can she assure me that she will continue to work with our international partners to put pressure on the Belarusian regime to stop all violence against journalists, protesters and opposition candidates, and does she share my concern over the forced deportation of such individuals?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for his interest in the situation in Belarus. I can assure him that we are supporting an independent investigation through the OSCE into the fraudulent election and the violations by the Belarusian authorities. I spoke to Germany and the US on 18 August and France on 19 August, and I have also spoken to the Baltic states, Finland, Sweden and Poland.

We on the SNP Benches, and I am sure those across the House, support and salute the bravery of pro-democracy activists and call for the immediate release of all political prisoners, along with, of course, Maria Kolesnikova. I am sure that we all agree on that point.

I am grateful for the Minister’s statement and I agree, as far as it goes, but I would urge her to go further. I make four concrete proposals specifically based on the rule of law. There are things we can do through the OSCE and European partners, but there also things we can do specifically. Targeted sanctions on individuals under the Magnitsky regime is something that the UK can do now. We welcome the suspension of military co-operation, but could we have an explicit statement on what it actually involves and its ramifications? Can we explore humanitarian aid to activists? Poland has given €10 million to brave activists. Can we explore sanctions against companies involved in facilitating oppression by the regime? These are concrete points that the UK can act on now.

First, on sanctions, we have made it very clear that we support sanctions against those responsible for the election fraud and human rights abuses. We will work with our international partners to sanction those responsible and to hold the Belarusian authorities to account. We currently implement EU sanctions and we will continue to do so during the implementation period, and we will consider future designations very carefully, based on evidence.

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. I want to touch on humanitarian support and support for civil society, which will be really important. That is why we have doubled our support to independent media, human rights organisations and community groups in Belarus with an extra £1.5 million of projects over the next two years. I am sure that he will welcome that.

I will be brief, Mr Speaker—my apologies. I welcome the Minister’s comments. There is a lot of common ground. Will she commit to meet Belarusian activists here in the UK? My office will be happy to facilitate that.

I will undertake to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman’s office to see if that can be arranged.

I do hope that the Minister has a chance to meet the activists who are outside Portcullis House as we speak. There is a consensus that the bravery and determination that they have all shown during this terrible crisis has been an inspiration to us all.

I have some specific questions around election monitoring in Belarus and other countries. Have the Government cut funding for that particular function? Is there a desk officer on Belarus who speaks Belarusian? At the same time, the Government are turning up the heat on European allies with leaked briefings that they will break internationally binding treaties, which is hardly the behaviour of a responsible Government intent on working with our allies to solve common challenges. Could we have, perhaps, great tweets but also specific action, to pull together with Europe to solve this terrible problem?

Let me be absolutely clear. The hon. Lady raises some very important points here. We are working very hard with our international partners, because we recognise the importance of doing so. As I highlighted earlier, we are working through the OSCE. We are also working to support sanctions. In terms of the support that I have from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I have a great team of officials who are working really hard on this area, as I am sure the hon. Lady would expect and welcome.