With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the situation in Belarus.
As the House will recall, on
The world has watched, frankly, in horror at the response of the Belarusian authorities. They launched a campaign of violence, intimidation and harassment against peaceful protesters. We have seen horrific scenes of militia attacking demonstrators and then dragging them away. UN human rights experts report that the authorities have beaten those that they held in detention and they have threatened female protesters with violence, including rape.
The Belarusian authorities have targeted journalists, including those of the BBC, and shut down the internet to hide their actions. Opposition leaders set up a co-ordination council to organise peaceful protests. In response, the authorities abducted, imprisoned and expelled all but one of the co-ordination council’s board members. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has been exiled to Lithuania, and prominent campaigner Maria Kolesnikova has been imprisoned and charged with destabilising the state. Only yesterday, Lukashenko was sworn in at a hastily organised and unannounced ceremony. Frankly, hiding his inauguration from the people of Belarus only serves to reinforce his wholesale lack of legitimacy.
The UK, the west and the world cannot sit idly by while the Belarusian people’s democratic and human rights are violated so brutally in clear violation of Belarus’s responsibilities as a member of the OSCE. For our part, the UK has worked with our key international partners, first, to promote a peaceful resolution, but also to condemn the actions of the Belarusian authorities and to hold those responsible to account. I discussed the situation and our response with Foreign Ministers from France and Germany at Chevening on
Let me be clear about the United Kingdom’s position and our approach. First of all, we do not accept the results of this rigged election. Secondly, we condemn the thuggery deployed against the Belarusian people. We have led the way, working with 16 of our international partners, so that on
We are willing to join the EU in adopting targeted sanctions against those responsible for the violence, the oppression and the vote rigging, although the EU process has now been delayed in Brussels. Given that delay and given Lukashenko’s fraudulent inauguration, I have directed the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s sanction team to prepare Magnitsky sanctions for those responsible for the serious human rights violations, and we are co-ordinating with the United States and Canada to prepare appropriate listings as a matter of urgency.
Next, we must support and strengthen civil society and the brave media outlets struggling to shine a light on the repression that we are seeing inflicted by the Belarusian authorities on their people. The Government have already been working with our partners in Belarus to that effect, but we must do more. I have doubled our financial support to human rights groups, independent media organisations and community groups, providing an extra £1.5 million over the next two years. That includes £800,000 of support for journalists in particular in Belarus. That UK funding will help train journalists, provide support to those who have been detained by the authorities and also help replace equipment that has been destroyed or confiscated. We will apply all the tools at our disposal to hold Lukashenko and his regime to account, and we call on him to engage in serious and credible dialogue with the opposition, via mediation, if necessary, in order to facilitate a peaceful outcome to the current crisis and one that reflects and respects the will of the Belarusian people.
If the authorities in Belarus fail to respond based on the outcome of the OSCE investigation, which we have triggered, we will consider further actions with our international partners. Our vision for global Britain means standing up for democracy and human rights. That is what we are doing in Belarus, and I commend this statement to the House.
Let me start by thanking the Foreign Secretary for this statement and for advance sight of it. It is rare, but it matters when we agree with one another in all parts of the House. It sends a message to the people of Belarus that this whole House stands with them on their right to choose their own destiny, and to resist interference in their elections and freedoms from anywhere, wherever it comes from. That is why we believe he is right to focus support on the people of Belarus and to focus on tackling the human rights abuses—the tear gas, detentions and beatings—we have seen in recent weeks. I know he will also be as concerned as I am about reports of torture, so perhaps he will take this opportunity to reaffirm his Government’s commitment to upholding the Geneva convention. I want to pay particular tribute to those brave women who have stood up in recent days to the armed, masked men and shown the face of courage to the world. When they defend democracy and stand up for freedom, they stand up for us all and they must have our support.
