Belarus: Elections

Lord Collins of Highbury Excerpts
Thursday 22nd July 2021

(3 months ago)

Grand Committee

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for securing this debate. He made an extremely interesting contribution, based on long experience. But here we are, out of the EU, trying to engage over a problem in our neighbourhood. So I first ask the Minister: are there any plans yet for a formalised structure so that we can co-operate and gain support from the whole of the EU on foreign affairs, or are we doomed to have to make individual approaches to one country after another, in the middle of the many other issues that we have to deal with? We know that the EU would have been happy to have such an arrangement. I am glad that we now recognise the EU ambassador as such; I commend the Minister for any efforts he made in that regard.

We have the challenge of the elections in Belarus. Such outcomes are not unknown, of course, but then we have the absolutely extraordinary situation of, in effect, the state-sponsored hijacking of a European commercial airliner. On its way from Athens to Vilnius, it was diverted by military planes and forced to land and hand over two of its passengers, who were then taken into detention and later showed signs of abuse. This was in our neighbourhood. Dealing with this is indeed immensely challenging. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said about engaging with Russia, but I also note what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said about individually supporting prisoners of conscience in Belarus so that they feel less alone.

On the election, in September 2020, 17 countries—including the UK, the US and France, as members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—invoked the “Moscow mechanism” to investigate possible human rights abuses in Belarus at the time of the election. The Moscow mechanism rapporteur presented his report in November 2020, concluding that

“allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”

He stated that new elections should be organised according to international standards. We know that this has not happened and that the President makes no moves to do so, despite widespread protest in his country. Opposition leaders have been arrested or have fled.

In May 2021, this was followed by the hijacking of the Ryanair plane and the arrest of Roman Protasevich, along with his girlfriend. Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, which sought to promulgate news even when the Government were imposing blackouts. Sanctions have been imposed by both the EU and the UK. Can the Minister tell us what effect these may be having and whether the Government are considering further action? In response to the arrest, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described it as a “domestic affair of Belarus”. I note the polling evidence from Belarus, cited by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on what relationship people wish to see with both the EU and Russia.

On 8 June 2021, the EU delegation to Belarus, together with the embassies of the UK, the US, Switzerland and Japan, issued a joint statement after meeting the Belarusian Foreign Minister. They called on Belarus to halt the persecution of all those engaged in pro-democracy movements, independent media and civil society, and to start a credible and inclusive political process resulting in free and fair elections. Can the Minister tell us what the response was, if any?

The Foreign Secretary has expressed concerns about Belarus becoming even more of a client state of Russia. Can the Minister comment on the implications of those concerns? Do the Government see merit in what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said? What further action does the Minister feel can be taken? This is an unstable and concerning situation right on EU borders. It certainly needs European countries to co-operate and strategically work out how best to put pressure on the current leadership in Belarus.

It is difficult not to see Putin’s leadership in Russia as a major block even if he is seeking to defend himself against the West, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. Putin’s interests in destabilising the West and the pumping out of disinformation and dissent, whether about vaccines or other matters—they can so easily be spread through social media—serve as a warning, as the integrated review emphasised. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, made the point well: autocrats traditionally find enemies without in order to shore themselves up at home.

Clearly, we need to work closely with our EU partners, as well as the USA, on this matter. This crisis, like others around the world, is unresolved when we have so many issues on which we need to work together, not least in tackling climate change.

I am sure that the Minister is looking forward to his summer holiday. Who knows what foreign affairs crises may emerge during that time? That said, I wish him a peaceful and hopefully enjoyable summer. I thank him and his team for their engagement. I also wish the same to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the other noble Lords here, as we conclude the last debate in Grand Committee before the Summer Recess.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, picking up on that last point, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in wishing everyone a happy, peaceful and restful Summer Recess.

In the past year, since the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, we have seen the incredible defiance shown by activists and opposition leaders. Here I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Foulkes, who has been consistent in raising the cases of individual opposition leaders and activists. As he said, we need to ensure that they know that they are not alone and that their voices are heard. The mass protests have been met with violent repression and attacks against the Belarusian opposition. Noble Lords have referred to the absolutely outrageous forced landing of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius basically to kidnap two passengers. The UK Government have been right to impose sanctions along with our allies, but much more needs to be done to support the people of Belarus.

Of course, in February and May this year, we had short debates on this question. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised the OECD report, the Moscow mechanisms and the actions. In both February and May, the Minister responded to those Questions; I hope that he can give us a more detailed update on exactly where we are with the full implementation.

