21st Mar 2018


The EU and Belarus: Sanctions? What Sanctions?

  • Relatives of jailed opponents plead for access outside prison in Belarus (Photo: EPA)

Last week the Belarusian interior minister, Anatoly Kulyashou, travelled to France for a conference at Interpol in Lyon. This may not appear out of the ordinary. But he is wanted for questioning amid allegations of torture and hostage-taking. He is also under a European Union travel ban.

His visit had a silver lining for the Belarusian opposition. If the French had denied him a visa, the NGO Free Belarus Now would not have been able to petition the French justice ministry for his arrest over alleged breaches of the UN Convention on Torture.

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After a flurry of excitement came the failure of both the EU and French authorities to respond. Now, just one question remains: Why is the international community once again ignoring Belarus and the human rights abuses there?

On 19 December 2010, some 30,000 peaceful protesters took to the streets of Minsk in the largest demonstration Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus has ever seen. They were demonstrating against alleged vote-rigging fin the presidential election. Lukashenko was declared winner with almost 90 percent even before polls had officially closed and international observers said the ballot was flawed.

Protesters gathered outside parliament and began to demand a fresh election. "Leave office now!" they chanted. Lukashenko reacted by unleashing his security forces in a brutal show of force.

The crackdown was so violent it led EU countries to impose fresh sanctions in January 2011. Some assets were frozen and a large number of officials were placed under a travel ban, including Kulyashou.

Brussels had nothing to say on why the restrictions were put aside for his visit last week.

It may be that there was no sanctions violation in a technical sense. The Official Journal of the European Union says the travel ban "shall be without prejudice to the cases where a member state is bound by an obligation of international law, namely ... as a host country of an international intergovernmental organisation." In other words, the Interpol conference entitled him to a free pass.

So why are invitations from intergovernmental bodies excluded from EU sanctions?

Maybe it is a good thing if Belarusian regime members go to a conference on, for instance, how to catch paedophiles. But what if the meeting was about how to catch internet criminals? What if Kulyashou in Lyon got some new ideas on how to crack down on opposition websites?

We are not allowed to know because Interpol - astonishingly - refuses to say what the event was about.

When one considers what is happening in Belarus, it begs the question, why do international organisations continue to engage with it at all? Surely the point of EU sanctions is to isolate the regime. But if this EU sanctions clause lets its ministers participate in international events as if everything was normal, one might conclude the travel ban is not just futile, but even dishonest.

On Wednesday this week, Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov - imprisoned for his role in last December's protest - emerged after having disappeared into the prison system back in November. He passed a note to his wife pleading for help, saying that he is being tortured and that he fears for his life.

As interior minister, Kulyashou is directly responsible for what is happening to Sannikov and to many others like him. He runs the state security service, still called the KGB, the police and the prisons. He was also in charge of the security operation which so shocked EU ministers and the wider world back in December 2010. He must be held accountable for the allegations that are being made against him and against the officers under his command.

Last Thursday, the French minister of justice and the Paris prosecutor roundly ignored Free Belarus Now's petition to detain him and to launch an investigation.

In doing this, France has diminished its international standing and its moral authority. They might not have had an obligation to refuse him entry to Lyon, but they have ignored France's commitments as a signatory to the UN Convention on Torture.

The collective failure of both Brussels and Paris on the Kulyashou visit is a shameful betrayal of the Belarusian people.

Mathew Charles is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Bournemouth in southern England and the director of a forthcoming documentary on Belarus and Lukashenko entitled 'Europe’s Last Dictator'


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