We very much support the Foreign Secretary’s efforts to work with allies to impose Magnitsky sanctions on those involved. Has he had discussion with counterparts about including Lukashenko in these measures? Has he made any progress in ensuring that corruption is in the scope of the Magnitsky legislation that this House recently passed? I welcome the funding the Foreign Secretary has provided to human rights organisations, but will he tell the House what he is doing to protect academics? Is he exploring increasing the number of Chevening scholarships to Belarusians? Has he considered measures to support protesters who have lost their jobs or been blacklisted for the stance they have taken? He will know from his previous work that there is more than one way to harass, intimidate and silence people into compliance, and taking away livelihoods has always been one chief way in which dictatorships seek to silence people. I am particularly concerned about members of the arts and cultural community, more than 50 of whom have been detained, with a greater number having lost their livelihoods. What active steps is the British embassy taking to protect writers and other cultural figures, as well as others involved in the protests, from interference?
The BBC Russian service is a key source of impartial information for the people of Belarus. I am very concerned about the potential for both funding cuts to the World Service and the targeting of its journalists. So will he commit to ensuring that Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office funding for this service is protected in any upcoming spending review? What is his Department doing to support BBC journalists and protect them from attacks on them and their families? Has he had any discussions with the Home Secretary about provision for Belarusians seeking asylum in the UK? Will he take this opportunity to reiterate the UK’s support for free and fair elections around the world? I welcome his announcement about the OSCE today. Will he commit to ensure that we play our part in continuing to provide funding to uphold democracy abroad and security at home?
As the Foreign Secretary moves forward with sanctions, this underlines the importance of the UK safeguarding against the UK and our overseas territories providing a safe haven for money obtained through corruption and human rights abuse—blood money, as he called it. So what progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Russia report? The Government have been silent on that matter since it was published before the summer recess.
Finally, one of the leading figures in the Belarusian opposition council said recently that more than the prospect of detention what he fears is the prospect that nothing will change. We send a message from all parts of this House today that we stand with him and with those who are defending freedom and democracy, in Belarus and around the world.
I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her statement and her support. It is powerful for all Members, on all political sides of the House, to stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and I welcome that support. Like her, I am appalled at the arbitrary detention and the abuse of protesters in detention, including any activity that amounts to torture or inhumane and degrading treatment. We absolutely stand for the absolute prohibition of torture, as reflected in various human rights treaties to which we are a party.
The hon. Lady referred to sanctions, and we are consider the whole range of potential individuals. She also mentioned corruption, which she will know is not covered by the Magnitsky sanctions; they deal with a slew of the most serious human rights violations, although they do cover those who might profit from those human rights abuses. I can tell her that I am looking carefully at how we extend the next step of the Magnitsky sanctions to corruption and similar types of offences—I will say more about that in due course.
In terms of money for civil society, including journalists, we have doubled that amount of money, as I explained, and will look very carefully at how it is targeted, not just to journalists, but to writers and the members of the arts that the hon. Lady described. I will not pre-empt the comprehensive spending review, notwithstanding her deft attempt, but I can tell her on media freedom that we have a campaign that we do side by side with the Canadians, which is encouraging those countries that are willing to sign up to new legislation, and also providing support to journalists who are either in detention or have litigation against them. That is progressing. We have worked very hard with the Canadians on it, and the numbers joining that media freedom campaign have grown.
Finally, the hon. Lady asked about the OSCE. I can tell her that obviously we work very carefully with our partners in the OSCE. It was the United Kingdom that pushed for the Moscow mechanism to get an international review both into the human rights abuses and the vote rigging, and we are proud of the role we play with our partners.
It is a great pleasure to hear the statement from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has laid out an impressive, decent and strong series of proposals, and it is very pleasing to hear the Opposition agree as well. Building on the discussions that he has so clearly had with various of our allies, what conversations has he had with Germany? I raise Germany, in particular, because the Nord Stream 2 project that is currently going through is allowing the Russian Government to salami-slice our eastern neighbours and friends one by one, and what we are seeing in Belarus could easily happen in other countries. Although Belarus is the last country in the world still to have an active KGB, we hope that it will not become the first of many to have an active SVR base very soon.
