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Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what action he is taking, bilaterally and multilaterally, to put pressure on the government of Belarus (1) to restore democracy, and (2) to release political prisoners.

My Lords, the UK’s position is clear: the Belarusian regime must release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally and ensure free and fair elections. The UK has led international pressure on Belarus. We cofounded the International Accountability Platform for Belarus to build the evidence of the brutal repression that the regime is responsible for; we have sanctioned over 100 individuals and entities for human rights violations; and we cosponsored UN resolutions and investigations at the OSCE in Vienna to shine a spotlight on human rights in Belarus.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that Answer, as far as it goes, but we must never forget that Lukashenko and his regime supported the Russians in the illegal invasion of Ukraine. They have imprisoned over 1,500 people, including Stepan Latypov, who I have adopted under the Libereco adoption scheme, and those prisoners have no immediate prospect of release. Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s cronies are going around the world acquiring assets freely. The UK Government have said over the last two years that they are going to impose more individual sanctions on the Lukashenko cronies, but nothing has happened. Will the Government now look at increasing the sanctions to make sure that pressure is put on the Lukashenko regime?

I completely admire what the noble Lord has done to keep the spotlight on Belarus and the work that he and others on the all-party group have done; it is hugely to his and the House’s credit. We have sanctioned 182 individuals and entities. We keep looking at what more can be done. We never announce potential names or sanctions before we do them, for obvious reasons, but we keep it under review. I am looking at it very carefully. The noble Lord is right, and we should be clear: this is Europe’s totalitarian regime. They randomly confiscate people’s mobile phones to see who they have been contacting and what social media they are following. Trade unions have been dissolved and their leaders imprisoned. Waving a Ukrainian flag is against the law and can result in a jail sentence, and there are 1,500 political prisoners, so we absolutely agree with the aim of the noble Lord’s Question and we will keep using the sanctions and other tools as appropriate.

My Lords, I also welcome the Foreign Secretary to his position and I agree with him as regards the Belarus regime. I remind him of what he said in his famous immigration speech. He said that by introducing a new visa,

“we are rolling out the red carpet to those”

who offer serious investment to the UK. We now know that a number of Belarus businesspeople bought a large proportion of London property as a result of this golden visa route. I have supported every Belarus sanction that we have debated in this House, but there is nothing in the Government’s new development White Paper that offers any new support for human rights defenders or democracy activists within this conflict. Why is that? Can the Foreign Secretary reassure me that of those 182 individuals he mentioned not a single one continues to enjoy UK preferential visa access?

I make the point to the noble Lord, who asks an important question, that yes, of course, we introduced entrepreneur visas to try to attract bright talent to the UK to help to grow the economy, but that does not mean that we should give visas to people who have come by that money wrongly. One of the things I did as Prime Minister was to announce the London property register which is now coming in and will make a huge difference by confiscating people’s ill-gotten gains and returning them to the countries and the people from which they came so they can benefit. On the noble Lord’s specific question, I am very happy to take that away and look at it more, but it is important to recognise that we use the sanctions, we will keep using the sanctions, and we are watching closely what Belarus is doing.

My Lords, I also welcome the Foreign Secretary to his new role. I am glad to hear of his concern about political prisoners and the use of sanctions against those responsible, largely, for their being incarcerated. In that context, I raise the fact that Lukashenko is currently visiting China and President Xi. I am concerned as to whether we are making the same efforts in relation to the sanctioning of those responsible for imprisoning people; for example, in Hong Kong using the National Security Law. Jimmy Lai is there in prison, facing trumped up charges and he was a voice for democracy in Hong Kong. In the short period since he has been in office, has the noble Lord got to know about Jimmy Lai and is he raising his incarceration?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Yes, I am aware of the case of Jimmy Lai. It is very important that we raise such cases in interactions with the Chinese Government and that is exactly what I have done.

My Lords, perhaps I may bring the Foreign Secretary back to sanctions, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—I am also a godparent to one of the political prisoners in Belarus. I think that the Foreign Secretary will be aware of concerns about the loopholes that have been exposed in the sanctions. I think the House would like to know whether he is confident that, having identified them, the Government will be more effective in monitoring and enforcement. The sanctions will not be effective if they are not properly enforced and monitored and there will be very little point. Is he confident of their effectiveness? If not, what measures will he take to improve the position?

I thank the honourable Lady for her question—sorry, the noble Baroness; I will get there eventually. I have not asked the Foreign Office for a specific analysis of the weakness of the sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes that we put in place, but I am very happy to do so and see whether there are ways in which the system is not working. We must sense-check all these things. The International Accountability Platform for Belarus sounds like a terrible set of initials, but it is about making sure that we support all the NGOs and others in looking at all the human rights abuses in Belarus so that they are properly charted and written down and may be able to form the criminal case against people working in that regime in future. It is important to do that. I certainly take away the point made by the noble Baroness.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that President Lukashenko and President Putin are the only members of an exclusive club of leaders whose countries do not recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Does he share the view of the former Home Secretary that we should join that club?

I can point the noble Lord to speeches I made as far back as 2005 saying that we must always put our national interest first, whether in the need to deport dangerous terrorists or to have an immigration policy that works for our country. I believe that is consistent with remaining in the ECHR. However, as I found when Prime Minister, there are occasions when the ECHR makes judgments as it did on prisoner votes. It said that it was essential that we legislated instantly to give prisoners the vote; I said that I did not think that was the case and that it should be settled by the Houses of Parliament. The ECHR backed down. That sort of flexibility may well be necessary in future.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary will be aware that the incredibly evil and vile Wagner Group was allowed to move to Belarus after the mutiny in Russia was resolved. Does he share my concern about this? Will he raise this with the US Secretary of State when he sees him next week?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Belarus has been the No. 1 supporter of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and it should be held to account for that. I am certainly happy to raise that with Secretary Blinken when I see him this week.

My Lords, I take the Foreign Secretary back to a previous answer he gave about the property register, which is a very important step forward in understanding whether corrupt individuals from Belarus or elsewhere are buying property in the UK. He may be aware of concerns that people can still hide behind beneficial trusts. As Foreign Secretary, will he work with his colleagues in government to try to get us to the next stage of transparency so that corrupt individuals cannot buy property and hide their ownership?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, which I am very happy to take away. The Government I led and this Government have made progress on that. As he said, we have the register of property. A number of properties have been taken back from their owners and that money has been returned to the countries from which it was stolen. Added to that, we have the registers of beneficial ownership, including the public registers of beneficial ownership that I announced at the G8 in 2013. We are making huge progress on that globally and with our overseas territories. We need to do the same with our Crown dependencies. All this is essential if we are to fight corruption.