Dáil debates

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

4:15 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann: affirms Ireland's solidarity with the Belarusian people in their peaceful defence of democratic principles and fundamental human rights;

rejects the democratic legitimacy of Alexander Lukashenko following the fraudulent 9th August, 2020, Presidential Election that was neither free nor fair;

condemns the violence and repression perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime in the run up to, and in the aftermath of, that election, including its actions to silence the opposition, civil society and independent media through mass arrests, heavy criminal penalties, internet shutdowns and restrictions on media freedoms;

further condemns the recent coercive forced landing by the Belarusian authorities of a Ryanair aircraft, that was flying between European Union (EU) capitals, which endangered the lives of the passengers and crew and showed a flagrant disregard for international law;

calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Roman Protasevich, Sofia Sapega and all those unjustly detained in Belarus;

welcomes the initiation of an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and calls on the Belarusian authorities to fully cooperate with that investigation;

further welcomes the firm response of the European Council during their meeting on 24th May, and affirms Ireland's continued support for coordinated EU measures; notes: - the genuinely spontaneous and peaceful nature of the protest movement in Belarus following the illegitimate August 2020 Presidential election;

- the lack of action by the Belarusian authorities to adequately investigate allegations of human rights violations, such as rape, electrocution and other forms of torture;

- the strong concerns of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders regarding the persecution of women human rights defenders and the effective criminalisation of human rights work;

- Ireland's commitment to keeping the situation in Belarus high on the international agenda, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council and at meetings of United Nations Security Council members; and

- Ireland's vocal and steadfast support for the Belarusian people and Belarusian civil society, including through support for projects that seek to protect human rights and media freedoms; and urges the Belarusian authorities to: - implement the recommendations of the November 2020 report of Professor Wolfgang Benedek arising from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Moscow Mechanism;

- engage with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus and grant her access to the country in her official capacity;

- fully engage with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in her investigation into the over two thousand reports of human rights violations, including torture, ill-treatment and physical and sexual abuse of detainees;

- end the impunity with which Belarusian security forces are permitted to act and to permit independent and transparent investigations into the deaths in custody of Raman Bandarenka and Vitold Ashurak; and

- engage in a meaningful and inclusive national dialogue with the political opposition and civil society, with a view to making needed reforms in advance of fresh elections that are free, fair and independently monitored.

I hope this motion will receive all-party support in the House. It is brought forward following the disturbing escalation in the lengths the Belarusian authorities are willing to go to repress those critical of Alexander Lukashenko's leadership. By coercively forcing a Ryanair aircraft to divert to Minsk under false pretences, they displayed a willingness to endanger the lives of passengers to detain someone whose views the regime does not like.

Ireland reacted to this incident swiftly and firmly. At a meeting of EU leaders last week, the Taoiseach clearly communicated Ireland's view that a strong EU response was needed. That response is now being delivered. EU airlines have been asked to avoid Belarusian airspace, work has commenced on banning Belarusian airlines from EU airspace and actions are being taken to impose sanctions on those responsible for this dangerous incident. Our concern must be for the protection of our citizens and the safety of international aviation.

Alexander Lukashenko holds no democratic legitimacy. The Belarusian people have made that clear through their ten months of protests since the fraudulent presidential election in August 2020. Ireland and the EU have rejected the result of that election and Mr. Lukashenko's secretive so-called inauguration. We have repeatedly called on the Belarusian authorities to engage in a meaningful national dialogue with the political opposition and civil society, make needed reforms to the electoral process, and hold fresh elections that are free, fair and independently monitored.

Mr. Lukashenko maintains de facto control by ruling through fear. Since coming to power in 1994, he has sought to deny the Belarusian people free choice in their political representation. No election in Belarus since that time has been free or fair. Frustrated by his leadership, the Belarusian people very clearly expressed their desire for change in the run-up to the August 2020 presidential election. In advance of that vote, Mr. Lukashenko imprisoned his main political challengers and cracked down on protesters and civil society. However, he underestimated the strength of the desire for democratic change among the Belarusian people. In doing so, he clearly demonstrated his inability to recognise the winds of change.

He dismissed the challenge posed by the courageous women who took charge of the democratic movement. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kalesnikava inspired a mass democratic movement both at home and abroad among the Belarusian diaspora. Ms Tsikhanouskaya, in particular, led this movement despite the imprisonment of her husband and threats from the authorities to take her children away. Notwithstanding the obvious popularity of her campaign, the Central Election Commission was complicit in delivering a falsified election result that gave Alexander Lukashenko roughly 80% of the vote. International monitors were not given sufficient time to send an election observation mission. Due to widespread irregularities in the voting process, including ballot rigging, we will never know the true result of the election.

Hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets immediately following the result. Rather than engage with the protesters, Mr. Lukashenko chose to deploy massive state violence against them. Ireland and the EU strongly condemned this violence. We were appalled by the mass arbitrary detentions, including of children, unexplained disappearances and loss of life, reports of torture, curtailments on fundamental freedoms, Internet shutdowns and much more besides. Ireland reacted to these events promptly and publicly. At meetings of the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, I made clear Ireland's deep concerns regarding the repression of the Belarusian people. Ireland has been vocal in calling for an end to the violence and repression and we have repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of all those unjustly detained, including hundreds of political prisoners. I commend the many Oireachtas Members and Irish MEPs who have highlighted the cases of persons imprisoned for their political views. I share their concern for the welfare of those detained.

Mr. Lukashenko has all but criminalised freedom of expression in his country. Even the most trivial forms of dissent carry heavy costs and lengthy sentences. The Belarusian Association of Journalists recorded 477 detentions of journalists and media workers in 2020 alone. There has been an increase in restrictions on media outlets over recent months, including the blocking of access to independent news websites. Ireland has strongly condemned the repression of independent media and attacks on journalists, bloggers and media workers. They play a critical role in documenting human rights violations and challenging disinformation and state propaganda. Promoting and defending the right to freedom of expression, media freedom and the safety of journalists is at the core of UNESCO's mandate. Ireland supports the EU's call for UNESCO to react to the deteriorating situation. At the UN, Ireland has supported joint statements expressing deep concerns regarding the use of Internet shutdowns and the situation faced by journalists and media workers in Belarus. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, also conveyed Ireland's views during a meeting of UN Security Council members in January. Ireland is fully committed to the protection and promotion of the freedom of expression.