Of course, one of the other things that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and my noble friend referred to was the Council of Europe. Belarus is the only European country to be excluded from it—because of its appalling human rights record—yet, unlike Russia, it has not invaded two neighbouring countries or poisoned people on British soil. I hope that, in responding, the Minister can also tell us what has happened to the implementation of the Russia report; we have yet to see that happen. Of course, while we need to co-operate with countries on important issues, we also need to ensure that they understand our determination to stand up for international law and agreements.

I know what the Minister will say if I mention sanctions and the fact that London is still the home for a lot of corrupt moneys. I know that the mantra that is normally repeated is, “We do not talk about prospective sanctions”, but I hope that he can tell us a bit more about our discussions with allies about how we can co-operate, including on the initiatives raised by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in terms of debt relief and IMF policies. They are really important.

However, we need to stand up for the rights of the Belarusians better. The UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur has warned of

“a full-scale assault against civil society, curtailing a broad spectrum of rights and freedoms”.

We hope that we will absolutely focus on the conditions that Roman Protasevič has been subjected to; I hope that we will ensure that our diplomatic staff monitor that situation as effectively as possible. I also hope that the Minister will be able to report on recent steps at the UN for this particular action. Also, what assessment have the Government made of the recent attacks on civil society, including on trade union organisations?

Finally, I repeat the call from all noble Lords to use all available means to ensure and push for new democratic elections. Earlier this week, Belarus’s main opposition leader met the US Secretary of State. The US Government are encouraging support for a democratic resolution. Could the Minister tell us what recent discussions the Government have had with our allies on collective steps to support fresh elections in Belarus? Finally, I once again join the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in wishing everyone a good, long and peaceful Summer Recess.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their valuable contributions. The Government share the many concerns that have been raised in today’s debate about the situation in Belarus. I hope that my comments and responses to the questions asked provide further clarity on many of the salient points that were made.

As noble Lords acknowledged, it has been almost 12 months since the presidential election in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manipulated that process for the sole purpose of ensuring that Alexander Lukashenko retained his grip on the structures of power he has held since 1994. To be frank, there was nothing democratic, free or fair about those elections. Such was Lukashenko’s fear of a genuine, open, contested popular presidential election that other candidates and their supporters were jailed during the campaign. Others were prevented even from registering as potential candidates. As a consequence, I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and his consistent raising of such issues. I will come on to political prisoners, in a moment.

We saw tens of thousands courageous Belarusians take to the streets in peaceful protest, whose voices were suppressed simply because they called out their right to determine how they are governed. Lukashenko’s regime has flatly refused to listen to them. Instead, it launched a brutal and sustained crackdown against peaceful protesters, democratic opposition leaders and supporters, as well as independent media, journalists and civil society. It has been a devastating assault on democratic principles and the rule of law, and it continues to this day.

The consequences for the Belarusian people have been extraordinary and the scale of the brutality is truly shocking. Just reflect on what has happened since: more than 35,000 people arbitrarily detained, more than 550 people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, the forced expulsion of opposition leaders and countless credible reports of physical mistreatment and torture by security forces, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in her report to the Human Rights Council in February 2021.

As noted by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, this shameful charge sheet existed before we even consider the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 on 23 May and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Protasevič and his partner or the raids on human rights organisations. I know the noble Lord, Lord Collins, feels passionately about the role of civil society organisations, and rightly so. Sadly and tragically, those raids included the detention of members of the internationally respected NGO Viasna.

Noble Lords are aware of the role of Russia, which was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Balfe in his opening remarks. Russia and Belarus have close historical, cultural and economic ties, and Russia has been one of the few countries to continue to back Lukashenko. Putin was one of the first leaders to congratulate him on his alleged electoral victory. He also continues to host visits from Lukashenko and has provided more than $1.5 billion of loans, amid talk of closer economic integration. Clearly, Russia has influence on Lukashenko, but we do not foresee Putin using his influence constructively—as alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley—to resolve any human rights issues in Belarus peacefully or to address the injustices around last year’s flawed election.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised the specific issue of those who are prisoners and have been imprisoned in Belarus simply for exercising their right to peaceful expression. He mentioned the case of Stepan Latypov and the recent charges and sentences imposed against political prisoners. They are indeed tragic examples of the repressive actions of the Belarusian authorities, which are criminalising opposition voices for the sole purpose of protecting Lukashenko’s regime. I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Government continue to call on the authorities to release all those wrongfully imprisoned and bring an end to the crisis through peaceful and inclusive dialogue.

