Skip to main content

Belarus: Presidential Elections

Volume 805: debated on Friday 25 September 2020


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 24 September.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the situation in Belarus.

As the House will recall, on 9 August Belarus held presidential elections that were neither free nor fair. The election campaign was itself characterised by the imprisonment of opposition candidates and the arrests of hundreds of their supporters. On polling day on 9 August, witnesses reported extensive fraud and falsification of results, and local independent observers were barred from witnessing the count, including members of the British embassy, who were threatened and then removed from the polling station. The Belarusian authorities prevented independent international monitoring of the electoral process by refusing to co-operate with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election monitors. As a result, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in what can only be described as peaceful protest. They challenged Lukashenko’s claim to have won 80% of the vote and demanded fresh elections, and they have been peacefully protesting in huge numbers right across Belarus ever since.

The world has watched, frankly in horror, at the response of the Belarusian authorities. They launched a campaign of violence, intimidation and harassment against peaceful protesters. We have seen horrific scenes of militia attacking demonstrators and then dragging them away. UN human rights experts report that the authorities have beaten those that they held in detention and they have threatened female protesters with violence, including rape.

The Belarusian authorities have targeted journalists, including those of the BBC, and shut down the internet to hide their actions. Opposition leaders set up a co-ordination council to organise peaceful protests. In response, the authorities abducted, imprisoned and expelled all but one of the co-ordination council’s board members. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has been exiled to Lithuania, and prominent campaigner Maria Kolesnikova has been imprisoned and charged with destabilising the state. Only yesterday, Lukashenko was sworn in at a hastily organised and unannounced ceremony. Frankly, hiding his inauguration from the people of Belarus only serves to reinforce his wholesale lack of legitimacy.

The UK, the West and the world cannot sit idly by while the Belarusian people’s democratic and human rights are violated so brutally, in clear violation of Belarus’s responsibilities as a member of the OSCE. For our part, the UK has worked with our key international partners, first, to promote a peaceful resolution, but also to condemn the actions of the Belarusian authorities and to hold those responsible to account. I discussed the situation and our response with Foreign Ministers from France and Germany at Chevening on 10 September. I also discussed the issue and the situation with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister when he visited London last week. I have also just returned from Washington, where I agreed with Vice-President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo to co-ordinate the UK and US response. The Minister for Europe has spoken to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and also Svetlana Alexievich.

Let me be clear about the United Kingdom’s position and our approach. First of all, we do not accept the results of this rigged election. Secondly, we condemn the thuggery deployed against the Belarusian people. We have led the way, working with 16 of our international partners, so that on 17 September we triggered the Moscow mechanism in the OSCE, which initiates a full and independent investigation of both the electoral fraud and the human rights abuses carried out by the Belarusian authorities. It is absolutely critical that those responsible are held to account.

We are willing to join the EU in adopting targeted sanctions against those responsible for the violence, the oppression and the vote rigging, although the EU process has now been delayed in Brussels. Given that delay and given Lukashenko’s fraudulent inauguration, I have directed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s sanction team to prepare Magnitsky sanctions for those responsible for the serious human rights violations, and we are co-ordinating with the United States and Canada to prepare appropriate listings as a matter of urgency.

Next, we must support and strengthen civil society and the brave media outlets struggling to shine a light on the repression that we are seeing inflicted by the Belarusian authorities on their people. The Government have already been working with our partners in Belarus to that effect, but we must do more. I have doubled our financial support to human rights groups, independent media organisations and community groups, providing an extra £1.5 million over the next two years. That includes £800,000 of support for journalists in particular in Belarus. That UK funding will help train journalists, provide support to those who have been detained by the authorities and also help replace equipment that has been destroyed or confiscated. We will apply all the tools at our disposal to hold Lukashenko and his regime to account, and we call on him to engage in serious and credible dialogue with the opposition, via mediation if necessary, in order to facilitate a peaceful outcome to the current crisis, and one that reflects and respects the will of the Belarusian people.