In that connection, I wish to express my deep concern for the welfare of Roman Protasevich. The coercive forced landing of a Ryanair aircraft travelling between EU capitals to detain Mr. Protasevich was utterly unacceptable and my Department has made our strong views known to the Belarusian Embassy in London. Mr. Protasevich now faces a severe penalty solely for expressing views the Lukashenko regime does not like. His companion, Sofia Sapega, was also detained simply for her association with him. I reiterate Ireland's call for their immediate and unconditional release.

We reject the transparently false narrative of the Belarusian authorities regarding the now widely discredited bomb threat on board the Ryanair aircraft. Last week, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, called for an urgent investigation into the incident by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO. I welcome its agreement to undertake such an investigation. It is important that those responsible for this outrageous attack on EU aviation security be held to account.

The Belarusian people have endured a long term of repression under the leadership of Alexander Lukashenko. Ireland shares the concerns of UN rapporteurs. There have been 2,000 reports of human rights violations, including allegations of torture involving rape and electrocution, women human rights defenders have been persecuted and human rights work has been effectively criminalised. We regret that the Belarusian authorities continue to deny the special rapporteur for human rights in Belarus access to the country in her official capacity. This is essential to establishing the facts on the ground. Ireland will continue to support her mandate until she has had the opportunity to complete her work fully.

We have all seen the harrowing images of injuries sustained by those who were unjustly detained in the aftermath of the election. We have seen security forces beat peaceful protesters in broad daylight. Tragically, we have also witnessed a number of deaths in custody, including a children's art teacher and, most recently, other activists. Yet we have not seen investigations into these abuses by Belarusian authorities. One of the guiding principles of Ireland's tenure at the UN Security Council is ensuring accountability. We are committed to promoting the rule of law and the upholding of human rights. Central to this commitment is the fight against impunity. It is clear that impunity breeds violence. That is why Ireland and the EU have repeatedly called for transparent and independent investigations. To that end, Ireland played a constructive role in extending the mandate of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate human rights violations in Belarus, including possible gender dimensions. The High Commissioner has begun the work of operationalising that mandate by hiring a team of international human rights experts. The NGO-led International Accountability Platform for Belarus and investigations conducted in EU member states under the principle of universal jurisdiction will complement the work of the high commissioner's team. Ireland fully supports all these efforts to ensure that those responsible for human rights violations are made accountable for their actions.

Ireland also supports the recommendations of the OSCE's expert investigator, Professor Wolfgang Benedek, in his Moscow mechanism report. This report found human rights violations to be massive, systematic and proven beyond any doubt. The detailed recommendations in his report establish actionable steps to bring Belarus into line with its OSCE and international commitments and obligations. I again urge the Belarusian authorities to implement those recommendations promptly.

Sanctions are also important for international accountability. In Belarus, 88 individuals and seven commercial entities have been sanctioned. Following the recent Ryanair incident, it is clear we need to go further. The EU will bring additional sanctions against those responsible for what has happened and is actively considering what form additional economic sanctions may take. Ireland welcomes the EU's robust response and that of our like-minded international partners. Lukashenko assumed he could silence opposition and wait out international concern as he has done in the past. The EU has been clear, however, that there cannot be a return to business as usual under his leadership. His fear of democracy and the political will of the Belarusian people are very clear now. He has now delayed national local elections until 2023 and has made no meaningful attempt to reach out to the opposition or civil society. Rather than make good on his promise of constitutional change as a precursor of his retirement, it seems he has focused on ensuring his family's succession in the event of his death. The rhetoric and actions emerging from Belarus have threatened the peace and security of the European neighbourhood. Belarusians deserve to have their democratic voice heard in free and fair elections, and Ireland will remain steadfast in calling for those elections and in supporting actions to bring accountability to those who have deprived the Belarusian people of their rights.

I commend this broad motion to the House and, as I said at the start, I hope it will get universal support.

4:25 pm

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I add my support and the support of my party, Sinn Féin, to the motion. I can only condemn in the strongest terms the act of international piracy committed by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. The hijacking of a civilian aircraft to facilitate the arrest of a journalist is an absolute disgrace. I am glad that the international community is prepared to act to ensure that this act will not go unpunished.

It may be argued that when the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, gave the order to hijack this plane he was targeting not simply a journalist and the journalist's girlfriend but also, in effect, the entire Belarusian opposition. We have long associated performative violence with the counter-insurgency tactics of colonial powers from the 19th century onwards, be they French, British, Israeli or whatever else. The impact of performative acts of violence is well known. Most usually it is intended as a moral lesson to be visited upon the watching audience as much as the unfortunate victims. It is a tried-and-tested method of colonial policing, the practice of which has been taken up by authoritarian regimes globally. It is the practice of striking terror in the hearts and fear in the minds of men and women who would dare to lend their support to the opponents of an authoritarian regime. In the hijacking of the Ryanair plane, Alexander Lukashenko was attempting to send a message to all who oppose his government that there is no place safe from his reach. It was a blatant act of aggression intended to silence legitimate dissent to the undemocratic actions of the Lukashenko government. It was a message intended to convey the strength, dominance and reach of Lukashenko.

