Documents considered by the Committee on 19 January 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

16 EU relations with Belarus


Council Decision amending Council Decision 2010/639/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against certain officials of Belarus

Legal baseArticles 29 EU; unanimity
DepartmentForeign and Commonwealth Office
Basis of considerationEM and Minister's letter of 17 January 2011
Previous Committee ReportNone; but see (32019) —: HC 428-iii (2010-11, chapter 17 (13 October 2010); (31171) —: HC 5-iii (2009-10), chapter 17 (9 December 2009) ; (30507) — : HC 19-xiii (2008-09), chapter 10 (1 April 2009); (30076) —: HC 16-xxxiii ( 2007-08), chapter 5 (29 October 2008); and (27458) 8836/06 and (27459) — : HC 34-xxviii (2005-06), chapter 15 (10 May 2006)
To be discussed in Council24 January 2011 Foreign Affairs Council
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared; further information requested


16.1 The Belarus "Country Profile" on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website continues to catalogue a litany of repressive and undemocratic behaviour since Alyaksandr Lukashenka won the first Presidential elections in July 1994.[61] The highly critical September 2006 report by Adrian Severin, the UN Special Rapporteur appointed in 2004 by the 60th UN Commission on Human Rights, is described as one of many to cite numerous human rights violations including persistent accounts of harassment of NGOs, the independent media, opposition political parties, educational institutions, religious organisations, and trade unions. It says that this pattern of repression has been particularly evident in the build up to parliamentary and presidential elections, when opposition figures were put under intense pressure and numerous independent media outlets were suspended or closed.

16.2 These concerns include the disappearance of four opponents of the regime in 1999/2000, including former Belarusian Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko and deputy Viktor Gonchar. Despite appeals from the international community, the Belarusian authorities have not investigated satisfactorily these disappearances. The EU repeatedly called on the Belarusian authorities to open a truly independent investigation, but the Belarusians failed to act. In response, in September 2004 the EU decided to apply travel restrictions against those Belarusian officials named in the Pourgourides report on 'Disappeared Persons in Belarus' as key actors in the disappearances (this report was adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in April 2004).

16.3 Further sanctions were imposed following the Presidential elections of March 2006. These failed to meet OSCE standards: there was arbitrary use of state power, widespread detentions, disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and violent suppression of protests and the detention of peaceful protesters. In response the EU adopted restrictive measures — a visa ban and an asset freeze — against President Lukashenka, the Belarusian leadership and officials personally responsible for the violations of international electoral standards.

16.4 The measures were renewed, given that there had been no independent investigation into the disappearances, nor any reform of the electoral code, in line with OSCE recommendations, nor any concrete action to respect human rights with respect to peaceful demonstrations: on the contrary, the situation had continued to deteriorate. On 7 April 2008 the Council adopted Common Position 2008/288/CFSP extending the measures by 12 further months until 10 April 2009.

16.5 In so doing, the Council agreed that the restrictive measures provided for by Common Position 2006/276/CFSP should be extended for a period of 12 months, but that the travel restrictions aimed at certain officials of Belarus — with the exception of those involved in the 1999-2000 disappearances and the President of the Central Electoral Commission — should not apply for a reviewable period of six months, so as to encourage dialogue with the Belarus authorities and the adoption of measures to reinforce democracy and respect for human rights; at the end of this six-month period, the Council would re-examine the situation.

16.6 The previous Committee's most recent Report outlines subsequent shifts in the EU position, as differences emerged among Member States about how best to handle Belarus, given the EU's concerns but also its concern that an increasingly isolated Belarus would be drawn closer to an increasingly assertive and difficult Russia (with unspoken anxieties about the gas supply situation, where Belarus is a key link in the chain).