If the authorities in Belarus fail to respond based on the outcome of the OSCE investigation which we have triggered, we will consider further actions with our international partners. Our vision for global Britain means standing up for democracy and human rights. That is what we are doing in Belarus, and I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, the Statement by the Foreign Secretary has the full support of Labour. The Government are right to sanction Lukashenko’s regime; we should not stand idly by as he disregards the voice of his own people and continues with a brutal crackdown on their human rights. I am pleased that the Government have sought agreement with the US and Canada before implementation of these powers: international co-operation is the greatest tool we have to confront Lukashenko and the world must demonstrate a collective intolerance of his actions.

The Foreign Secretary yesterday referenced the issues which the EU is facing, preventing the implementation of its own sanctions. Has the UK spoken to the Government of Cyprus to encourage their support for the global efforts against Lukashenko? Of course, for sanctions to be most effective, they will require implementation by further allies beyond those already mentioned, so what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to encourage our other democratic allies to sanction Lukashenko’s regime also?

There should be no human rights abuser untouched by these sanctions if we are to best support the people of Belarus. While we await the list of targets referenced by the Foreign Secretary, we can be certain that there will be omissions, because of the scope of the Magnitsky powers. Specifically, in relation to the comments yesterday by the Foreign Secretary that the Government are looking very carefully at the prospect of including corruption, can the noble Baroness estimate when a decision may be reached on this important aspect?

In addition to the sanctions, the Government have also pledged further funding for civil society groups. In response to a question yesterday on whether any of this will support the persecuted trade unionists of Belarus, the Foreign Secretary said:

“I join … in the spirit of solidarity with unions … We certainly stand with them … for the basic principles of freedom and liberty”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/9/20; col. 1180.]

What form will this expression of solidarity take? Have the Government and the Foreign Secretary engaged with the European TUC on this?

While we hope that the measures announced will achieve their intended goal, I am pleased that the Government are open to the possibility of further actions with our international partners. While I accept that the Minister cannot spell out exactly what these steps may be, I would be grateful if she could offer clarification on a few points. On the prospect of mediation, the Foreign Secretary said:

“I know that the Germans and others in the EU have been reaching out on all sides”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/9/20; col. 1175.]

In his discussions at Chevening, did the Foreign Secretary offer UK support to Germany on such initiatives? As he was unable to give confirmation to the shadow Foreign Secretary yesterday, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government are exploring measures to help those blacklisted from their jobs in Belarus? Will the Government consider expanding the Chevening scholarships in response to the persecution of academics? How is the UK embassy supporting BBC journalists against attacks on them and their families? We support the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for this very clear Statement. The Foreign Secretary is right to state unequivocally that the elections in Belarus were not free or fair. I am very glad that we are taking action as a result. These Benches also give the Government our full support.

It is appalling to see the violence, the imprisonment and expulsion of opposition candidates and the arbitrary arrests of their supporters. I also note what the Foreign Secretary said about the targeting of the press, including the BBC, and of our own embassy staff.

It is remarkable to see that, week after week, despite the crackdowns we have seen, the people in Belarus are marching to make their point despite the personal risks to them. The women in Belarus have been astonishingly brave, stepping into leadership roles despite the risks to their safety and that of their families.

I welcome the fact that we are preparing Magnitsky sanctions against those who are responsible for these serious human rights violations and that we are co-ordinating with the United States and Canada on this. I am also glad that we are working closely with our EU neighbours as well.

The noble Baroness will know that I regret the fact that we are outside the EU and that we and our able diplomats cannot engage on this from the inside, because this is precisely the kind of situation where the UK has in the past had a disproportionate effect as a member. Now we have to influence from the outside. We make it more difficult for like-minded countries in the EU to persuade Cyprus, for example, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that what is required here is a laser focus on Belarus and not on other issues, however important they may be for regional stability in the Mediterranean.

