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Belarus: Roman Protasevich

Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they are making to the government of Belarus regarding the emergency landing of a Ryanair flight in Belarus and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich.

My Lords, the Belarusian authorities’ forcible landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk to arrest a journalist, Roman Protasevich, is an appalling attack on human rights, media freedom and civil aviation. Yesterday, we summoned the Belarusian ambassador to express our deep concerns, suspended permits for Belavia flights to the UK, and advised UK airlines to avoid flying over Belarusian airspace. We are co-ordinating our response with allies and calling for the International Civil Aviation Organization council to meet urgently.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there was already great concern about rigged elections and the appalling treatment of hundreds of illegally detained political prisoners in Belarus? This state-sponsored piracy and the arrest takes it to a new level. While we welcome what the Government have already done in response to this, as the Minister has told us, particularly on air transport, much more needs to be done to get the release of Roman Protasevich, who is clearly being intimidated, and to stop the growing tyranny in Belarus. Will Her Majesty’s Government work with the European Union, the United States and other Governments to get strong, effective financial sanctions on Belarus and its sponsors in Russia, so that we hit them where it really hurts and where the City of London plays a key role?

My Lords, the Government agree and we are co-ordinating our response with all our allies and partners, including the US, the EU and other countries. The Foreign Secretary has discussed Belarus directly with the French, German and Lithuanian Foreign Ministers, and with the former Secretary of State and Vice-President of the US during his visit to Washington in September. The Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas has had extensive contact with Ministers in the Baltic states and Scandinavia and with state secretaries in the US and Germany. As noble Lords can imagine, those discussions have escalated dramatically in recent days.

My Lords, it is clearly vital that actions are synchronised in this appalling situation, especially on sanctions. We are hearing from the Belarusian protest leaders that they are working actively with the EU and US but have been unable to secure adequate contact with the UK, especially on sanctions relating to money through London. Can I link the Minister and his department to the relevant people, and can he tell me what formal structures the Government will now put in place to ensure that they work in lock-step with the whole of the EU on matters such as this?

My Lords, this outlandish action by Lukashenko will clearly have serious implications, and the Belarusian regime is going to have to feel the consequences. We are working with our allies on our response and will continue to consider all the options available to us to persuade the authorities to change their current course, including of course further sanctions. I cannot speculate publicly on any future designations but, as we demonstrated following the flawed elections last August in Belarus, the UK is ready to act.

My Lords, there should always be a role for diplomacy in resolving disputes, particularly if more pragmatic voices within that regime were willing to take positive steps forward. In the meantime, does the Government’s instruction to the Civil Aviation Authority that it must not issue any further ad hoc permits to carriers flying between the UK and Belarus cover everyone operating private aircraft in UK airports such as Farnborough, some of which sell seats online?

The advice issued via the NOTAM—the notice to airmen—applies to all registered air carriers, so all aircraft that are UK registered will be subject to the same advice in relation to not overflying Belarus as those carriers operating scheduled routes. Non-UK-registered non-scheduled aircraft, such as smaller commercial charters, still require a permit to fly to the UK and are captured by the decision made by Ministers yesterday.

Does the Minister agree that this egregious act is not just an isolated incident but part of a wider pattern of criminal outrages perpetrated by gangster regimes, which in this country alone has included murderous attacks with vile poisons and electronic attempts to subvert our democracy, and that what is required now is not just a strong and immediate response to the Belarus incident but a longer-term strategy to counter such regimes and thwart their malign purposes?

The Government strongly agree with the noble and gallant Lord’s comments. Our approach to tackling these escalating problems in Belarus, which go far further than the events of the past couple of days, is part of a broader approach that we take. In the interests of consistency, the UK transferred 95 designations from the EU on individuals and entities following the transition period, and we are very much working in collaboration with the EU and other partners.

Will Her Majesty’s Government not merely condemn the aviation piracy that we have seen but specify what action they are proposing to take against the Lukashenko regime and the Russian Government, who are affording the illegal regime in Belarus diplomatic cover after it fiddled its last election? Equally, if they are going to take economic sanctions, it is quite easy to take a sanction against the oil pipeline, which is giving an economic lifeline to an illegal regime.

My Lords, clearly, I cannot speculate publicly on future sanctions. We want to see a reformed Belarus that has a good relationship with Russia and other European partners. We recognise the likely role that Russia has played up to now in relation to Belarus and we have consistently impressed on Russia that violence, harassment and arbitrary detention has to stop. There must be a transparent and peaceful process to allow Belarusians to determine their own future.