16.7 As that Report notes, there were a number of exchanges between the Committee and the then Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint). She said there had been some signs that Belarus might be interested in increasing its contacts with Member States and willing to adopt a more moderate stance on other issues. The release of its last three internationally recognised political prisoners in late August 2008 met one of the 12 conditions for engagement set out by the EU in the Commission document 'What the European Union could bring to Belarus' published in November 2006.[62] Meanwhile, President Lukashenka had promised that September 2008 parliamentary elections would be free and fair. Whilst the initial OSCE report said that the elections failed to meet OSCE standards, Belarus had, she said, been significantly more co-operative in their interactions with OSCE monitors. Though this represented less progress than she would have liked, she shared the view of other EU Member States that "isolating Belarus will not promote further positive progress but rather focus the leadership on strengthening their ties with Russia whilst failing to deliver on EU demands." She therefore supported the EU consensus in favour of suspending the visa ban for six months whilst renewing the restrictive measures for a further 12 months, "backed up by a strong statement from Council Members", as "the approach most likely to encourage the Belarusians to make further progress on the road toward human rights and democracy." The EU would continue to "a path of critical engagement" ensuring Belarus understood that the process must be sustained by further Belarusian steps.

16.8 Whilst it was unlikely that all 12 conditions for engagement would be met over the next six months, she expected some positive progress, particularly in the areas of freedom of the media, civil society and elections. In addition to pushing for the EU to set down clear modalities measuring progress she said she would continue "to deliver clear and firm messages basing our demands explicitly on the EU's '12 Propositions.'[63] She argued that lifting the visa ban would enable the EU and Member States" to engage at senior levels and create personal incentives for senior officials in Belarus, who will be keen to ensure that the ban is not imposed again." Belarus would have a six month window in which to demonstrate concrete improvements in human rights and democracy. She hoped that Belarus would make the most of this opportunity to rebuild the relationship with the EU. If Belarus failed to move toward the necessary reforms, the restrictions would be automatically re-imposed at the end of that six month period, with a unanimous decision required to extend the decision by another six months.

16.9 In a subsequent letter of 9 March 2009, the then Minister reported that the EU had made clear its five priorities — no new political prisoners, freer media, reform of electoral code, liberalisation of NGO environment, and freedom of assembly — and that the Belarusians had "refrained from flagrant human rights abuses" and introduced "a number of small reforms." But progress against the five priorities had been mixed, the positive changes had not been systemic and could be reversed and she was concerned by some negative steps in the immediately preceding couple of weeks — including the arrest of three human rights activists, two of whom had been recognised as political prisoners by the international community during previous periods of detention.

16.10 The then Minister went on to say that, while some Member States shared her concerns, most were leaning towards renewal of the suspension on the grounds that there had been some progress; though renewal could demonstrate the EU's commitment to engagement with Belarus, and "tie them closer to international organisations and internationally accepted standards through the Eastern Partnership and the Council of Europe, so encouraging further reform", renewal on the basis of the limited reforms so far, the Minister said, "risks suggesting that we were satisfied with progress, weakening an important lever for further reform" and "could lead them to believe that sanctions would be lifted altogether when they come up for renewal in October." Conversely, the Minister said, re-imposition could be interpreted negatively by international bodies other than the IMF and jeopardise the additional assistance that their $2.5bn loan in January assumed, and make Belarus vulnerable to Russian influence, which would in turn be unlikely to help the reform process.

16.11 Overall, the Minister concluded, her judgement on whether to support renewal of the suspension would be based on the most effective way of supporting reform; the Belarusian reaction to whichever step the EU took was unpredictable, with neither option providing guarantees of improved performance; an important part of the effectiveness of her approach would be achieving EU unity, "so Belarus was left in no doubt about our messages", which unity would be needed when the Common Position was due for renewal in October 2009, without which the sanctions would lapse. Given "these challenges", the Minister said her position would "continue to evolve in the run up to the GAERC", and she would "inform the committee in the usual way of the outcome of the Council."

16.12 There then followed further exchanges with the then Minister and, more recently, her successor (Chris Bryant), which are detailed in our previous Report. Once again, in November 2009, the Council, though noting an absence of tangible progress in areas identified in the Council Conclusions of 13 October 2008, decided that the restrictive measures should be extended until 31 October 2010, "but to encourage further reform, the suspension of the travel restrictions were also extended for the same period." The then Minister professed himself disappointed that Belarus had not made more progress since the previous year, and reflected the balance of views between EU Member States. This outcome sent "a united message" to the Belarusian authorities that the EU was not yet satisfied with their progress; the extension enabled the EU to maintain leverage whilst still promoting engagement; appetite for sanctions within the EU had diminished so the Belarusian authorities might have believed they could sit sanctions out and wait for the measures to lapse; the renewal, he concluded, made it clear that the EU was not yet convinced of the Belarus authorities' commitment to reform.

