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Volume 702: debated on Thursday 4 November 2021

I beg to move,

That the Republic of Belarus (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 (SI, 2021, No. 1146), dated 11 October, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14 October, be approved.

The instrument before us was laid on 14 October under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, also known as the Sanctions Act. It amends the Republic of Belarus (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 to introduce new measures in the financial, trade and aviation sectors. The regulations that we are debating today revoke and replace the Belarus sanctions regulations laid in August 2021, which contained an error that had the effect of deleting a prohibition on the transfer of restrictive technology to Belarus—that is, military and interception or monitoring technology and technology used for internal repression. These regulations correct that error. I can assure hon. and right hon. Members that there was no continuity gap between the effects of the two sets of regulations.

The Government, along with international partners, decided to increase targeted sanctions because the situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate. On numerous occasions, Lukashenko and his regime have violated democratic principles and the rule of law and violently oppressed civil society, democratic opposition leaders and independent media. This includes the forced diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 on 23 May in order to arrest the journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega. Lukashenko sent in a MiG fighter jet to force the Ryanair plane to land, endangering not only Protasevich and Sapega but everyone else on board. This also showed a flagrant disregard for international aviation law. The couple remain in the custody of the Belarusian authorities. The UK Government reiterate their call on the Belarusian regime to release them and to release all those held on political grounds. The regime has enforced the arbitrary detention of more than 35,000 people and imprisoned more than 800 people on political charges. The United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have recorded many credible reports of physical mistreatment, including torture, by the penal and security forces in Belarus.

Opposition figures have been harassed and forcefully expelled, and this year Belarus introduced new legislation to further suppress media freedoms and peaceful assembly. The UK supports all those working for a more democratic future for Belarus. We were delighted to welcome Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition, to the UK on 3 August. I was pleased to be able to meet Ms Tsikhanouskaya during her visit, as did the Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary, and we reiterated our support. Ms Tsikhanouskaya emphasised the need for further sanctions on the Belarusian regime and commended the UK for taking action.

This instrument enshrines in law our increased sanctions measures on the Belarusian regime, showing that we stand with the people of Belarus. Our sanctions are carefully targeted to build pressure on Lukashenko, state institutions, and those around him while minimising any unintended consequences for the ordinary of people of Belarus who are suffering under authoritarian rule. The measures that it introduces prevent any UK business from trading goods and services with Belarus in sectors that are key sources of revenue for the Lukashenko regime. They limit the regime’s access to items that could enable the internal repression of the Belarusian population, including potash, petroleum products, and interception and monitoring goods and technology. They also cover goods used in cigarette manufacturing, dual-use goods, and technology for military use. We have imposed a prohibition on technical assistance to aircraft where this would benefit persons designated for that purpose. This ensures that UK companies cannot provide services in relation to President Lukashenko’s fleet of luxury aircraft.

Financial measures prohibit dealing with transferable securities and money market instruments issued by the Belarusian state and public bodies, as well as those issued by state-owned banks and the provision of loans. This puts additional pressure on the Belarusian regime, including by preventing future Belarusian Government bonds from being listed on the London stock exchange. This comprehensive response also includes prohibitions on the provision of insurance and reinsurance to Belarusian state bodies, and prohibits the export of biathlon rifles by removing a licensing ground under the arms embargo.

The aviation measures prohibit Belarusian air carriers from overflying or landing in the UK, and that continues the temporary measures we put in place after the events of 23 May. Finally, the measures also give us the power to designate persons for providing support for or obtaining an economic benefit from the Government of Belarus. Since those measures came into force, we have made a further designation under the Belarus sanctions regime under this criterion. UK sanctions action, taken together with our allies, aims to encourage the Belarusian regime to respect democratic principles and institutions, the separation of powers and the rule of law in Belarus. The sanctions also aim to discourage the regime from actions, policies or activities that repress civil society in Belarus and to encourage it to comply with international human rights law.

We regularly review our sanctions and would consider lifting them if we saw significant progress. However, in the case of Belarus, we have seen no progress and the situation continues to deteriorate. Sanctions are most effective when implemented in co-ordination with international partners, and our measures were co-ordinated in June with the EU, the US and Canada, and we will continue to work closely with them on Belarus. Similarly, actions work best when combined with other diplomatic and economic measures, and the UK has assisted independent media and civil society organisations in Belarus, which continue to face unparalleled levels of pressure from the regime. By the end of this financial year, our programme of support to Belarus will have almost tripled since 2019.

The UK unequivocally condemns the appalling campaign of repression waged by the Belarusian regime against the rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people. The regime has oppressed civil society, rejected democratic principles and violated the rule of law. The regulations expand our sanctions in response to the situation on the ground. They demonstrate that we will not accept such egregious violations of human rights. They enable us to stand with our international partners and, most importantly, with the people of Belarus in working towards a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future. I welcome the opportunity to hear the views of Members on the regulations, and I commend them to the House.

I welcome the Government bringing forward an amended schedule of sanctions, due to some errors in the laying of the sanctions in the House earlier in the year. Today I am wearing my green and purple, because the Minister and I are both aware of how much women activists in Belarus have suffered in the past couple of years, in particular having many of their partners and husbands locked up. They are therefore now in the spotlight politically. They have not chosen to go into politics in the way that we might, but have been forced to by circumstance.

