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Republic of Belarus (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021

Volume 815: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Republic of Belarus (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021.

My Lords, 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 to the financial, trade and aviation sectors.

The regulations we are debating today revoke and replace the Belarus sanctions regulations laid in August 2021. These contained an error that had the effect of deleting a prohibition on the transfer of restricted technology to Belarus; this means military and interception or monitoring technology, and technology used for internal repression. The regulations we are debating today correct this error. I can assure noble Lords that there was no continuity gap between the effects of the two regulations.

The Government, along with international partners, decided to increase targeted sanctions because the situation in Belarus continued 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 a journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his partner Sofia Sapega. Lukashenko sent a MiG fighter jet to force the Ryanair plane to land, endangering not only Protasevich and Sapega but everyone 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 our 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 Organization 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 United Kingdom supports all those working for a more democratic future for Belarus. As such, we were delighted to welcome Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition, to the UK on 3 August. During her visit, Ms Tsikhanouskaya met the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Minister for Europe, who reiterated our support. Ms Tsikhanouskaya emphasised the need for further sanctions on the Belarusian regime and commended the UK for taking action.

The instrument we are debating today 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 people of Belarus, who are suffering under authoritarian rule.

The measures introduced by this instrument are as follows. They prevent any UK business from trading goods and services with Belarus in sectors that are key sources of revenue for the Lukashenko regime. They also limit the regime’s access to items that could enable the internal repression of the Belarusian population. The measures cover potash, petroleum products, interception and monitoring goods and technology. They also cover goods used in cigarette manufacturing and dual-use goods and technology for military use. We have also imposed a prohibition on the provision of 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 measure puts additional pressure on the Belarusian regime, including by preventing future Belarusian government bonds 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 it removes a licensing ground under the arms embargo that permitted the export of biathlon rifles.

The aviation measures prohibit Belarusian air carriers from overflying or landing in the UK. This continues the temporary measures that 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 this came into force in August, we have made a further designation under the Belarus sanctions regime under this criterion.

UK sanctions actions, 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 aim to discourage the regime from actions, policies or activities that repress civil society in Belarus, and encourage it to comply with international human rights law.

I should note that we regularly review sanctions and would consider lifting them if we saw significant progress. However, in the case of Belarus, we have seen no progress; in fact, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Sanctions are most effective when implemented in co-ordination with international partners. 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, sanctions work best when combined with other diplomatic and economic measures. The UK has assisted independent media and civil society 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. These 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 this opportunity to hear the views of noble Lords on these regulations, and I commend them to the Committee.

My Lords, I welcome these sanctions. In part, I welcome them because I speak both as a Member of this House and as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In that capacity, I had the great privilege, in November 2019, of going to Belarus as part of a team monitoring the parliamentary elections—although to describe them as either “parliamentary” or “elections” is stretching the definitions rather a long way. At the end of a rather interesting day, we were, on the one hand, watching ballot box stuffing, but, on the other hand, being kept as far away as possible from where the counting was going on—so we could not actually see anything.

In the last polling station that I and my Armenian colleague went to, at the end of a very long day, I witnessed five candidates on the ballot paper. They had a photograph of each candidate and a brief description. There were four males of indeterminate age, all looking rather similar, and a much younger, very attractive woman. Who came top of the ballot for that constituency? Surprise, surprise—the young woman. The young lady in question turned out to be the—at that time—22 year-old Maria Vasilevich, an ex-Miss Belarus, which was one of her qualifications for being elected. The second qualification—and perhaps the clincher—is that she was the current mistress of the then 64 year-old President Lukashenko. Our Prime Minister has a way of putting his friends into this House; President Lukashenko has his own way of putting his friends into their Parliament.

I should say in addition that the UK delegation to the parliamentary assembly is very concerned about the situation in Belarus and is committed to trying to help. Quite a few of us have adopted prisoners in Belarus who are currently suffering; we write letters and hope that they get through to them and their families. Just this morning, the leader of the UK delegation to the parliamentary assembly, John Howell, Conservative MP for Henley, sent me a WhatsApp message saying that he has just adopted a lady called Iryna Zlobina, who is in prison because she was guilty of collecting money to go towards paying the legal expenses of those who had been arrested for taking part in what the Government regard as illegal demonstrations. She is now serving time in prison.

On these sanctions, I welcome the fact that this has resulted from working closely with the EU. Her Majesty’s Government, for various reasons we will not go into, seem to have a slightly tortured, love-hate relationship with the European Union at the moment—clearly, something fishy is going on. It is incredibly important that we work in lockstep with the EU; President Lukashenko is hoping above all that the unity among those appalled by what he is doing will fracture over time because we have not got our act together and are not acting as one. Please remember that.