16.13 In clearing the Council Decision, the previous Committee said that it was reporting this further extension so fully because of the degree of interest in the House both in EU relations with Russia's "near neighbours" and in EU sanctions policy around the globe. They again left it to others in the House to judge the effectiveness of the EU's policy, and its shifts since 2006, in relation to its avowed objectives (which it set out in Annexes 1-3 of its Report).[64]

The most recent Council Decision

16.14 Council Decision 2009/969/CFSP extended the restrictive measures until October 2010, whilst suspending the travel restrictions imposed on certain leading figures in Belarus, with the exception of those involved in the disappearances which occurred in 1999 and 2000 and of the President of the Central Electoral Commission.

16.15 This most recent Council Decision extended the restrictive measures until 31 October 2011. At the same time the application of the travel restrictions imposed on certain leading figures in Belarus, with the exception of those involved in the disappearances which occurred in 1999 and 2000 and of the President of the Central Electoral Commission, were to be further suspended.

16.16 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 8 October 2010, after briefly reviewing the history of the EU's engagement with Belarus in the same terms as did his predecessors, the Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington) said that over the last year greater EU engagement had not delivered improvements in human rights or democracy. The Belarus authorities had taken a few, mostly cosmetic, steps but progress had stalled, and in some areas deteriorated. Already, in the run up to the Presidential elections, signs of progress were not encouraging. Repressive tactics were being employed in order to discredit opposition parties, whilst intimidating the limited independent media sector. In addition, the President's rhetoric on relations with the EU over the last few months continued to be negative. He concluded thus:

    "Under these circumstances, lifting the sanctions would send the wrong signal to Belarus and the wider public. It would suggest that we do not consider human rights a priority. And lifting the sanctions before elections that we expect will fail to meet international standards would be particularly unfortunate timing.

    "But re-imposing sanctions could actually be counterproductive for our broader policy of engagement and for our specific need to maintain a dialogue with the authorities ahead of the Presidential elections."

Our assessment

16.17 We reported this Council Decision to the House for the same reasons as did the previous Committee.

16.18 In so doing, we noted that the Minister commented in only very general terms about what had happened over the past ten months, particularly in relation to the EU's benchmarks. He also made no mention of the detained individuals referred to in previous discussion with his predecessors.

16.19 Referring to the upcoming 19 December Presidential elections, in which President Lukashenka would be running for a fourth term, we noted press reports that his closest challenger, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, had already pulled out last September, saying he believed the poll would be rigged.

16.20 We presumed that the EU would review the outcome. Bearing in mind the Council's proviso, we asked the Minister to write to us then about that review and with his views on the best way forward, and to include information about progress against the EU's Twelve Points and the detained individuals.

16.21 We also cleared the document.[65]

The draft Council Decision

16.22 This Council Decision amends Council Decision 2010/639/CFSP and will result in a re-imposition of these measures on those involved in 2006 election violations, including President Lukashenka, and the addition of a new basis for the extant restrictive measures on the basis of involvement in the violations of international electoral standards and the crackdown on the opposition, the independent media and civil society during the 2010 Presidential election.

The Government's view

16.23 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 17 January 2011, the Government's new Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington) says that the pre-election campaign saw an improvement in freedoms, compared with previous election campaigns (e.g. the opposition were allowed to collect signatures without harassment and were given access to some — limited — airtime on state radio and TV. He then continues as follows:

    "but the relentless government propaganda against the opposition, the fixing, yet again, of the elections, plus the appalling behaviour of the authorities in their aftermath have completely wiped this sense of improvement out."