I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him and the work of his Committee. I had a detailed discussion on this with Heiko Maas, my German opposite number, at Chevening, along with Jean-Yves Le Drian, my French opposite number. We have made it clear, as my hon. Friend will know, that we have our reservations and concerns about Nord Stream 2, both from the point of view of its encouraging European energy dependence on Russia, but also the impact on Ukraine. Equally, it is quite important, given the lead Germany has taken with Alexei Navalny and in relation to the work we need to do together on Belarus, that we maintain European solidarity. My hon. Friend’s points are well made and, of course, our European partners know the UK position.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of the statement, and I am pleased to commend him on the tone and content of it. It is important that we in this House are not ashamed to say that we stand united with the brave protesters in Belarus. Having said that, the statement includes a number of measures that I called for myself in the last FCDO questions, so it would be churlish not to support them now, and I am glad to see that progress.
I make only a couple of concrete points in relation to the statement. At FCDO questions last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Wendy Morton, undertook to meet the Belarusian diaspora here in London. I am conscious that meeting has not happened yet because of diary pressures, but could I urge that that meeting be expedited? There are a lot of good ideas there.
I warmly support the triggering of the Moscow mechanism in the OSCE, but can the Foreign Secretary give us some indication of the timescale of that investigation, because there will be pressures for this to be a long-grass exercise, but I think this is rather more urgent and a quite straightforward investigation in practice. On the Magnitsky sanctions, I am very pleased to see the action in conjunction with the US and others, but does the Foreign Secretary share my disappointment at the lack of unanimity in the EU because of the Cypriot Government’s position, and will he express that disappointment and urge his counterparts in Cyprus to change their view?
A concerted effort is needed to support the Belarusian activists. The statement contained a nuanced approach, and the Foreign Secretary can rest assured of my party’s support for this approach going forward.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome both the substance of what he said and the spirit of solidarity, which is now unbroken across the House. He asked about our reaching out to members of the Belarusian opposition and civil society. He is right, of course, that covid has restrained that a bit, although the Minister for Europe has spoken to two of the leading opposition figures, and therefore we do provide that support in principle, but also in practice.
The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about the timeframe for the OSCE investigation. It will want to proceed as expeditiously as possible. We want that conclusion. I think it is quite important for the international community as a whole to be able to support action to see an independent international investigation under the auspices of the very well regarded and respected OSCE. At the same time, I want to give it the time and space to do its job properly, because its credibility also rests on that. I therefore do not have a specific deadline that it has been set, but he makes a sensible point about time.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the lack of a common position in the EU. We hope that it will arrive at that. We have certainly encouraged it; we have been on the ambitious end in those discussions. But of course one of the advantages that we have as we leave, with the Magnitsky sanctions in place, is that we are not limited or fettered by that. That is why, at the same time as welcoming and working with our European partners, we are in a position with our American and Canadian friends to proceed with the Magnitsky sanctions, which we will do as soon as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s announcement, which will be of huge comfort to many people in Belarus. Putting Magnitsky sanctions in place against those who are propping up this illegitimate regime in Belarus also sends a strong signal about the view that we take of the horrific scale of abuses that people in Belarus are having to endure, including seven murders. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and some of those who have worked tirelessly over the last decade to keep alive the importance of free speech, democracy and human rights on the ground in Belarus, regardless of threats to their own lives, so that we can understand better how our country can play its role fully in supporting the people of Belarus to move forward peacefully to a true democracy in the future?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that she has done in this area, both as a Back-Bench MP and as a Select Committee Chair, particularly on human rights and equality. I am very happy to see her personally. I am travelling shortly, so if she wishes to have that meeting before I return, the Europe Minister will happily meet her. I absolutely share my right hon. Friend’s emphasis on human rights and, more broadly, on standing up for civil society, given the pressures and the attack that they are undergoing right now in Belarus. That is why we have provided that additional £1.5 million to support them at this time.