In that regard, I have been struck, from the commentary I have witnessed since the hijacking took place, by the impact the event has had on members of the Belarusian diaspora, including some who reside in this State, and this is totally unacceptable. The Irish Government, along with its EU counterparts, needs to offer reassurance to the members of the Belarusian diaspora who feel threatened by the acts of President Lukashenko. We have a duty to protect the physical and emotional security of all on this island, particularly those who would be threatened by this act of international aggression. A failure to do so would act as a measure of success for President Lukashenko and his intention of silencing the democratic opposition of the Belarusian people. Lukashenko has attempted to increase pressure on the Belarusian opposition living abroad through the targeting of family members at home in Belarus. This includes an incident which saw the detention of the grandparents and the sister's husband of a foreign-based Belarusian journalist. International measures designed to curtail Lukashenko need to be extended to offer protection to the families of his opponents who remain within his reach.

I welcome the fact that the EU was able to reach a unanimous decision on the important issue of voting to put in place sanctions against the Lukashenko government. I wish to express my disappointment, however, that some eastern European members of the EU that have led out on the calls for action against the Belarusian government, which I repeat I and my colleagues in Sinn Féin support, have singularly failed to apply the same rigorous criteria to the human rights abuses of other administrations in other parts of the world. All our actions and decisions and our entire outlook, both here in the Dáil and in the EU, must be predicated on the rule of international law. When nation states are found guilty of breaking international law, they must know they will face consequences commensurate with their crimes without fear or favour. International law is not a pick-and-mix; it must be applied rigorously and fairly.

It is disturbing that a number of states can refuse to support the application of the rule of international law against Israel for its flagrant abuses of international law and persecution of the Palestinian people. We can speculate as to what their reasons are. It is correct that the EU will vote to impose sanctions against Belarus, but it is shameful that the EU persists in its refusal to impose sanctions against another state that continues to act in violation of international law, one that stands accused of the crime of apartheid and, in recent weeks, has been responsible for the murder of hundreds of civilians, including dozens of children. The Dáil has shown that it is prepared to stand against this oppression, but our Government must take up the mantle set before it by the Irish people and demand at EU level an equivalence under international law for all states guilty of human rights abuses. While I agree with everything the Minister said, I agree with one part in particular, namely, that impunity breeds violence. A perceived impunity has allowed Israel to perpetrate grave human rights abuses. As a country, we must stand up for the rule of law internationally. It is incumbent on us to take a lead on measures, not just against Belarus for breaching international law, but against all countries that do so, and that must include Israel.

4:35 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I am pleased to support the motion. What happened last month was like something one would see in a Netflix movie - a Ryanair aeroplane taking off from one European capital, heading north towards another European capital, and being subjected to an effective hijacking by a leader styling himself on a dictator. In reality, it was the news. A plane full of Europeans and Americans flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania got MiGed to Minsk and Lukashenko and his onboard gang of KGB thugs got their priority passenger - a young journalist who was gathering intelligence and exposing corruption, tyranny and brutality in Belarus - all on the pretext of a threat from Hamas when what was happening in Gaza was utterly disgusting. The screenwriters and plotters had all their political bases covered. Politically, it was brazen, reckless and audacious. No doubt, it has given ideas to those of a similar disposition or inclination.

All of us with children who are in their 20s feel the fear and distress of Mr. Roman Protasevich's parents and the sickening worry of his partner, Ms Sofia Sapega's family as they consider the immunity of impunity and vice versabeing established in that part of Europe. This did not just happen on our doorstep, but on one of our budget airlines, Ryanair. At 33,000 ft with a fighter jet escort and a state's lie about a terror threat on board, the people inside the aeroplane were trapped and vulnerable.

I have constituents from Belarus who now live in north Kildare. They are worried about their country and families and are anxious about Lukashenko's grip on their homeland. At the same time, they have fierce pride and fear for the Chernobyl child with the strong ties to Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ms Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has taken the place of her husband after the opposition leader and pro-democracy campaigner was jailed before the elections, joining more than 400 other political prisoners in a country that still has the death penalty and where political detainees are regularly tortured.

I welcome the swift and necessary international political moves against Belarus. Unfortunately, they stand in stark contrast to the international tardiness in similar necessary action against Israel for its breaking of international law in Palestine against the Palestinian people, including 66 dead Gazan children. I urge the international community to look at Belarus and Israel with the same political zeal. We cannot come down hard on those who break international law in one country while tiptoeing around those who break it in another. It is the law itself and the breaking of that law that matters, not who breaks it. It cannot be a case of all eyes on Lukashenko but a blind eye turned to Netanyahu. If it is, we are excusing and complicit in the breaking of international law. I urge the Minister to remember this.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I do not often agree with Michael O'Leary, but in anyone's language, the action by the Belarusian Government last month was state-sponsored piracy. I send my solidarity to the people of Belarus, who are suffering under the Lukashenko regime. In particular, I send my solidarity to Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend, Ms Sapega. It is clear that Mr. Protasevich's arrest was the object of the exercise. It has been reported that there were several KGB agents on the flight.

I commend the work of Belarusian exiles in applying pressure to companies like Rolls-Royce and British American Tobacco, which are seen as supporters of the regime. They have also contacted holders of Belarusian bonds listed on the London Stock Exchange. No company with any regard for human rights should have any relationship whatsoever with Belarus.

We need a strong response from the EU. This is a serious issue that requires a serious response. Citizens of European countries were endangered by the actions of the Belarusian Government and there must be a commensurate response. Otherwise, it will set a dangerous precedent. Where is the UN on this matter? The UN needs fundamental reform. It is not acceptable that Israel has acted with impunity or for Belarus to do the same.

Freedom of the press is an important part of democracy. It plays a vital role in informing citizens about public affairs and monitoring the actions of government at all levels. In a cynical move, a transcript broadcast by Belarusian television implied that the Ryanair crew had asked to land in Minsk, which was not the case. It is clear that Belarus has a severe democratic deficit. We owe it to the people of Belarus to stand up to this regime and to call its behaviour out for what it is.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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On behalf of the Labour Party, I support the motion, which is in the name of the committee, that I hope will be passed by all Members.