16.24 He then notes that, according to the official figures, incumbent President Lukashenka won the 19 December 2010 presidential elections with 79.65% of the votes, and says:

    "The OSCE/ODIHR released its preliminary findings on the conduct of the 2010 Presidential election in Belarus on the day following the 19 December election. ODIHR acknowledged that some specific improvements had been made, but concluded that Belarus still had a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments. The election night was marred by the violent disruption by the authorities of an opposition rally, the detention of seven presidential candidates and more than 600 activists, journalists and civil society representatives."

16.25 The Minister then refers to a joint EU-US statement of 4 January, "regretting the decision of the Government of Belarus to terminate the mission of the OSCE's Office in Minsk, calling for the immediate release of all detained and for the Belarusian authorities to fulfil their commitments to the OSCE by reforming the election process and providing greater respect for human rights."[66] He goes on to say:

    "Although most detainees have now been released, the crackdown continues. Thirty-one oppositionists remain in detention and could face up to 15 years in prison for organisation and participation in mass riots. We expect there to be repercussions for those who were kept in administrative detention; students will be expelled and workers will not have their standard one-year contracts renewed. One lawyer who was detained has had her licence to work revoked; the Ministry of Justice has announced it will revoke the licence of the lawyer defending Sannikov, one of the major opposition figures.

    "The re-imposition of the restrictions forms part of the EU's response to this rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus."

16.26 Referring to the EU approach outlined above, the Minister then says:

    "Since the suspension of sanctions, we have seen less progress than we had hoped. However, the small positive steps raised hopes that Belarus could be moving towards an acceptance of European standards. For this reason, in October last year, we maintained the approach taken by the previous government of maintaining the suspension of the sanctions, while retaining the ability to re-impose sanctions if the situation in Belarus deteriorated.

    "Given that the elections were once more seriously flawed and the authorities carried out yet another crackdown on the opposition, civil society and the independent media, the Government considers it essential to re-impose sanctions, including on those involved in the most recent human rights violations."

16.27 The Minister concludes by saying that the Council Decision is scheduled to be adopted in January 2011.

The Minister's letter of 17 January 2011

16.28 In his accompanying letter, the Minister says that in view of the need for the EU to respond quickly to conditions in Belarus, he wants to be able to agree the text at Council on 24 January; and that, while his Explanatory Memorandum reflects the most recent draft Decision, discussions are continuing in Brussels and there remains a possibility that the text will change during this week. As, in those circumstances, there would not be time for the Committee to consider any amendments before the Council meeting, he asks the Committee to consider waiving the requirement for scrutiny on the amended text in accordance with paragraph 3(b) of the Scrutiny Reserve Resolution,[67] and says that his officials will continue to keep the Committee updated.


16.29 We again leave it to others to judge how well the EU has played its hand over the past five years.

16.30 We are content to clear the Council Decision.

16.31 We do not, however, consider it appropriate to exercise the waiver to which the Minister refers when we have no idea of what changes might materialise. Instead, we ask that the Minister writes to the Committee after the Council meeting about whatever changes emerge between now and then and, should they be substantive, why he decided to agree to their adoption.

16.32 A small point: we ask that, in future, his Explanatory Memoranda should include a specific date on which (and not just the month in which) he expects a Council Decision or Council Regulation to be adopted.

61   See Belarus Country Profile at: Back

62   See for the full text of the paper. Back

63   Which are set out in the Council Non-Paper to which the Minister referred, and which were reproduced at Annex 2 of the relevant chapter of the previous Committee's Report 9 December 2009 : see headnote : (31171) -: HC 5-iii (2009-10), chapter 17 (9 December 2009). Back

64   See headnote: HC 5-iii (2009-10), chapter 17 (9 December 2009). Back

65   See headnote: (32019) -: HC 428 -iii (2010-11), chapter 17 (13 October 2010). Back

66   The statement is available at Back

67   This reads as follows:

"(3) The Minister concerned may, however, give agreement-

(a) to a proposal which is still subject to scrutiny if he considers that it is confidential, routine or trivial or is substantially the same as a proposal on which scrutiny has been completed;

(b) to a proposal which is awaiting consideration by the House if the European Scrutiny Committee has indicated that agreement need not be withheld pending consideration."


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 7 February 2011