My Lords, I was delighted to hear the Minister’s response about working with the EU as well as other allies. There has been some rather silly press coverage along the lines of: “The UK got there first.” The Minister, yesterday morning, namechecked NATO but could not bring herself to mention the EU. This seems an excellent opportunity for a reset to make co-operation with Brussels on foreign and security policy the norm. Will this opportunity be taken?

My Lords, on areas of mutual interest, there is no question that the UK should and will continue to work with all its allies, including, of course, the European Union. As I mentioned earlier, we transferred into UK law 95 designations from the EU. So, we start from the same place.

My Lords, a central tenet of the integrated review was the commitment of the United Kingdom to the international rules-based order. Yesterday was a crucial test of that. But surely—perhaps in contrast to other comments—yesterday was also the first test of security co-operation post Brexit. Does my noble friend not agree that the decisive nature of the UK’s action in complete lockstep with the European Union demonstrates that we passed that test?

I am sure the Minister will also agree with President Michel of the EU, who is obviously a past master in the art of irony and described Minsk’s approach as “playing Russian roulette”. I had the privilege of being part of a team monitoring the parliamentary election in Belarus, and I witnessed the 64 year-old President Lukashenko appoint his 22 year-old mistress, a former Miss Belarus, to parliament as an MP. That is his definition of democracy. I also point the Minister to the website of the embassy of Belarus to the United Kingdom, where it points out that we take third place after Russia and Ukraine for exports and third place after Russia and Cyprus for imports. So I suggest that our Government deal closely with the Governments of Cyprus and the Ukraine in unison and hit Belarus where it hurts.

My Lords, on the rigged election, the UK welcomed the hugely important report by Professor Benedek and supported all the recommendations, which is why we have called for fresh elections that meet international standards. We are considering next steps on further international investigations. I take the noble Lord’s point in relation to hitting Belarus where it hurts.

My Lords, I was pleased to hear what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday on concerted international action, which the Minister has repeated today. But we need to ensure that the United Kingdom, following what my noble friends have said, is doing all it can to hold the Lukashenko regime to account. So will the Government introduce sanctions against Belarus state-owned enterprises? What steps are the Government taking to stop the Belarusian Government using the London Stock Exchange as a means of funding their regime?

My Lords, I apologise for the repetition, but I am not able to speculate publicly on future designations. Our previous actions demonstrate the United Kingdom’s willingness to act and act quickly. Of course, that remains, and we are considering all options.

My Lords, the outrageous kidnap and detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega is the latest in a string of attacks by the Government of Belarus on anyone who is in a position to challenge or scrutinise them. What steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to protect the lives and safety of Belarusian journalists in a similar position? Will the Government consider providing temporary visas, where necessary, and creating a protected persons list of leading figures who are known to be targets of the Belarusian Government, as a deterrent and a statement of intent to protect?

The noble Baroness raises an enormously important point in relation to free media and civil society. As co-chair, with Canada, of the Media Freedom Coalition, the UK unequivocally condemns the attacks on free media, including the targeting, harassment and detention of journalists and media workers, which we have seen a fair bit of. We have increased financial support to independent media organisations and civil society; for example, in the last financial year we provided £1.5 million, and this year a further £1.8 million. Our funding provides training for journalists and supports media workers who have been detained by the authorities. Our support includes a joint UK-Poland initiative designed to help independent media counter disinformation.

My Lords, I am glad to hear the Minister refer to the media freedom project, which Britain has played a core role in. Special visas for journalists at risk, like the journalist who has been arrested here, would be an important step forward. I really want to press the Government on the use of targeted sanctions. There are a number of people who have not been included; for example, Mikhail Gutseriev is a hugely rich oligarch who lives in London, has premises here and is funding Lukashenko up to his ears. We should be doing something about him, and he should be on a list. Are the Government arranging to speak to the leader of the opposition in Belarus, who was due to meet the Foreign Secretary a couple of weeks ago, although the meeting had to be postponed? Is there going to be an urgent meeting in which they might be able to discuss what is taking place? There have been enforced deportations and tortures; are the Government considering a country referral to the International Criminal Court? Has the—

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary had a useful, positive discussion with opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya on 1 February. The Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas also spoke to her on 17 September last year. In relation to future sanctions, the UK uses sanctions as part of a broader political strategy—a comprehensive approach encompassing the full range of diplomatic actions. Of course, we continue to assess the impact, effects and appropriateness of that strategy against those objectives.