Dreadful though this situation is, many commentators have suggested that it should not be viewed as a classic east-west conflict, and that Lukashenko is no more a friend of Moscow than he is of his own people. Does the Foreign Secretary agree? Does he plan any further activity on the possibility of a mediated solution?
I think the hon. Gentleman is right to call for mediation. At the moment, it feels like there is little movement in that direction. We support it. I know that the Germans and others in the EU have been reaching out on all sides. I would just say that, given the nature and the character of the regime in Belarus, and given the support that it is receiving from Moscow—notwithstanding the points the hon. Gentleman made—to give it its best chance, we must put the pressure on and hold the regime to account. Those two things do not run in tandem; actually, I think they reinforce each other.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which I chair, is currently producing two urgent reports: one on the political reform in Belarus, and one by our own Lord Blencathra on the urgent need for electoral reform in Belarus. The Standing Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also called on Belarus to launch a “democratic, broad-based and inclusive” national political process as a first step towards a peaceful way out of the current crisis, and in particular to open the door for those reforms, starting with the constitution and the election process. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is ready to support that process, in close co-operation with the Venice Commission, which has written many opinions on Belarus. I wonder what support and encouragement the Foreign Secretary can give to that process, alongside co-ordinating the USA-UK response and the OSCE response.
I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend and Members from across the House in the Council of Europe, which is an important institution. It does not get the same media or public attention as the EU, but it does incredibly important work, particularly in this field. I give my full support to the efforts that she and the Council of Europe are making. Not only will our work with the OSCE investigation of vote rigging and human rights abuses provide moral support, but its findings will provide practical support in making progress with her important work.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I am greatly encouraged, as this House should be, by the fact that we have a Foreign Secretary who leads from the front. Will he outline whether reports of women and children being beaten by police officers and having their passports removed have been verified by FCDO officials in Belarus? What steps can we take to stand alongside those who are having their most basic human rights disregarded in the horrific scenes we have watched on TV?
We are shocked, as the hon. Gentleman is, by the severity and brazenness of the violence that has been carried out in front of the media, and the reports that we have seen are as bad as he suggests. Right now, we need a dual effort: we need to reach out and support those who find themselves under attack, particularly the journalists and those in the media who are trying to shine a light on this horrific abuse; and, ultimately, with our European, American, Canadian and other partners, we need to hold to account those who commit these appalling abuses of human rights.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for making this statement. There is little doubt that the elections in Belarus were neither fair nor free, and the response of the authorities has been absolutely abhorrent, with threats of torture, rape and the presence of the military on the streets. Can he confirm that the UK does not, and will not, accept the result of this election, and that we will consider the most appropriate sanctions against Lukashenko and his regime?
That is exactly what we will do. We want to get to the bottom of it, which is why we have triggered the OSCE’s Moscow mechanism. We want to hold those responsible to account, and that is why we will, at speed, look at Magnitsky sanctions as well as supporting the EU track. We need to continue to shine a light on the abuses, which is why we are supporting journalists doing their job.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. His commitment to human rights is nothing new. When we both came to the House, we sat on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I remember him being a champion on these matters across the board.
My right hon. Friend knows of my interest in religious freedom, on which I have worked with him. Freedom of religion or belief is a basic, fundamental right, and it is crucial for a peaceful, prosperous and virtuous society. It is also a national security imperative. One of my last actions as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief was as a member of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, of which I was honoured to be vice-chair. In that last meeting, the case was raised of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, who was not being allowed to enter Belarus, his own country. I ask the Foreign Secretary to do everything he can to ensure that individuals such as Archbishop Kondrusiewicz can enter their countries and practise their faith openly and freely. Finally, I personally thank the Foreign Secretary for the support that he gave me in my task when I was the Prime Minister’s special envoy.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his stalwart work—from his membership of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to his special envoy role—as a champion for human rights and freedom of religious belief. He will know that I view media freedom, Magnitsky sanctions and freedom of religious belief as inextricably entwined. Of course we will look at the case that he described and make sure that those voices for freedom in Belarus are not snuffed out.