The UK equally supports new elections that are free and fair. We welcome the important work of my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who has undertaken it as the rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; we appreciate its work on the need for widespread and achievable electoral reform in Belarus. To support this objective, we are implementing sanctions, which I will come on to in a moment. However, on the specific question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on Mr Latypov and others, I assure the noble Lord that, through our embassy, we have made repeated requests for access to him and the other prisoners being held. I will ensure that I keep the noble Lord updated on any progress in this regard.

My noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the issue of Russia. Notwithstanding our differences, it is important that we continue to engage in dialogue. We do so: we have raised the situation in Belarus in our discussions with Russia. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary did so with Foreign Minister Lavrov on 17 June. The Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas also discussed Belarus during her visit to Moscow last November and in her recent discussions with the Russian ambassador on 5 July.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, also talked about partnership and joint working, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. The UK has responded to events in Belarus swiftly, robustly and in lockstep with our international allies and partners, particularly France, Germany and the United States. It was the UK, on behalf of 17 participating states, that invoked the independent investigation under the OSCE Moscow mechanism.

It was no surprise that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke of the need for international collaboration, not least with our closest neighbours in the European Union; she has been a long-term advocate, and I pay tribute to her in this respect. We continue to work in a co-ordinated fashion with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Indeed, earlier today, we saw how concerted action has also taken place in response to the other challenges we face. On the broad issue of human rights, we have acted in concert with both NATO and EU colleagues, as well as the United States and other like-minded partners.

The independent report produced by the OSCE Moscow mechanism has also shown and produced a series of recommendations, which provide a pathway to peaceful resolution and free and fair elections. To deliver on the report’s recommendation of a mechanism for a long-term investigation into the human rights violations, we are also working closely with Denmark and Germany to bring together a consortium of international NGOs to form the International Accountability Platform for Belarus. I can share with noble Lords that this platform now has the support of more than 20 states.

We have also worked very closely with the wider international community, co-sponsoring a new mandate to investigate human rights violations and acts of torture at the UN Human Rights Council in March, with a view to assisting accountability. That area was raised specifically by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in terms of continued multilateral action.

The Belarusian authorities believe they can operate in an environment of impunity, but accountability is clear: perpetrators of violations will be held responsible. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others have noted, we have already implemented sanctions—indeed, over 100 sanction designations in response to human rights violations and the suppression of democracy in Belarus. We have done so hand in glove with our closest international partners.

The UK, in co-ordination with Canada, was the first country to implement sanctions against the leadership in Belarus, including Lukashenko himself, during the immediate fallout from the election. Most recently, we implemented further sanctions on 21 June in co-ordination with Canada, the European Union and the US, following the diversion of flight FR4978 and the arrest of Roman Protasevich and his partner.

It is important that we continue to speak out on the international stage and shine a spotlight on what is happening in Belarus. That is why, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has noted, we initiated a G7 statement on Belarus, and, as co-chair of the Media Freedom Coalition, led 47 nations in the condemnation of attacks against journalists and the independent media in Belarus, as well as rightly honouring the Belarusian Association of Journalists for its continued courage, advocacy and work. The democratic opposition have also been courageous, fearlessly continuing their peaceful struggle for a democratic future.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of civil society. We have increased our financial support for civil society and independent media organisations to help develop and protect specific democratic ideals. We are very much looking forward to the forthcoming visit to the UK of prominent opposition activist, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The UK supports all those in Belarus who seek democratic change.

We call on the Belarusian authorities to cease their repressive campaign and enter into negotiations that can pave the way to electoral change. We want to see a reformed Belarus that has a good relationship with Russia and other European partners. We will continue to work with our partners to further urge Russia to impress on the Belarusian authorities the need to create space for political dialogue, including mediation by the OSCE. However, I fear there is unlikely to be a change in Russia’s stance towards Belarus any time soon, but our efforts and co-ordinated actions on this will remain.

I finally acknowledge and thank all noble Lords for their continued engagement and participation on this important issue. In responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I thank them for their continued support and direct engagement, as key voices for their respective parties in your Lordships’ House. I also thank all colleagues, across all Benches of your Lordships’ House, for engaging on the important and broader agenda of the policies, programmes and initiatives within my work, as the Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I reciprocate the best wishes for a restful, peaceful summer. We have all become used to being stars of the House of Lords on screens big and small, but I am sure we all very much look forward to some degree of resuming business as usual. I look forward to seeing colleagues—may I say friends?—in your Lordships’ House, once the Summer Recess has ended. Until that time, you have my best wishes for the summer.