Coming back to the sanctions, the Foreign Secretary refers to the appalling abuse of women and notes that UN human rights experts have reported that female protesters have been threatened with violence, including rape. As the Government draw up the sanctions, will they work with their allies to make sure that the abuse of women is fully recognised as the human rights violation that it is? It took a long time to recognise rape as a war crime, but it is, and we know how sexual abuse is deliberately used to undermine opposition. Can the noble Baroness assure me that violence against women will be fully taken into account as these sanctions are drawn up?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I will ask about progress on extending the Magnitsky sanctions to cover corruption, as planned. I am very glad that they have this under active development. When does she think the Government will be ready to announce their plans?

In terms of financial wrongdoing, London and the banks here have negatively been in the news over recent days. It is clearly vital that fraud, corruption and money laundering are pursued. Even if this were not the right thing to do, it would be vital if London is to retain its key position as a leading financial market post Brexit. The sooner the Government explicitly back-track on their plan to break international law, the better it will be going forward. I am well aware that countries look to engage, for example, on the London Stock Exchange because this country is seen as a beacon for the rule of law. That needs to be strengthened, not weakened. What checks are being made on corrupt resources from Belarus going through London? Also, is there any equipment originating in the UK, for example for crowd control, that ends up in Belarus? Are we carefully scrutinising that?

The press has been under attack and the BBC has been targeted. I am very glad the Foreign Secretary is supporting the BBC. In this context, will the Minister’s new department properly value the BBC World Service? It is vital for the free press as an unbiased source of news that helps to underpin human rights and liberal democracy around the world.

Lastly, we are all holding our breath as to what Putin may do and what the consequences of that might be for the people in Belarus and the region. I note that the Government are actively engaging with the Government of Lithuania. The Baltic states are particularly vulnerable not just to what is happening on their border with Belarus but to Russia’s actions in terms of trade, for example, and how that might be throttled. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I am grateful for the full support of the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. It is a powerful statement of solidarity for the people of Belarus. Like both of them, I am appalled at the arbitrary detention and abuse of protesters that we have seen.

The noble Lord highlights the importance of international co-operation. The UK is working very closely in the OSCE and the UN Security Council and with our Five Eyes partners and our European allies to make sure that we have a common approach. He also asked about sanctions. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in the other place, we will join the EU in adopting targeted sanctions against those responsible for violence, repression and vote-rigging in Belarus—although, as the noble Lord highlighted, the EU process has been delayed. Given that delay and Lukashenko’s fraudulent inauguration, the Foreign Secretary has directed the FCDO sanction team to prepare Magnitsky sanctions for those responsible, and we are co-ordinating very closely with the US and Canada to prepare appropriate listings as a matter of urgency.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about corruption. As they highlighted, corruption is not currently covered by the Magnitsky sanctions; they deal with a slew of the most serious human rights violations and cover those who profit from human rights abuses, but the Foreign Secretary is looking very carefully at how we can extend the next step of the Magnitsky sanctions to corruption and similar types of offences. He will say more on that in due course, but I am afraid I do not have a date at the moment.

The noble Lord highlighted our close working with the French and the Germans. The UK hosted an E3 meeting recently where we discussed this important matter and the imposition of sanctions. When the Foreign Secretary was in the US last week, he discussed the matter with Secretary of State Pompeo.

The noble Lord spoke about the trade unions and highlighted the Foreign Secretary’s words about them yesterday in the other place. The trade union movement has been closely aligned with the human rights movement and the cause of liberty for many years. We have doubled our support for civil society organisations and are working closely in Belarus with people on the ground to decide exactly how best to distribute that money, including with academics, trade unions and civil society.

Like the noble Baroness, I pay tribute to the brave women who have played such a prominent role in the opposition to Lukashenko’s fraudulent election. They have led an incredibly effective and unified opposition campaign in really trying circumstances. There have been first-hand accounts, witness reports and statements by the UN OHCHR stating that women have been detained and subject to beatings and the threat of rape. That is never acceptable. Of course we will recognise the abuse of women as we prepare our sanctions and will continue to lead the way with our work on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We are very pleased to be co-hosting the action coalition on gender-based violence for the following year, where we will do more work on this.