Can I push the Secretary of State a little harder? He said he wants to get to the bottom of all this, but at the bottom of all this we surely know is Russia, which is becoming almost a rogue state around the world. Russia only listens when we are tough with it. Can we not have sanctions against Russia and, in this country, clear out the nest of vipers who have taken up residence—Putin supporters and yes men and yes women—here in London? For goodness’ sake, can we not take on Russia, show it we mean business and start perhaps with the owner of the Evening Standard?
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s passion for justice and human rights. I am not sure that the relationship between Lukashenko and President Putin is quite the way he describes. I think there is more nuance there, but one of the challenges we have, as we hold Lukashenko to account, is to try to avoid the inevitability of Belarus slipping further and further into Moscow’s embrace. On the action we are taking in the UK, we have one of the most rigorous systems in the world to ensure, as I have described, that dirty money and blood money do not find their way washing through UK businesses or banks, and we are going to strengthen that even further in the way I described by proceeding to add and extend Magnitsky sanctions to the corruption field as well.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and the substance of it, and I add the voice of the Liberal Democrats to the solidarity shown across the House. It is so important that we stand together in our fight for democracy and against those who want to undermine human rights. I am glad also that the Foreign Secretary is now flexing his muscles when it comes to Magnitsky sanctions. It shows what can be done. Can I press him to continue to flex those muscles in other parts of the world so that global Britain is consistent in its approach? I press him in particular to act against those who commit human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
I thank the hon. Lady and welcome the Liberal Democrats’ support for these measures. We of course want to apply the Magnitsky sanctions as effectively as possible. I think part of that is making sure that we have clear evidence to do so. The one thing we want to avoid is the kind of legal challenge that gives the perpetrators of human rights abuses a political propaganda gift, but as I have said before, both in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, we are assimilating, collating and co-ordinating with our international partners and allies to ensure we have the clearest understanding of the abuses that are taking place.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement today. It sends a clear message about the values we have as a country and the way we will defend them abroad. It was particularly concerning to hear that UK embassy staff and other independent monitors were unable to go about their role. The worry is that the coronavirus pandemic gives autocratic leaders across the world an opportunity to shy away in a veil of public health protection, so will he reassure me and the House that everything is being done to make sure that our staff and other independent observers can go about their work unhindered, whatever the circumstances?
My hon. Friend is right, and not just in relation to the UK monitors, but in relation to the OSCE election monitors. It is important that the light we are shining on Belarus via the OSCE is there, because it provides an independent, very credible basis on which to make exactly the points that he has raised.
Since 2010, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has seen resources dedicated to human rights cut, due in no small part to the Government’s short-sighted austerity programme. While I welcome the announcement today to restore a small part of that funding, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the events in Belarus demonstrate that this approach has been a failure?
Free speech and a free press have a vital role to play in any functioning democracy. I am sure the whole House shares a deep concern at the way journalists in Belarus have been targeted by the Belarusian regime. What steps will the Foreign Secretary now take to support the brave media outlets daring to hold Lukashenko to account?
As I have set out in my statement, we want to provide support not just for journalists, but for civil society. It is always the journalists who tend to be the first ones that despotic and authoritarian regimes go for, and there is no secret as to why: it is because they are the ones who shine a light on the abuses and give the truth not only to the people, but to the outside world. It is right that we extend the money and support we provide for journalists and for civil society, particularly as Belarus goes through this tumultuous period where freedom, liberty and human rights come under such dire threat.
As a serving member of the Council of Europe, I wholly support the condemnation of the abuse of democracy and human rights in Belarus. But how can the Foreign Secretary expect to be taken completely seriously in condemning Belarus for breaking international law when his Government intend to break international law in their trade negotiations?
I can reassure the hon. Member that in all the discussions I have had, he is the only person to have made that point.