Across the House, I know that every woman MP, including the leadership we have had from our own parliamentary Labour party women’s group, stands up for those women, their right to be human rights activists and their right to be women in the workplace and defends their right to the Belarus of the future that they wish to see. There is nothing worse than seeing a leader getting out of an aeroplane the day after a sham election dressed in black with a rifle on his shoulder, and the terror those people felt at that moment.

It has been wonderful to see the cross-party approach and the support we have had from trade unions, civil society groups, students and the diaspora here in the UK to stand up against the Lukashenko regime and put on record our anger, concern and sadness at what has happened in the past two years. There have been 35,000 arrests and 800 political prisoners—in Europe.

Members from all parts of the House gather together, despite our differences—and we have had a few in the past 48 hours—to say today that we stand with those women for freedom and for the rights that they and their families want to have. The level of brutality that the Belarusian regime is regularly using on its own people was on show for the world when the Ryanair flight was dangerously hijacked—the Minister has already gone into detail about that. Those two activists are still in prison, and today we send out a message from this House that we are on their side and we will not see this regime continue for too much longer. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and the all-party parliamentary group on Belarus, which is cross party across both Houses, and to the human rights defenders, journalists and trade unions for keeping the issue in the minds of so many across Europe and in the region. It is heartening to see smaller countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine, as well as the Polish Government and many across parties in Poland, standing up for the rights of those women and all those activists who want a fresh start.

On the sanctions, it is vital that we do all we can through our economy and through what we say in this House to stop any use of or facilitation through our legal, banking or accountancy services in the UK that could help anyone who has stolen resources from the Belarusian people to launder them through our system. The people of Belarus are entitled to democracy and free elections and we must uphold those principles.

As such, Labour Members welcome the tougher sanctions. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it is vital for our voice in this House to be heard today by the Belarusian people. I hope that we can somehow get the message through particularly to those prisoners of conscience who long for their case to be heard.

As the noble Lord Collins outlined in the other place, we welcome the changes that the statutory instrument outlines to rectify some of the mistakes in previous sanctions, while adopting additional measures in response to the deteriorating behaviour of Mr Lukashenko and his regime. We particularly welcome measures on financial sanctions and measures that seek to remove the ways that the regime has continued to financially sustain itself in the past 18 months. We welcome the inclusion of sanctions on potash exports, which are one of the major exports of Belarus, and which have been continually highlighted as a key way to hold the regime to account.

I have some brief questions for the Minister. First, how will the Government measure the effectiveness of the sanctions, particularly in the light of the ever-diminishing Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office budget? Secondly, we know that international co-operation is vital to ensure that our actions are co-ordinated with our allies and partners and to ensure that maximum influence is put on the regime. Will the Minister outline what additional measures she is taking to work with European partners to ensure that our actions are in line with theirs and that there is a global strategy for protecting the people of Belarus?

Thirdly, I would welcome the Minister outlining whether there has been any recent assessment of Russian support for the regime in Belarus. Given that the relationship between the UK and Russia is strained, what levers could she use to try to influence Moscow so that we can see more freedom and justice for all those political prisoners who we in this Chamber want to support?

It would be wrong for the Minister not to be aware that the sanctions have tremendous support from Conservative and Opposition Members. I speak as the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, where we have taken a strong stand against Belarus; the false presidential election that took place, about which we made a firm statement; and the bringing down of the Ryanair flight. The Minister may be aware that our delegation—I am told—was the first international delegation to issue a condemnation of Belarus at the time and that that did not go unnoticed. I thoroughly approve of the sanctions.

To pick up on the point of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I am one of several Members of this House and of the other place who is a penfriend, if I can use that term, of Belarusian political prisoners. We write to them to try to provide some comfort and a link to the real world. I know that was mentioned in the other place to great approval, and I hope that mentioning it here will meet equally great approval.

The point to bear in mind and to watch for the future is the crisis of migration on the border of Belarus and the neighbouring countries. The winter is setting in, and I understand that some deaths from cold have already occurred there. Something needs to be done about that very quickly. When I was in Poland recently, I was able to raise this point with various people—not that we came up with a solution, because the solution effectively lies in placing proper sanctions on the Belarusian Government to make sure that this is picked up and dealt with.

In conclusion, I very much welcome these sanctions as a helpful aid in giving us the strength to deal with the Belarusian Government, so that we make sure that we get real change there.

We welcome the measures by the Government—we have no objections to them whatever—and I do not think there is any point in detaining the House on this any longer than we must.

I welcome the support from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and I am very grateful for the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). He takes a really close interest, as do many colleagues from across the House, in Belarus, as I saw recently at an all-party parliamentary group meeting that I attended. I am grateful to all the hon. Members who contributed to our short but very important discussion.

I will briefly address the questions raised. On the effectiveness of sanctions, we obviously continue to monitor all the sanctions that we have in place. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt any future designations, but let me assure the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green that we keep a very close eye on such matters. As I set out in my opening speech, we work very closely with a range of international partners to co-ordinate our sanctions regimes.

As I have said, these regulations give us the power to impose sectoral sanctions that have real impact—an impact that is magnified through co-ordination with our international partners. These sanctions ensure that we can target the sectors of the Belarusian economy and the key figures in the Belarusian regime that generate funds for the regime, including those who provide support for, or obtain an economic benefit from, the Government of Belarus but who have not previously been designated. The regulations also demonstrate that the UK will not stand by in the face of the regime’s unacceptable behaviour; we are ready and willing to act as part of a network of liberty, and will stand with those who believe in democracy.

I sense there is support across the House for the sanctions, for which I am very grateful, and I hope the House will support the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.