The noble Baroness also highlighted the importance of cracking down on illegal finance activities. Of course, criminals, from Belarus and elsewhere, should not be able to profit from their illegal activities in any circumstances. Banks should be, and have been, taking steps to ensure that this is not happening on their watch. The UK is internationally recognised as having one of the strongest systems to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing and to bring justice to those who seek to use or hide the proceeds of crime, as found by the Financial Action Task Force. We will continue to crack down hard on dirty money through our world-leading legislation, unexplained wealth orders and the measures in our economic crime and asset recovery plans.

The noble Baroness also asked about exports to Belarus. The UK currently implements EU sanctions on Belarus, which include an arms embargo and the ban on exporting equipment which might be used for internal repression. We will continue to observe those restrictions through our autonomous Belarus sanctions regime after the transition period has ended. The noble Baroness also highlighted the importance of media freedom; as she will know, the FCDO supports the BBC World Service. I agree with her that it does incredibly important work, both to ensure fair reporting and to support other independent journalists who are having such a difficult time in Belarus at the moment.

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, in welcoming this important Statement of support for the people of Belarus and help for those who have been targeted by their Government’s attack on media freedom, I first ask my noble friend whether that help will also cover members of the arts and culture community who have been affected. Secondly, do the Government plan to appoint another UK special envoy on media freedom now that Amal Clooney has resigned?

I thank my noble friend for her question. On her second question, we are currently reviewing the position of the special envoy on media freedom. In the meantime, of course, the UK remains fully committed to supporting media freedom and standing up for the rights of journalists. On her first question, as I said, we are currently considering how best to support all members of society protesting in Belarus at the moment. I agree with her that we need to make sure that we continue to see free arts and culture, which is such an important part of society.

My Lords, I commend the Government and the Foreign Secretary for finally further embracing the principles of the Magnitsky Act, and I support using them to the letter in the case of Belarus. These personal sanctions are surprisingly effective—witness the fury that they engender in Russia—and are really one of the few weapons we have when tyrannical regimes use nefarious means to gain and consolidate power. I would urge an even greater use of them. Having said that, I believe passionately in keeping open cultural corridors as a means of dialogue, and this is where the BBC World Service plays a vital role. However, I concede that a dreadful situation such as that in Belarus overwhelms and transcends soft politics, which is why we need to use hard means such as Magnitsky.

I thank the noble Lord for his support. The Magnitsky regime, as he will know, is relatively new. As I said, we are looking at what more we can do to strengthen it, and there will be further developments on that in due course. I also agree with the noble Lord on the importance of keeping up cultural relationships with countries all around the world, and we will continue to support the BBC World Service and other cultural organisations.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s Statement. Belarus is the only country in Europe not to be part of the European Convention on Human Rights. The United Kingdom would become the second if we were to move on to the second round of Brexit, and it would cease to be a full party to the convention, as many Conservatives wish. I do hope that this will be reconsidered.

As many colleagues have said, Belarus is the only country in the world where the President is inaugurated in secret, and he is very close to his ally, President Putin. I hope that we will consider the whole question of how women are being treated in Belarus, with sexual violence, imprisonment and having other rights taken away, because the women are leading this campaign, and it is vital that they are given support.

Belarus has had arrests on a huge scale. The United Kingdom must go beyond recognising the Belarusian regime—we must review our relationship at every level, and we must pursue sanctions; otherwise, our credibility will be at stake. We must demonstrate solidarity continually with everyone, including those in the trade union movement. I end where I began: human rights are the heart of this matter.

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly highlights many of the reasons why the people of Belarus continue to protest for a better future. She mentioned the European Convention on Human Rights; we are committed to that and to protecting and championing human rights at home and abroad. I hope the noble Baroness is reassured that we are pursuing sanctions, and we will continue to demonstrate solidarity with the brave protesters. I spoke to our ambassador this morning, who talked me through all the different ways she is supporting the protesters: both laying wreaths and hosting some of the protesters at the embassy to give them a safe space to talk. Also, UK diplomats have attended the trials of political opponents and independent journalists to show solidarity. I agree with the noble Baroness that human rights are at the heart of this matter.