Belarus is not a nation that we have traditionally had extensive dealings with, but many of us have publicly supported the democratic rallies that followed last year's patently fraudulent presidential election. We supported publicly and in this House the sanctions taken by the EU against the Lukashenko regime's violent action against peaceful demonstrators. What is probably the most oppressive regime in continental Europe is a cause of shame for us all.

The forced landing of a Ryanair flight between two EU capitals and the arrest of two of its passengers - Mr. Protasevich, a democracy campaigner and journalist, and his partner, Ms Sapega - dramatically refocused our attention. Apart from a general level of shock at such an outrageous act of state-sponsored hijacking of a European airline in European airspace, it is clear that the objective of this action was not only to remove a journalist and his travel companion, but to terrorise any citizen who is critical of Lukashenko and his oppressive regime. The Belarusian authorities subsequently released two videos, one of Mr. Protasevich and the other of Ms Sapega, each allegedly confessing to crimes of organising illegal demonstrations against the regime or other criminal actions.

Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. He is an authoritarian ruler who, before last year's elections, had one eye on what Russia was doing in the annexation of parts of Ukraine and made some outreach to the European Union. Now, he plainly believes that he can take this action without significant consequences. Following last year’s fraudulent elections, the European Union declared those elections to be just that. Lukashenko dismissed the sanctions that were imposed and obviously came to the conclusion that the EU itself, in response to his actions, was largely toothless. He was emboldened, therefore, to feel that he could act to intercept a flight of EU citizens between Athens and Vilnius and to consider that that was fair game for him.

The motion before the House urges the European Union, Council and Commission to continue to monitor the situation. Most people in this House strongly feel that we need to do much more than that. A clearly petrified journalist was bundled off an internal European Union flight. He and all of the passengers who boarded that plane in Athens were entitled to feel safe and that they would not be intercepted by a foreign nation and that the authority of the European Union itself would protect them. I welcome the actions taken to date and the actions or own Government in convening a series of meetings. We must be prepared to do more.

Specifically, we must harness whatever international pressure is necessary to free Roman Protasevich and the Sofia Sapega. Those people are among hundreds of political prisoners, many of whom have been tortured, in Lukashenko’s Belarus. They entrusted their safety to the European Union. They boarded a flight in a European capital en routeto another in a European-registered aeroplane. We must mount whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is required until they are both freed.

We also need to know if Russia was involved in any way in this illegal hijacking. As well as expressing the outrage of the Irish Government and people to the Belarus Embassy in London, about which he told the House, I ask the Minister whether questions were also put to the Russian Ambassador here. If so, what response was received?

We have seen in recent times a number of horrendous actions by state agents hijacking citizens who expressed opposition to their regimes. We saw the brutal murder of an opponent of the Saudi leadership in a consulate building in Turkey. This week we also saw the taking of a critic of the Turkish Government itself from the streets of Kenya. These are outrageous acts and we need to act as an international community to ensure that they do not reoccur.

4:45 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am moving back to the Government slot. I call Deputy Haughey.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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The state-sponsored hijacking of a civilian aircraft, Ryanair flight FR4978, travelling from Athens to Lithuania on Sunday last, 23 May, was outrageous. As we know, the plane was forced to land in Minsk under false pretences. This has been correctly described as state-sponsored piracy. The dispatch of a Belarusian fighter jet to the scene reinforces this view. In this case, we had EU citizens travelling between two EU states on board an EU-registered airline. Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend were taken off the plane, arrested and put into detention. They have since been coerced into confessing to participation in illegal demonstrations. These confessions have been made public and are yet another case of fundamental human rights being breached. These series of events represent a serious threat to the security of EU citizens in so many ways and are a wake-up call for the EU and for all who believe in democracy.

How has the EU reacted to these events? As it happens, a meeting of the European Council was scheduled at the same time as this saga was unfolding. This was certainly a test of the resolve of the European Union. President Alexander Lukashenko is reported as saying that EU politicians do not have balls. In response, the EU strongly condemned the hijacking. It imposed sanctions on Belarus after the presidential elections last year and new sanctions have now been imposed on individuals, high-level officials, and businesses in Belarus that are supportive of the regime. That is the right approach.

In addition, EU airlines were advised not to fly over Belarus and a ban was imposed on Belarusian airlines flying into EU airspace. Again, that was right thing to do.

Separately, the International Transport Forum has requested that an official investigation be carried out by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization and I know that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was very supportive of that.

The primary demand at this stage must be for Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend to be released immediately. The United States will also join the EU in imposing sanctions on Belarus and this is also to be welcomed.

What is the situation generally in Belarus at this time? By any standards, Alexander Lukashenko is an authoritarian ruler presiding over a dangerous regime. The election committee in Belarus gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote in the presidential election last year, when independent observers estimate that the actual vote that he got was nearer 25% to 30%. The election was therefore rigged. Subsequently, protests were brutally suppressed. Some 35,000 people were arrested. Prisoners were beaten, tortured and even raped in prison. Some candidates were imprisoned while others fled the country. Ireland must continue to raise its concerns at the EU and the UN about these ongoing human rights abuses in Belarus.

The daily harassment and intimidation of civil society, journalists and the independent media with unjust detentions and attempts to criminalise human rights are commonplace. We should also ensure that this is on the top of the agenda of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. These practices on the doorstep of the EU are totally unacceptable and must be called out and highlighted by Ireland at every available opportunity.

As regards the situation generally in Belarus, the EU rightly took a strong stand following the presidential election last year. Belarus is bordered by Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine. Given that it is generally supported by Russia, Belarus is a threat to international security. The EU, as a champion of democratic values, has also offered a €3 billion package to Belarus if it transitions to democracy. Again, this proposed practical assistance is the right thing to do. The EU, including Ireland, is not neutral when it comes to the rule of law and the protection of freedom and democracy. We must, therefore, keep Belarus high on the international agenda. I met some Belarusians outside of Leinster House a short time ago and their fear is that their country will fall down the political agenda in a couple of weeks' time.

