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Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the state of democracy in Belarus.

My Lords, last year’s rigged presidential elections and Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown against those calling for change has resulted in a human rights crisis in Belarus. The Government have been at the head of the international response, prompting an independent investigation into violations through the OSCE, implementing sanctions and increasing support to civil society and independent media.

What timidity we have in the face of the longest-standing communist regime anywhere in the world. Where is the loudness of the voices, including our voice, so that the people in Belarus can hear them? What are we specifically going to do about the journalists recently jailed purely for reporting what the people are doing in Belarus?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that, as I have already said, we are working through the OSCE. There are specific recommendations from the OSCE which need to be implemented. We have consistently called for the release of all human rights defenders. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to media freedom. As leaders of the Media Freedom Coalition we have supported journalists, particularly those who have been imprisoned, and the noble Lord will note that the Association of Journalists in Belarus was given recognition for its work by Canada and the United Kingdom at last year’s Global Conference for Media Freedom.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the OSCE’s mechanism, and of course I welcome the UK-Canada joint statement from last week. However, can he tell us: of those recommendations, a large number of which relate to the actions of the Belarus Government, what are the international recommendations, where are we in terms of their implementation, and what are we doing to ensure that we get others to follow our lead?

My Lords, the noble Lord is again right to raise this issue. Last week we issued a joint statement on media freedom but also on the broader rights of human rights defenders, as well as calling for a cessation of the continuing raids, including on trade union offices. On specific actions we have taken already, we continue to use the mechanism of sanctions and are looking to act on it in accordance with other countries as well, and we will look at other measures we can take against Belarus while applying pressure on Russia, which of course supports the current regime in Belarus.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s support for the OSCE efforts, but in this instance there is a case for dialogue as well as sanctions. Have any Ministers met with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition currently in exile in Lithuania, and offered her any assistance to achieve dialogue with President Lukashenko’s regime? Secondly, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to support the chairman in office of the OSCE, who has offered, subject to Covid restrictions, to visit Minsk? I declare my position as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which is itself ready to support efforts to achieve dialogue on reform in Belarus.

My Lords, on my noble friend’s second question, we have already urged Belarus to co-operate directly with the OSCE on implementing the recommendations. On his first question, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged directly with the opposition leader to see how we can further assist her efforts.

My Lords, the police have been brutal in beating up protesters. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have not authorised the sale of any equipment to Belarus that could be used against protesters?

My Lords, I can confirm that to my noble friend. Further, I assure him that from August last year, any defence and security co-operation has been suspended by the Defence Secretary, and that the defence co-operation we did extend amounted to training, survival training and language training and was not specific to particular equipment.

My Lords, have the Government taken any measures to set up a formal arrangement with the EU so that we can jointly and more effectively address the situation both in Belarus and in Russia, and are we closer to giving proper recognition to the EU ambassador to the United Kingdom, which might also help?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second question I will revert to the House once I have confirmation as to the way forward. On her first question, we are working very closely with our EU partners, including at the Human Rights Council and at the OSCE, and we continue to engage directly with the likes of France and Germany on this matter.

My Lords, yesterday 17 year- old Nikita Zolotarev was sentenced to five years in a correction colony, having been beaten up and having had law enforcement use an electric-shock baton on him. Can my noble friend tell the House what specific steps the Government are taking to work with the United States and our EU allies to respond to these abuses aimed at children and teenagers?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we are working not just with the United States but, as I said in response to a previous question, with our EU allies on this issue. We need to bring direct pressure on the Belarus Administration, which we have done at the highest level through sanctions. However, we also continue to implore Russia to ensure that the elections which were held previously can be held again, and in a fair and transparent way.

My Lords, how does the Minister know that the OSCE and the United Nations are actively investigating both the election process and these human rights violations, including the brutal treatment of hundreds of detainees still going on? Can he also confirm reports of the building of an internment camp for political prisoners?

My Lords, on the noble Earl’s second point, we have been following media reports and our ambassador is following the situation closely. However, I assure him that there have been periphery meetings at the UN, and directly at the Human Rights Council in September, and we are now awaiting a report from the human rights commissioner on the situation on the ground, to be published in March.

My Lords, Belarus is the only European country to be excluded from the Council of Europe, largely because of its appalling human rights record, yet Belarus, unlike Russia, has not invaded two other neighbouring countries and has not poisoned people on British soil. Of course, the Council of Europe’s condemnation of Navalny’s imprisonment will be defied by Russia. Is there not a contradiction here? Are the Government in favour of Russia’s continued membership of the Council of Europe?

My Lords, Russia clearly has supported the regime in Belarus, including, I believe, through direct funding of $1.5 billion. We call on Russia to ensure that it allows transparency and elections to take place. Russia is an important country on the world scene and its continued engagement through multilateral fora is important—even where we disagree bilaterally, as we do on a number of issues.

My Lords, that is primarily a matter for the OSCE. However, the point the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, made with respect to Russia has to be considered by all members of the OSCE to ensure that each member state is adhering to the principles of whatever organisation they belong to.

My Lords, it is very clear that democracy in Belarus is in name only. President Lukashenko is no less than a dictator who has ruled Belarus for over a quarter of a century, ignoring the opposition political party and protesters and inflicting human rights atrocities. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that Belarus remains an independent republic and does not become part of Russia, which is its largest political and economic partner under the influence of Putin?

My Lords, we will continue to work with key partners and, as I said, through multilateral fora to ensure that there is a free, transparent election in Belarus which ensures the freedoms and rights of all its citizens.

My Lords, it seems that Mrs Tikhanovskaya spoke to the Foreign Secretary this month. Can the Minister say what our future relationship will be with Belarus, which was formerly White Russia and known for the purity of its people?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. As I indicated in response to an earlier question, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the leader of the opposition. As I have said on a number of occasions, we want to ensure that the rights of all communities and all citizens in Belarus are guaranteed, and the best way to do that is through free and transparent elections. We have taken measures such as sanctions, including imposing sanctions on Alyaksandr Lukashenko, his son, and six other members of the Belarusian senior Administration, and we will continue to read the situation on the ground and work with international partners in pursuit of this aim.