I welcome the Minister’s support for the critical investment in the BBC World Service. That was good to hear. Will the Minister also comment on the intervention of President Putin in the affairs of Belarus—with the threat to introduce what are effectively forces into the equation, if requested—and make it clear that the UK would not leave such an intervention without response?

My Lords, we are clear that foreign intervention here would be unacceptable. The international community must come together and help support a dialogue between the authorities in Belarus and its people. Russia has a role in supporting that, and we urge Russia to engage constructively.

My Lords, last November I was privileged to lead the Council of Europe mission to Belarus to observe the parliamentary elections there. We found, as every previous mission had found, that there were fundamental deficiencies in election law which prevented free and fair elections. This Wednesday, I was appointed rapporteur for electoral law reform in Belarus. Does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that while many people are understandably calling for new and fresh elections, these will still not be free and fair until we sort out the fundamental deficiencies and all the wrongs in election law in Belarus?

I very much welcome my noble friend’s appointment as the Council of Europe’s rapporteur, and thank him for his previous work observing parliamentary elections. My noble friend and the Council of Europe are doing incredibly important work in this area, and the Government support their efforts. I share his view that electoral reform is crucial for ensuring that the Belarusian people can exercise their voice through genuinely free and fair elections. Not only will our work with the OSCE investigation of vote-rigging and human rights abuses provide moral support, but its findings will provide practical support in making progress on this important work.

My Lords, this is a monstrous situation. The world must be rid of these thieves who rob citizens of their human rights. Our reputation, the reputation of democracy and what it stands for, and the effectiveness and future ability of official election monitoring are all dependent on it. Will the Minister, as a custodian of the rule of law and representing the UK as a Security Council member, commit to ensure that this despot stands aside?

My Lords, the UK has been consistent in its statements condemning the fraudulent elections and the violence by Belarusian authorities, and we called for a full investigation into the electoral human rights violations through the OSCE. The UK actually led the group which formally invoked the Moscow mechanism, which will trigger that independent investigation. I assure the noble Viscount that we will absolutely continue to stand up for the people of Belarus, in the Security Council, in the OSCE and at every opportunity we have.

My Lords, last night, I chaired a meeting of a number of people involved in a support committee for the Belarusian people. It was a group of lawyers and we were joined by leaders of the protest movement in Belarus and the leader of the human rights organisation there, Viasna. They strongly welcome the steps being taken by the United Kingdom. Our ambassador is a very important person in this, and has indicated that there should be support for civil society—that we in Britain should be supporting many of the organisations involved here: NGOs, independent journalists, trade unions and so on. Is resource being given to that end—to support civil society, because it is in difficulties? Will the sanctions regime that we have brought into being include sanctions against people close to the regime who have homes or resources in London, who are leading figures in the business community of Belarus, who are exporting, and so on? That is what the people of Belarus are calling for. Finally, children are being taken into state care as a way of punishing the women who are protesting. Something has to be said about the way that women are experiencing particular kinds of punishment, too.

It is really good to hear the noble Baroness’s reflections from her meeting last night and her praise for our ambassador over there, who, as I said, is working incredibly hard to support political opponents and independent journalists. We are working in partnership to support civil society, including independent media and human rights organisations. We have announced the doubling of support for civil society organisations, providing an additional £1.5 million for human rights, independent media and community groups in Belarus over the next two years. The noble Baroness highlighted the appalling activity against minors. We know that some of the women involved in opposition have had to flee the country to protect their children. We are expanding our support for victims of gender-based violence to include support for women and children who have been exposed to violence through the protests, and co-ordinating with the Council of Europe, the International Red Cross and other organisations to make sure that they have the resources they need to respond to the medical, psychological and social needs resulting from those human rights abuses.

Having been an observer of elections in a number of countries, I know how important a peaceful handover of power is when a Government loses an election. Will our Government do their best to ensure that all political leaders in Belarus understand this and, as we are working with our European partners and the USA on this difficult situation, will they make sure that Mr Trump understands that a peaceful handover applies to him too?