I want to tell the House about Vitold Ashurak who died in a Belarusian prison last month on 21 May.

He was a political prisoner, an opposition activist sentenced last year at a closed trial to five years for public order offences. Aged 50, he was also an environmentalist. According to official reports, he died of cardiac failure. When his body was returned to his family, however, his head was entirely covered with bandages. The circumstances of his death are, to say the least, very suspicious and must be thoroughly and independently investigated but, unfortunately, I doubt very much that will be facilitated. I had adopted Vitold Ashurak as a political prisoner at the request of an NGO known as Libereco. Other Deputies, Senators and Irish MEPs have also adopted political prisoners in Belarus, and I encourage more to do so. Ireland and the EU must press home strongly the demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners currently in Belarusian prisons. Their only crime was standing up for democracy and fundamental human rights in their country.

Of course, the elephant in the room in this debate is Russia. Russia must be clearly seen as a threat to our security at this time and it has form in this regard. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, while in 2014, it invaded Crimea in the Ukraine. It has recently announced plans to beef up its military operations in its western region. The opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned and imprisoned.

It is clear Russia engages in cyberwarfare throughout the globe. Incidentally, the Russian ambassador to Ireland was quoted in a Sunday newspaper as stating that Russia had no links to the hackers of the HSE ICT system. The least Russia can do is to ensure the criminals in its country are prevented from engaging in this activity. In 2018, there was the novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England. Election interference and cyberespionage by Russia is well-documented and its meddling in the 2020 US presidential election is also no secret. In 2014, Russian military intelligence was linked to a blast at a warehouse containing 58 tonnes of ammunition in the Czech Republic.

As regards the recent aeroplane hijacking, the Ryanair boss, Michael O'Leary, has stated that KGB agents were on board. Russia retaliated in respect of the EU flight ban by banning flights into Moscow, and within days, President Lukashenko was very publicly photographed with Vladimir Putin. It has been reported that Russia will soon send Belarus the next $500 million tranche of the $1.5 billion in agreed loans.

We can draw our own conclusions from all of this. It is clear that Russia wants to present itself as a major global power once again and its aim is to destabilise the EU. We need to wise up to all this. From what I can see, the US intends to do so in any event. The US President, Joe Biden, has stated that he will raise abuses of human rights with President Putin when he meets him in Geneva this month. President Biden has spoken about democracy being under threat in the US and globally, and again we all need to appreciate this.

This brings me to the issue of growing authoritarianism throughout the globe, and in particular within the EU. Of course, I have Hungary and Poland in mind in this context. Gradually, democratic norms are being eroded in some EU states and that is a worry. Let us hope this is just a temporary phenomenon. Press freedom, an independent judiciary, academic freedom, tolerance of minorities, checks and balances and the right to protest are all basic democratic norms, yet the EU does not seem to have the tools for monitoring and sanctioning non-compliance. While there are Article 7 and other mechanisms, there is a weakness as regards qualified majority voting when it comes to European Council meetings for some reason, to take one example. The EU is divided between those who wish to punish offenders and those who think they should be encouraged to stay within the tent, so to speak. On the EU recovery fund being contingent on rule of law adherence, for example, a fudge was eventually agreed, and it remains to be seen what will happen in the end in that regard.

Democracy is a fragile form of government and it is under threat from creeping authoritarianism. Democracies do not automatically self-renew. We must be conscious of this before it is too late and we cannot take our democracy for granted. I will support the motion. As other Deputies said, perhaps we should do a bit more than what is contained therein, but this debate is most welcome and timely.

4:55 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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An aeroplane travelling between Athens and Vilnius was diverted with the threat of a bomb, with a MiG-29 becoming part of the operation and with the return of terminology related to the KGB. It is like something out of a bad film. It is "Die Hard" without John McClane. The problem is there was no hero and a crime was without doubt committed. It was international piracy and state-sponsored hijacking. There have been many headlines in recent years that we would not have anticipated, but we would never have predicted this.

I assume that on some level, people in Belarus would say, "No shock here". We are talking about Alexander Lukashenko. To put it mildly, we look at that state and know that "democratic deficit" is the nicest way one could talk about it. There have been significant human rights abuses and considerable knocks to democracy, and the people who live there do so under severe pressure. Moreover, this is big-boy politics, big-boy play. This is an attempt to show how powerful Lukashenko is. This is a lesson to his enemies, at home and abroad, that he can do business and get them anywhere. We really need to take action.

I welcome what we are doing in this debate, with full support in the House for the motion, and what the EU has done, managing to get unanimity and sanctions. I also welcome the fact that the US is going to follow through with sanctions, because that is all very necessary. This crime was committed so that Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, could be detained. It is difficult to believe this happened in the modern world, but sometimes people get into positions of power and do not see any restraints or controls. We can get a result only through sanctions, putting pressure on them and ensuring that the world knows and that they are made to feel that theirs is a pariah state. That is what needs to happen here. We need to follow through on this and that is necessary.

We know there are internal issues in the EU. Other Deputies have spoken about its rule of law difficulties, particularly in regard to Hungary and Poland, and they need to be dealt with. The wider issue of Catalonian elected representatives facing sanctions they should not face is utterly wrong as well. Furthermore, it would be remiss of me not to mention the historic motion that my colleague, Deputy Brady, recently tabled. We secured agreement to call out the reality of the Israeli annexation and stealing of Palestinian lands. It was brilliant, effective and necessary that we got that work done in the House last week, but that will matter only if we bring it to another place, namely, back to the EU and the international community.

It should be the case that we stand up for rights, human rights and for people’s rights across the world and ensure international criminality, human rights abuses and slaughter is called out. We should demand international law and deal with international criminals. We support full sanctions in relation to this utterly international criminal act by the Lukashenko regime. However, we also call for others to be dealt with in the same way. Whether than can be achieved throughout the European Union, I doubt it very much. Ireland, along with many other countries that are willing to sign up to the reality of breaches of international law by the Israelis, must put pressure on them and other rule breakers, other international criminals, and to demand the rights of people.