We must stand together with our international partners against thuggery and election rigging. The EU sanctions will be a crucial tool in holding Lukashenko and his regime to account. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we will remain involved in those sanctions even after the end of the transition period?
I reassure my hon. Friend that if the EU adopts sanctions—we hope that it will and that they will be ambitious—we would continue them after the end of the transition period, obviously having worked out the timing and how they coincide with the Magnitsky sanctions.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to make the case for people in Belarus, and he will find cross-party support for that on both sides of the House, but the shadow Foreign Secretary was right to talk about the impact on workers. May I press the Foreign Secretary specifically on what action the Government are taking through financial support with, for example, the International Labour Organisation, to ensure that workers are not being disadvantaged as a result of standing up for the basic freedoms of human rights and democracy?
I am not quite sure what action the hon. Gentleman would propose. We can certainly talk to our partners, including in the ILO, but the fact is, with an election having been rigged to stay in power and with all the authoritarian might of the Belarussian state having been exerted against the people because of that, we cannot in all honesty provide the support we would want to the workers, who among others will be those who will suffer as a result. What we can do is put the pressure on, try to support media institutions and try to press for a path towards a peaceful resolution so that Belarussians can elect their own leaders, who can provide economic support to the workers of that country.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The situation in Belarus has an impact on neighbouring countries such as Lithuania, to which Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has fled. What support will we give our NATO allies in the region? Will we recognise the leadership of Mrs Tikhanovskaya, who claimed to have won 60% to 70% of the vote in the places where results were properly counted?
We have made it clear that we do not accept the illegitimate election that took place. We will watch carefully. The consistent practice of the UK has been to recognise states rather than Governments, but we have been clear that this is an illegitimate election that cannot produce a legitimate result.
On the Baltic states, they are our friends and NATO allies, and I recently saw the Lithuanian Foreign Minister. We have been working closely with them because not only do we share the same values but they will feel under threat as close neighbours to Belarus and indeed Russia. They need stalwart support now from the United Kingdom.
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State talk about how we must support and strengthen civil society, but many trade unionists in Belarus have been arrested. What conversations has he had with the European Trade Union Confederation and trade unions to support the role that trade unions play in civil society in Belarus?
I think it is true to say that, particularly in eastern and central Europe—I think in particular of Czechoslovakia, where my father came from—the trade union movement has been closely aligned with the human rights movement and the cause of liberty for many years, including under the Soviet Union. I join her in the spirit of solidarity with unions that are feeling imperilled at this time. We certainly stand with them, as we do with the journalists, for the basic principles of freedom and liberty that unite us all.
We have already heard about the appalling treatment of journalists by the Belarusian authorities, and I welcome my right hon. Friend’s condemnation of that behaviour, as well as the financial support for those trying to shine a light on the disgraceful events in Belarus. Does he share my concern about censorship in Belarus, given that the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that mobile internet services have been deliberately disrupted, and independent news websites have been blocked? Does he further agree that there must be free and unfettered access to news and information in Belarus?
My hon. Friend is right, and the first liberty that any despot or dictator goes for is freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, because those are the liberties that guard all the others, and they shine a light on mispractices that take place. We absolutely stand with the people of Belarus for freedom of expression, and against any attacks on journalists, the media, or social media, including the internet.
In the wake of the Belarusian election, NGOs have expressed serious concerns that the UK is considering reducing funding for international election monitoring. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that that is not the case, and that the Government recognise the important role that upholding free and fair elections around the world plays in protecting our national security in the UK?
I have not heard that criticism—it is certainly not one that has been directed at me. I reassure the hon. Lady, as I hope I have done through the statement, that we stand full-square behind support for civil society, election monitoring and journalists in Belarus and beyond.
We all rightly condemn the actions of the Belarusian authorities. Threats of Russian interference in the situation have been a constant feature of the Belarusian protest. On
The hon. Lady is right to worry about the predatory approach of Russia, which has always regarded Belarus as a client state. We are watching that very carefully, along with our international partners, and that is one reason why we are taking the measures that I set out today.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business, and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.