There is an opportunity to take further action against the families of some individuals who have vast sums of money, some of which is domiciled in the UK, usually through offshore companies. The son of a gentleman called Mikhail Gutseriyev—a Russian oligarch who is very involved in Belarus—who is a UK citizen and, even worse, I am ashamed to say, an old Harrovian, for some strange reason happens to own a £40 million office block in London. It is not immediately obvious why, but I suppose that is the sort of thing one happens to have if one has a very rich father and access, through the Panama papers, to all sorts of offshore trusts. We could and should do more to demonstrate that that sort of egregious behaviour by extended families of clearly corrupt people will not be tolerated by this country.

I also ask that we continue to support the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as much as possible to make sure that she has the support and funding to carry out her important work in Belarus and that human rights observer groups are supported. Every time we hear of arrests, intimidation and egregious events such as that, we must not stay silent but must say something. It will get noticed.

Finally, the impossible-to-pronounce leader of Free Belarus—I have written it out phonetically; I might let the noble Earl borrow it next time—Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is the wife of the opposition leader who was going to run in the election, as noble Lords will know, until President Lukashenko decided the easiest way to win was to put his main opposition rival in prison, which is quite a neat way of doing it. It is very important that we formally recognise her as the effective leader of Free Belarus and assist her, invite her over here, and engage with and listen to her as much as possible. That is all I have to say.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, with his direct experience of his visits to Belarus; it was fascinating to hear about that. I have not been to Belarus but am active in the All-Party Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty; we have sought to engage with those brave individuals, including former parliamentarians, who have sought to work with us for the abolition of the death penalty there. Belarus is the only country in wider Europe which retains it. I understand that four people were executed in 2018.

That is one element of a whole range that the noble Earl indicated in justification of these measures, which I and my party support. The justification is not only in the high-profile events we have seen in recent months but, as the noble Lord alluded to, in a pattern of practice which is diminishing democracy, reducing people’s ability to have properly elected representatives and opening up the concern that there will be internal repression of its own people.

That is why, therefore—this is where there is a slight tone of regret—we are debating a measure that is correcting a previous measure. This is not the first time that we have engaged when the Minister has come to correct measures. However, he does it very well. I do not mean that sarcastically; he is very willing to engage and speak with Members when areas have been highlighted. Of course, mistakes happen—that is without question—but, given that the omission was on the military, internal repression, interception and monitoring technologies that were deleted by the measure in error, that highlights an issue with regard to checking these measures before they come into force but also before they are laid before Parliament.

The Minister pre-empted one of my questions—on whether there had been a gap in any of the continuity. He said that there had not. I was confused by the fact that, when looking at the timeline of the previous order, SI 2021/922, which this corrects, I saw that it stopped being law on 19 October, while this measure came into force on 14 October. I simply did not know why there were five days when there were two competing orders, but maybe it is not an issue. It may be that the more recent one trumps the previous one, but I am certainly not sure when it comes to that approach as to those periods. But that is academic, if there were no concerns.

Of course, these measures are not for the policing of those people who wish to operate fully with transparency and integrity. These measures are to protect people who seek to circumvent human rights and proper governance, so it is worth asking the question.

For the many people who sometimes belittle the role of parliamentary scrutiny, I commend the Joint Committee on its review of these instruments and on highlighting the error and reporting it to the House for action. I am glad that the department acknowledged that—I believe it was immediately—in its memorandum, and brought forward the other measures for this consideration. So I am pleased.

I have two technical questions to ask the Minister. On one, he very kindly spoke to me beforehand and, on the other, he may not have the answer to hand, so I would be perfectly happy if he wanted to write to me. When I was looking at the Government’s information for businesses, on the operation of these sanctions, I saw the section on immigration and Immigration Rules, and how it affects individuals who may have leave to enter or remain in the UK. It will not apply to UK citizens, of course, but it will apply to those who seek to carry out business activities in the UK. The measures impose a travel ban on certain designated people from the Secretary of State for the purpose of the immigrations sanctions under the sanctions Act. Is that in force for many nationals of Belarus? I hope that there is no loophole in the operation of these sanctions for trade or on the Home Office Immigration Rules. Can the Minister reassure me that there is integrated working between the FCDO and Home Office with regards to those for the travel ban or those who are refused leave to enter or remain in the UK?

My second question relates to an issue that I raised with the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, when we debated the regulations around dual-use exports and the licences for many of the technologies that are banned under these sanctions. Part of the UK—Northern Ireland—operates the EU licencing scheme, and I asked the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, for reassurance that we were not inadvertently operating loopholes where there were two different systems: either the UK or the European Union dual-use licensing systems for exports. The Minister reassured me at the time—and I suspect that there will be reassurance now—that there is no loophole because we are working in concert with the European Union, as the Minister said, which is reassuring. However, I believe it is worth asking, because—notwithstanding the protocol—we are now in the realm of always having to ask whether the sanctions regime and the licensing systems for one part of the UK are in concert with the other parts of the UK. If the Minister can reassure me on those two aspects, I shall be grateful.

My Lords, as the Minister said, the regulations before the Committee maintain the current sanctions on Belarus but extend the measures and amend a series of errors in the previous regulations. I reiterate that these measures, and certainly this SI, have the full support of the Opposition.