5:05 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I never thought I would have to stand in our Parliament and describe a scene where Ryanair, an Irish airline, was effectively forced to perform a rendition flight between two European Union member countries, Greece and Lithuania. A rendition flight was performed on the order of the Belarusian, Alexander Lukashenko. It is an unprecedented outrage. I cannot begin to imagine the terror on that flight, the terror of EU citizens being told that a bomb had been placed onboard. As confusion reigned, a journalist became aware that the flight was being redirected, not to the closet airport in Lithuania, but to Belarus from where he had fled, having sought sanctuary in the European Union. I cannot imagine the terror experienced by the journalist at that moment or the further terror experienced by those onboard as a fighter plane appeared, under the auspices of giving guidance to the airliner.

It has been called international piracy and a state-sponsored hijacking. I would add that it was state-sponsored terrorism. Terrorism has many forms. One aspect is to send a message of terror not just to the victims, in this case the journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, but to anyone who would oppose the rule of Alexander Lukashenko. There is another aspect. It was a hijacking, international piracy and state-sponsored terrorism, but it was also a kidnapping. The kidnapping part cannot be lost in this. The most important thing now is the safe return of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, who is a student. That is of paramount importance. In addition to welcoming this motion, I welcome the immediate statement from our Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, in the hours following it calling for their release. That cannot be lost in the outrage and shock of what happened.

Protasevich was dangerous to the Belarusian regime because of his reporting. He was dangerous because he reported on what was happening in Belarus. The media organisation for which Protasevich works has a telegram channel with more than 1.2 million subscribers, which is a notable figure. It is a huge audience in Belarus, that is, 1.2 million subscribing to Protasevich’s telegram channel, considering it has a population of just 9.5 million people. It shows how desperate the depths are to which autocratic leaders will sink to in order to silence the free press. It underscores the importance of a free press in democratic societies.

It must be said that the EU has failed to act with sufficient strength against Lukashenko and, in particular, against his cronies. The sanctions introduced last year and in February have clearly been ineffective. They were ineffective because they did not target the correct people. It is welcome that the Minister spoke about further sanctions and suggested there would be discussions on what they would consist of. It is not unknown that Lukashenko surrounds himself with oligarchs who have made their vast fortunes from petrol and fertiliser. If the EU really wants to target Lukashenko and his allies, it should go after the petrol and fertiliser oligarchs. Sanction them and make them pariahs. Then we will see the rats scuttling from the ship of Lukashenko.

This is a genuine test of EU foreign policy. It is also a test of the EU’s policy not just outside our borders, but within our borders. People like Lukashenko have been empowered by the fact that other regimes in the European Union have acted in a way that was detrimental to our values and to the rights of citizens in the European Union. If we are to truly confront Lukashenko, we must get the house of the European Union in order. It has been stated, and I will repeat it, that the rule of law should apply in all circumstances. Lukashenko cannot become a convenient enemy where we say he is terrible and cover our eyes to everything else. Every day in Hungary and Poland, for example, migrant and minority communities are persecuted. That must be confronted. We should not tolerate that and we should never equivocate when the Orbán Government and the Polish Government tries to suppress our values and tell us that we cannot include certain amendments to enhance women’s rights and minorities. When Poland enacted LGBT safe zones, we should have been visceral in our response, called for sanctions and should have done anything we could have done to ensure it did not take place.

A point I made last week when this was discussed, and I will make it again today, is that Lukashenko behaved in a manner that was truly appalling in terms of attacking the free press. It is welcome that the Government was quick to bring this motion to the House and it is one which I will fully support, but we cannot cover our eyes to how slow we have been to respond to the situation in the Middle East, in particular Israel’s conduct. Only a few weeks ago, Israel blew up a building that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. That cannot be forgotten. If we are to stand in opposition to attacks on free press over the skies of Belarus, we must also stand in total opposition to it wherever it happens in the world. The Government of Netanyahu blew up a building that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. I do not think we can ever unsee that. I support the Government motion today, but I ask that we are not blind to where these injustices and autocratic despots operate elsewhere.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this debate and, of course, I wholeheartedly support this extremely important motion. Before I talk to the topic at hand, I want to state that this motion replaced statements on the post-European Council on the schedule. I have asked my party’s representative on the Business Committee that that be on a future schedule of the Dáil because it is a requirement under the Lisbon treaty, in terms of subsidiarity, that our national Parliament receives a report on the European Council. That is vitally important. While Belarus was front and centre of the Council, it was not the only issue and there was much more to discuss. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, focused on in detail.

I am grateful to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for his detailed intervention and the strength of this motion. It really is very strong and important. I want to commend the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, on his tireless efforts on this issue. Throughout his time as the Minister of State, he has gone above and beyond in terms of phone calls, meetings and corralling support within European Union member states for what was an important decision by the European Council last week. I will not lie. I was sceptical that the response from the European Council might have been slightly disappointing, given the nature of other governments' approach to dealing with Belarus and Russia. To have unanimous support for what is easily the strongest set of sanctions on and condemnation of Belarus coming from the European Council is vitally important, and is a huge testament to the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and their tireless work with European colleagues. I am struck and disappointed that it has taken an act of international terrorism to unite the EU to do something genuinely forcible in relation to the situation in Belarus.

The fact an Irish-owned airliner was forced to land in Belarus so Roman Protasevich could be dragged off the plane by KGB agents with his girlfriend and now languishes in a Belarusian jail potentially facing the death penalty is the most bizarre and scary situation. That is what it took for every one of the 27 member states of the European Union to finally stand up and offer genuine condemnation and sanction for the totalitarian regime in Belarus which many of us have spoken about and raised via parliamentary questions and other post and pre-European Council statements in this Chamber for some time. It is nothing new. We are dealing with a brutal dictatorship that is a puppet of the Russian Government. We have to be firm, not just in this Parliament in the EU member state furthest from Belarus, but across the European Union.