My Lords, of course we all want peace in Belarus, and we will continue in our efforts to bring that about. As I said, the Foreign Secretary was in Washington last week and discussed this with Mike Pompeo, and we will continue to support the calls for mediation and do everything we can to ensure that the people of Belarus are able to be represented in a free and fair way.

My Lords, I very much support all that has been said on this matter by your Lordships. I was particularly interested in the account of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, of her meeting last night. I wonder whether there is any possibility of court action in Belarus itself which could attack the nature of the election under which the present President seeks to hold on to his office.

My Lords, in addition to the civil society groups I mentioned, we are also speaking to lawyers in Belarus and ensuring that any measures we can take are followed through. We will continue those conversations with, and giving support to, that legal community.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests, specifically my role in the European Leadership Network. Since the crisis began, the ELN has twice convened a confidential dialogue on Belarus involving leading experts from 13 OSCE participating states, including Belarus itself, the United States, Russia and the Baltic states. Among diverse views, we found unanimous agreement on the importance of addressing the risks posed by the recent increase in the frequency, duration and proximity of military exercises undertaken by Russia, Belarus and NATO in the region, which could lead to an accident or miscalculation that proves the spark to a more serious confrontation. While I welcome the Statement, it is silent on regional security. Do the Government share that concern and agree that it is critical that we avoid that development at all costs?

My Lords, of course we want regional stability, and we are working closely with all our partners. The Foreign Secretary recently spoke to the Foreign Secretary of Lithuania, and we will continue to support both Belarus and its neighbours to see the regional peace we all want.

Forty years ago this month, the people of Poland were the first to break apart the Soviet communist empire, and Belarus remains one of the last vestiges remaining. When they did, the people of this country, the Government of this country and the TUC in this country led the way with practical and political support. Would it not be appropriate this time that the same organisations, and the Government backed by Parliament, led the way in the UN, the OSCE and elsewhere with practical, political and pragmatic support?

I completely agree with the noble Lord, and I would argue that we are leading the way with practical and political support. We led the way at the OSCE, bringing together countries to invoke the Moscow mechanism. We are supporting practically, with civil society organisations, and we will absolutely continue to do so.

My Lords, I return to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, about our support for NGOs and civic society. Like many noble Lords, I have seen difficult issues in Belarus—sometimes difficult and controversial historical issues—addressed by those organisations. They play an enormously important part in ensuring that the truth is confronted and recognised. I urge my noble friend to keep under constant review the support, both financial and moral, that we give to those organisations.

I thank my noble friend for highlighting the importance of that support, both moral and financial, and reassure him that we will absolutely continue, both on the ground in Belarus and from here in the UK. We must make sure that the opposition and civil society organisations have that support and, importantly, the media organisations, which are doing so much excellent work to counter disinformation. UK funding is going to provide training and support for those journalists and other media workers detained by the authorities and to help replace destroyed and confiscated equipment so that people can see the truth of what is happening.

I declare my interest as a vice-president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. My noble friend says that the Moscow mechanism has been triggered, but can she indicate whether the experts appointed to investigate matters will be allowed entry into Belarus, or will they try to conduct the investigation from outside the country? On a happier note, this week, the parliamentary assembly held a virtual meeting with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the head of the Belarusian delegation, a supporter of President Lukashenko. After initial recriminations about the past, there was a hint of willingness to talk about the future. Will my noble friend confirm that the Government will support all OSCE efforts to secure an initial dialogue without conditions to seek a way forward to meaningful and binding negotiations between government and opposition parties?

My Lords, we do not yet know whether the OSCE investigation will be able to access Belarus. We very much hope that it will, in order to be able to fulfil its independent investigation. The UN rapporteur has not been allowed access to the country, but we hope that they will be allowed access and will report back soon. My noble friend highlights the importance of parliamentary support, and I pay tribute to his and others’ work, which shows such good solidarity with the people of Belarus. I share his desire to see a binding and meaningful dialogue, and we will do all we can to help bring that about.

Sitting suspended.