As I told the House during a debate in July, the Government’s policy towards Belarus should be to stand with the incredible defiance shown by activists and opposition leaders. I not only hope that these instruments are a signal of that but echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, that it is important that our voices in this Parliament are heard by those people in Belarus. It certainly has an impact, and we need to make sure that that is the case.

As the Minister highlighted, the situation in Belarus has deteriorated. It took a sinister turn in May when a Ryanair flight was forcibly diverted to Minsk so that pro-democracy activists could be arrested. Obviously, as is pointed out in the explanatory note to the instrument, human rights in general have deteriorated even further in the country. I was therefore pleased that last week the United Kingdom’s representatives at the United Nations signed a joint statement calling on the Lukashenko regime to end its repressive practices. However, such statements have to be paired with co-ordinated action.

On some specific points in the regulations before the Committee today, as the Minister noted earlier, the purpose of this order is to correct previous errors while adopting additional measures in response to the deteriorating behaviour of Lukashenko and his regime. The financial sanctions under Part 3 are particularly welcome given, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, reminded us, the extensive reports of dirty money from Belarus in London. What is the Government’s assessment of that, and in particular of the Belarusian Government’s use of the London Stock Exchange for financing purposes?

On Part 5 of the regulations, which relate to Belarusian aircraft, as the Minister highlighted, can he confirm or advise the Committee what support the Government have offered to the Civil Aviation Authority, both to advise and to exercise these new responsibilities? Needless to say, as the noble Lord reminded us, these measures are effective only if implemented jointly and as widely as possible. In those circumstances, can the Minister tell us about what our response is to the ongoing disagreements between some members of the EU on this in particular? What steps are the Government taking to encourage counterparts to apply the sanctions to Belarus in full?

Given the analysis that many international sanctions on potash, Belarus’s main export, affect only a small proportion of potash products, can the Minister advise the Committee whether that assessment is correct and whether these regulations go far enough?

Global sanctions can be one of the most effective tools at our disposal to bring pressure on the regime, and I am glad that many measures are also being implemented by other national Governments but, if the UK is to stand for the people of Belarus, the Government’s policy must extend beyond these measures. We need to ensure that there is ongoing, co-ordinated international pressure at the UN and other multilateral institutions, particularly working with the European Union, to ensure that pressure is put on the Lukashenko regime and we stand by the side of the brave activists and opposition leaders.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s insightful and timely discussion, and I should like to address the important questions they have raised. The noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Purvis and Lord Russell, all mentioned in their own way how this is affecting the individuals in Belarus—whether in the Opposition or the media—and the whole of civil society, and how important it is that we give whatever help we can. As I said earlier, we have increased our funding in that area to try to improve the situation as much as we can, but as all noble Lords all said, it is a pretty dire situation that we find ourselves in.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Russell, for his tales from the ballot box, which were very interesting, and enlightened us, as he gave the Committee his first-hand experience of what happened in the elections. He and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also mentioned how important it is to have regular discussions with our partners. I can confirm to all noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the European Union in particular—that we have continuous discussions with the European Union, the United Nations, and our partners in the sanctions, including the US and Canada, and the sanctions are continually kept under review.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, started his speech by talking about the death penalty, and he knows quite well the position of this country—this Government and all parties in this country—that we abhor the use of the death penalty in any circumstance. He also mentioned two particular issues relating to immigration and travel bans. The travel ban operates through the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act and regulations made under it, which allow us to make people excluded persons for the purposes of the Immigration Act. I hope that clarifies the point for him. He also considered the timeline of the orders. They did not overlap as such; one order revoked the other.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also mentioned dual-use goods and Northern Ireland. I have some lines on that, but if there is anything more that can be contributed, I will write to him. The regulations apply across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland—but I will check that there is nothing more we need to add to that.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the London Stock Exchange. The new regulations prohibit dealing with bonds issued by the Republic of Belarus after the sanctions came into force where they have a maturity exceeding 90 days. This includes a prohibition on assisting in issuing such a bond.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, mentioned potash imports from Belarus. He asked why the UK has only partially banned potash imports and why all potash tariff codes are not included. These measures are carefully targeted to build pressure on Lukashenko, state institutions and those around him, while minimising—this is the important thing—any unintended consequences on the wider population in Belarus and the UK economy. He also mentioned support for the CAA. The Department for Transport work closely with the CAA on sanctions implications—so there are ongoing discussions with the CAA when sanctions are imposed. If I have not answered all the questions, I will of course read Hansard and reply to any I have missed.

As I set out in my opening speech, the regulations give us the power to impose sectoral sanctions with real impact, which is magnified in co-ordination with our international partners. They 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. This includes those who provide support for, or obtain an economic benefit from, the Government of Belarus who have not been designated previously. They demonstrate that the UK will not stand by in the face of the regime’s unacceptable behaviour; that we are ready and willing to act as part of a network of liberty and will stand with those who believe in democracy. I beg to move that the Committee has considered the regulations.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.47 pm.