Roman Protasevich is one of at least 421 political prisoners languishing in a Belarusian jail. I am fortunate, like many Members of this House, to have been asked by Libereco to adopt one political prisoner, Tatsiana Yakelchyk. She sits in a Belarusian prison since November. She was a 20-something-year-old student going about her business and concerned about the future of her country. She was arrested in the middle of the night and taken from her apartment. Her mobile phone, laptop and iPad were seized. Now she stands on trial in a collective trial. It is an absolute show trial and she will be found guilty. Lord knows what the regime will do to her and many others.

This has been going on for a long time and it is not good enough that we allow certain member states in the EU to block meaningful action. While the sanctions agreed by the European Council were extremely welcome and this motion put down by the Government is particularly welcome and strong, it is still not enough. We need to look at what other member states, former member states and non-member states of the European Union have done to provide a meaningful response to what is going on in Belarus and the Belarusian regime's attack on European sovereignty by forcing a European-owned and EU-registered airline travelling between two EU capital cities and full of EU citizens to be brought down in the manner it was, with a fighter plane and an illegal bomb threat.

We have to call for the EU to make a full audit of every business based in the EU, including Ireland, which has connections or is active in Belarus. Such an audit has been called for in the house in Westminster. We have to make it clear that doing business with the regime in Belarus is unacceptable. It cannot be stood for and we cannot allow the citizens of Belarus and of the EU to be put at risk for economic gain or otherwise. I call on the Minister to make that meaningful charge at the next meeting of the General Affairs Council.

I am struck by the universal tone of the debate here. I have not heard anyone say they will speak or vote against this motion, which is refreshing. Hopefully we will have more of this in the future. This is a pretty black and white issue. There is no grey area. We have to look at what we as a country can do meaningfully and how we can separate the authoritarian, totalitarian dictatorship, the regime and the cronies that surround President Lukashenko from the innocent people in Belarus who are suffering. Ireland has strong ties to Belarus. I am thinking of the work done over the years by Adi Roche and former Deputy Noel Coonan, who worked with children from Belarus affected by the fall-out from the Chernobyl disaster and other things to bring them to Ireland. We are struck by that tie and that relationship.

Something we can do is follow the example of what the UK did with Hong Kong. The Government can offer Irish visas immediately to any non-regime individual with the ability, opportunity and fortune to escape Belarus to allow them to work and travel and give them the security of being in the European Union. That is in our gift and is a sensible, generous measure. It is something we can do as a small EU member state to prove to the people of Belarus that we are on their side and that, when we criticise Belarus, we criticise the murderous regime of President Lukashenko, not the innocent people who have to live under that barbaric regime.

Beyond that, we have to put pressure on the sporting organisations. There is not a rich history of ice hockey in this country but the fact the ice hockey under-19 championships are due to take place in Belarus in the coming months needs to be raised. We need to put pressure on EU member states with active ice hockey teams and ask them not to send those teams into this despotic regime to play and offer tacit agreement to what the regime is doing. It extends, more importantly, to football. There are many matches and tournaments in Belarus in the coming months and years. We need to take a stand as a Government and as the European Union.

We have to remember this regime denied Covid existed. It did not bring in any restrictions, forced its people to continue to work, allowed the Belarusian football league to continue as the virus ran like wildfire. What is behind this regime? Of serious concern to the entire European Union is the tacit and not-so-tacit support the regime receives from the Russian Federation. This is increasingly concerning and we have to be more outspoken in this Chamber and at a European Union level about the influence of the Russian Government directly and other sinister forces surrounding that Government, within the European Union and in our neighbourhood. They are supporting and propping up this regime.

At the weekend, we saw a lovely cuddle between Vladimir Putin and President Lukashenko. We saw the desperate dictator going to Moscow to receive affirmation and the guarantee of protection, funding and much else. It is pathetic, but that is what we face. We see the influence Russia has had in the affairs of Ukraine. We see the scandalous acts in the United Kingdom in the city of Salisbury and the brazen attempts by Russian elements, government or non-government, to influence elections across the European Union.

This State expelled Russian diplomats only a couple of years ago in response to the vicious state-sponsored murder in Salisbury. We need to be clear that within the European Union we will not tolerate these attempts to undermine our democratic institutions, our domestic security and the viability of this country to act without fear of influence and malevolent forces. Many regimes across the former Soviet bloc are prepared to tolerate and protect the sort of criminal gangs that were responsible for the vicious cyberattack that befell the HSE in recent weeks.

We are not talking about the situation in Belarus in isolation. We are talking about the geopolitical stability of the entire region and the need for Ireland as a member of the European Union and the UN Security Council not just to put down a motion like this, though it is extremely welcome, and have a selection of strong speeches, but also to play our part on the global stage continuously. The 400-odd prisoners in Belarusian jails will still be there in a couple of weeks’ time and the people who live in Belarus will still be suffering. We cannot let this debate be a one-time effort.

I appeal to the Minister to make sure that this motion is binding and lasting and that everything done at an EU level by any Minister of this Government continues to push the case for the ordinary people of Belarus and underlines the concern all of us have for security and stability across the European Union and how that is reflected by the dictatorship in Belarus.

5:15 pm

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama le mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Andrews. Ireland was drawn into what happened in Belarus by the nature of the arrest of Roman Protasevich. The fact that a Ryanair aeroplane - and therefore, in many senses, an Irish aeroplane - was forced into an emergency landing, which brought increased dangers for all the 130 passengers on board, made the Government's intervention expected and necessary. The Government has been strong on this, demanding answers from the Belarusian Government in relation to this emergency landing. There has been clear shock from the Irish people that this has happened and that one of our aeroplanes was forced into an emergency landing.

