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International sanctions: Easy to misapply and hard to reverse

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In June of this year, after the Lukashenko government’s forced grounding of a Ryanair flight in Minsk, the EU announced that 78 persons and seven entities would be added to their sanctions against Belarus. Following suit this Monday (13 September), the UK government imposed a raft of trade, financial, and aviation restrictions in response to the abuses of the Lukashenko regime. One controversial inclusion in both rounds of sanctions was Mikhail Gutseriev, the Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist, who has business interests in the Belarusian energy and hospitality sectors. Many have been puzzled as to why Gutseriev, as a businessman with investments all over the world, has been targeted in connection to his relatively limited involvement in Belarus. His case has also raised broader questions and initiated a debate about the efficacy of sanctions which confer guilt by association, rather than punish known lawbreakers, writes Colin Stevens.

The EU’s ‘restrictive measures’

Starting with the EU’s approach, the block has a well-established process for executing ‘restrictive measures’, the primary tool of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). European sanctions have four key objectives: safeguarding the EU’s interests and security, preserving the peace, supporting democracy and human rights, and strengthening international security. If sanctions are imposed, they can fall on governments, companies, groups or organisations, and individuals. In terms of ratification, the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security representative, and the European Commission, make a joint sanction proposal, which is then voted on by the European Council. If the vote is passed, the EU’s court will then decide if the measure protects ‘human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular due process and the right to an effective remedy’. Note that the European Parliament, the EU’s democratically elected chamber, is kept informed of the proceedings but can neither reject nor ratify the sanctions.

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The difficulty of application

When adding an individual or entity to their sanctions list, the EU sets out why they deem the measure to be appropriate. Returning to the controversial case of Mikhail Gutseriev, the block has accused Gutseriev of ‘benefitting from and supporting the Lukashenko regime’. They describe him as a ‘long-time friend’ of the President, the supposed smoking gun being two times when both men were confirmed to be in the same vicinity. The first was at the opening of a new Orthodox church, which Gutseriev had sponsored, and the second was at Lukashenko’s swearing-in as President, what the EU describes as a ‘secret’ event, despite it being broadcast on TV and being open to the public. The EU also reports that Lukashenko once thanked Gutseriev for the money he had given to Belarusian charities and the billions of dollars he had invested in the country.

Taking a step back, it’s clear that the EU is working on the basis of guilt by association – Gutseriev has been in Lukashenko’s orbit, ergo he is a supporter of his regime. However, the problem with the EU’s approach is that there is little hard evidence of a genuine closeness between the two men. What is there to say that Gutseriev did not simply maintain a working relationship with the President so that he could continue to invest and run his businesses in Belarus? In a communication explaining its internal process, the European Commission states that restrictive measures are imposed ‘to bring about a change in policy activity…by entities or individuals’. To change a harmful policy is of course desirable, but the EU must be careful not to disincentivise the small group of investors who take the risk of operating in, and making charitable donations to, low-income countries with unstable leaderships.

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The UK’s position

Considering this potential drawback in their approach, the EU will undoubtedly have been pleased that the British government has likewise targeted Lukashenko and those deemed to be close to him. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, accused the Belarusian President of crushing democracy and outlined that action would be taken against the country’s state-owned industries and aerospace companies. In general, the UK’s sanctioning process has similar objectives to the EU’s, and both favour trade and financial measures, such as arms embargoes and asset freezes. Like their partners in Europe, the British government will be hoping that they can change Lukashenko’s policies and approach, without inflicting unnecessary economic harm on ordinary Belarussians. Yet history shows that finding this balance is far from easy. Going back to the early 2000s, the British government and the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus and Zimbabwe, and on their wealthy elites. Judging by the positions of both countries now, with Belarus under Lukashenko, and Zimbabwe still beset by economic woes and internal conflict, one would be hard pressed to say that such an approach had been a success.

Getting things right

In fairness to the EU and the UK, they have clarified that they want to avoid adverse consequences for those not responsible for the policies and actions in question. However, by ascribing sanctions on the basis of guilt by association, both parties run the risk of doing exactly that. Hassan Blasim, the celebrated Kurdish film director who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, said that the West’s economic sanctions meant that ‘life was almost dead’ in Iraq in the 1990s. What’s more, it was a hugely controversial invasion, not the regime of sanctions, which eventually led to Hussein’s downfall. Western diplomats may be trying their best to avoid doing similar damage today, but they should be careful not to undermine the investment and enterprise, the lifeblood of any economy, that Belarus will need to rebuild in the future.

Belarus

Belarus: Consider taking the Lukashenka regime to international court, MEPs ask

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Parliament expresses strong solidarity with EU countries affected by Belarusian hybrid attacks, while calling for the Lukashenka regime to be brought to court, Plenary session  AFET.

In a resolution adopted on Thursday, Parliament expresses strong solidarity with Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, as well as other EU countries recently targeted by the Belarusian regime’s attempts to direct a substantial number of migrants and refugees towards the EU’s external borders - with hundreds of people detained after crossing over into the EU illegally and even some deaths.

MEPs underline that the ongoing Belarusian state-sponsored irregular migrant crossings into the EU, coupled with a disinformation campaign, are a form of hybrid warfare aimed at intimidating and destabilising the European Union.

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They state that both the EU institutions and the member states have to deal urgently with the multidimensional crisis at the Belarusian border, in order to help migrants stuck there and to provide them with the necessary support.

The case of Belarus to the International Court of Justice

In the resolution, Parliament also stresses the need to consider bringing the case of Belarus to the International Court of Justice over crimes committed on a massive scale against the country’s citizens by the regime of illegitimate dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka. This should be done on the basis of violations to the Chicago Convention, the Montreal Convention and the UN Convention against Torture committed by the Belarusian state, according to the text.

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MEPs also continue to condemn “the repression, torture and ill-treatment of the peaceful people of Belarus”, which has not ended since popular protests broke out over the fraudulent presidential elections in August last year.

More EU sanctions needed

In addition, the resolution regrets the fact that the imposed EU economic sanctions have only had a partial effect on the Lukashenka regime. It therefore urges EU countries to further strengthen the targeted economic sanctions, focusing on key Belarusian sectors, and to push ahead urgently with a fifth package of sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities involved in the endless crackdown.

MEPs further call for unequivocal support for the Belarusian democratic opposition in organising free and fair elections, under international observation. They also condemn the continuous dealings between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin and reiterate the urgency of exposing Russia’s support for Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on the people of Belarus, as well as its involvement in the hybrid actions against the EU.

The text was adopted with 506 votes in favour, 29 against with 139 abstentions.

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Awards

2021 Václav Havel Prize awarded to Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava

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The ninth Václav Havel Human Rights Prize – which honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights – has been awarded to Belarusian opposition leader and activist Maria Kalesnikava (pictured).

The €60,000 prize was presented at a special ceremony on the opening day of the autumn plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg.

Maria Kalesnikava is one of the opposition leaders in Belarus and a member of the Co-ordination Council. She was the head of the campaign headquarters of former presidential nominee Viktar Babaryka, and has become one of the three female symbols of the Belarusian opposition and the struggle of the people of Belarus for civil and political liberties and fundamental rights.

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She was abducted in Minsk in September 2020 and made headlines when she tore up her passport at the border to prevent her forced removal and exile from Belarus. She was subsequently detained, and in September 2021 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for her political activity.

Accepting the award on her behalf, Maria’s sister Tatsiana Khomich thanked the award committee and said her sister would want to dedicate her win to all those in Belarus fighting for their rights: “This award is a sign of solidarity of the entire democratic world with the people of Belarus. It is also a sign to us, Belarusians, that the international community supports us, and that we are on the right track.”

Presenting the award, PACE President Rik Daems, who chaired the selection panel, said: “In standing up against a regime which has chosen force and brutality against peaceful and legitimate protest, Ms Kalesnikava showed that she is ready to risk her own safety for a cause greater than herself – she has shown true courage.”

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Belarus

Belarus leader warns on NATO troops in Ukraine and migrant 'catastrophe'

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Head of the State Border Committee Anatoly Lappo, State Secretary of Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich, Chairman of the State Security Committee Ivan Tertel and Minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus Ivan Kubrakov walk for a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus September 27, 2021.  Maxim Guchek/BelTA/Handout via REUTERS
Head of the State Border Committee Anatoly Lappo, State Secretary of Security Council of Belarus Alexander Volfovich, Chairman of the State Security Committee Ivan Tertel and Minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus Ivan Kubrakov walk for a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus September 27, 2021.  Maxim Guchek/BelTA

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko warned on Monday (27 September) of a joint response with Russia to military exercises involving troops from NATO member countries in neighbouring Ukraine, writes Matthias Williams, Reuters.

Lukashenko, who gave no details of the response, also blamed the West for what he said was a looming humanitarian catastrophe this winter after migrants were left stranded and freezing on the Belarusian-Polish border.

Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation but has long sought closer integration with Western militaries in the hope of one day joining the alliance, a move opposed by Belarus' main ally, Russia.

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Ukraine began joint military exercises with U.S. and other NATO member troops last week, while Russia and Belarus held large-scale drills that alarmed the West. Read more.

Lukashenko said he had discussed the situation in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin several times, and the Kremlin said on Monday that expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine crossed a red line for Putin. Read more.

"You see, they are dragging NATO troops there, to Ukraine. Under the guise of training centres, they are actually creating bases. The United States is creating bases in Ukraine. It is clear that we need to react to this," Lukashenko said at a meeting with officials in the presidential palace in Minsk.

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"The Russian president and I have held and are holding consultations on this issue and have agreed that some action should be taken there. Otherwise, tomorrow we will have an unacceptable situation right on the border between Belarus and Russia."

Relations between Belarus and the West have deteriorated since Lukashenko cracked down on mass protests following a disputed election in August 2020, triggering U.S., European Union and British sanctions but support from Moscow.

Belarus and its EU neighbours have also traded blame over the plight of migrants. The EU has accused Minsk of encouraging migrants, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan, to cross the borders in retaliation for the sanctions.

Three migrants died on the Polish side of the border and one more just inside Belarus this month. A fifth death - of an Iraqi man on Poland's side of the border, from a suspected heart attack, was reported on Friday (24 September). Read more.

Lukashenko said Belarus had treated the migrants well.

"Yes, we dressed them, we brought them some firewood and some shawls. But they would freeze in winter," Lukashenko said.

"In short: it's a humanitarian catastrophe on the border."

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