The answer that has been received so far that there were fears there was a bomb on board the same aeroplane that carried Roman Protasevich certainly seems a lot more than a coincidence. The concern internationally regarding freedom of the press has been quite resounding and the action by the EU, through the imposition of sanctions, has been very swift. It is deeply unfortunate that the same swift action in terms of the immediate imposition of sanctions with regard to the freedom of the press was not taken by the EU in the targeting of media outlets by the Israeli air force in Gaza two weeks ago. We must be clear that we tolerate no attacks on the media, no matter where they are. Outrage and swift action should not simply be confined to attacks on the media. The killing of civilians, including many children, in Gaza should have been sufficient reason for the international community to act swiftly on Israel's apartheid regime.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs met recently with the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, about the situation in Belarus. I note that both were unequivocal in their outrage regarding same. While the US does not have a direct say about what will happen to Roman Protasevich, it does have a direct say on another journalist who is being held captive, namely, Julian Assange. He is someone I have raised in this Chamber on several occasions. I hope the Minister used this opportunity to raise his case and call for his immediate release, as it would be utterly hypocritical not to do so when raising the case of another journalist, Roman Protasevich. Julian Assange is facing charges for spreading information in a normal journalistic way and the silence on this from the international community has been deafening, as has been the silence of the very newspapers that published the information he gathered.

5:25 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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The forced landing of Ryanair flight FR 4978, an Irish airline, put Ireland centre stage of an international incident. That any state would force an aeroplane to carry out an emergency landing to arrest a political opponent is wrong and cannot be tolerated. The Government, along with the rest of the EU, was fast and decisive in the approach to dealing with the forced landing and the arrest of the journalist, an outspoken critic of the Belarusian Government.

Freedom of the press and of political expression must be defended and upheld. This international incident has rightly called into question the role of the EU and the international community in defending the freedom of the press and political expression. Ireland's voice must be loud and clear in defending these values. We cannot allow trade deals to buy silence and inaction when these values are targeted by various governments. However, the strong, decisive and swift response towards Belarus with the imposition of sanctions highlights a certain double standard when it comes to defending these values. Where were the sanctions against the apartheid state of Israel, following the targeted bombing of several press and media outlets in Gaza last month by Israeli war planes? Al Jazeera's buildings were levelled. Where was the strong, decisive action when Israel's apartheid security forces physically assaulted and detained journalists who were covering the protests in occupied Palestine? These were clear acts to intimidate and suppress the freedom of the press.

Could the Minister indicate how much longer the EU will remain silent while the journalist, Julian Assange, is held captive? Julian Assange has done the world a great service by exposing crimes and human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He deserves everybody's gratitude, not his incarceration. When will Ireland speak up for these and all journalists, not just a select few?

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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What happened here was the de facto hijacking of a Ryanair flight by Belarusian intelligence operatives to arrest a political dissident. It is very clear, despite the attempted obfuscation by the regime, that that is precisely what took place. These are the actions of a desperate dictator. Lukashenko has been in power for 27 years. They are actions that People Before Profit absolutely condemns. Lukashenko is a man who is under pressure from a mass movement from below to end his rule. He thinks he can get away with these kind of actions in pursuit of his dictatorial agenda of repression. We should raise our voices to demand that all political prisoners be immediately released. The actions of Lukashenko in targeting Roman Protasevich are aimed not just at him and his partner or the right-wing opposition in Belarus, of which they are probably a part, but also at the wider opposition movement, including the hundreds of thousands of workers who engage in general strike action against Lukashenko.

The immediate history to the current situation in Belarus is the supposed elections in August of last year, where Lukashenko claimed and was widely ridiculed for it to have won more than 80% of the vote. That provoked mass protests and mass movements from below from workers who were opposed to the robbing of an election, the repressive policies of the regime within Belarus and the agenda of privatisation that is being implemented within Belarus. The response by the regime to those protests has been one of repression. More than 30,000 activists have been arrested. Many people have been forced to leave the country and there have been widespread police and intelligence agency brutality against protesters, causing significant injuries. This is a horrendous regime and, although we as socialists have political differences with Roman Protasevich, we defend his right to fly and not have his flight downed by the Belarusian regime or not to be jailed for his political views. We support the movement against Lukashenko. We call for the privatisation programmes to be stopped and for the Lukashenko regime to be overthrown and a system based on a workers' democracy to be put in place.

One point I would make to the movement in Belarus, if people happen to be watching, is to be careful not to be allowed to be used by the forces of western imperialism. They have no interest in the actual democratic rights of the ordinary people in Belarus or the economic living standards of working-class people and are looking to engage in a new cold war between western imperialism and Russian imperialism, neither side of which represents the interests of ordinary working-class people anywhere in the world.

That brings me to the final point I want to make, which is the hypocrisy that is present in the righteous condemnation - a correct condemnation - of the actions of the Lukashenko regime. Nobody is asking the question of where Lukashenko got the idea that he could down a flight. Could the Government answer that question? Is it a coincidence that the Austrian Government downed a flight in an act of international piracy, just the same as the Lukashenko regime? In that case it involved the elected Head of State of Bolivia, Evo Morales, because it thought that Edward Snowden was on board. It is an incredibly similar action of international piracy with no condemnation by the EU or the Government. Instead of offering asylum to the likes of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, who has been mentioned, the Government bows its head and only lifts a finger against Russia or states seen to be aligned to it whenever the major powers in Europe and the US tell it to. That is because the Government is subservient to the interests of US and western imperialism and is completely unwilling to take a principled, moral and political stand against the actions taken by those governments and those states that are allied to them. It is a Government that lets a foreign military power, the United States, use our infrastructure on its way to carry out its global campaign of war and terror.

The point about double standards applies. Again, to be clear, this is not whataboutery because I am 100% on record, and have been for years, in opposition to the Lukashenko regime. In the European Parliament, I spoke out about the Lukashenko regime and I support a revolution against Lukashenko. However, I ask why a Government that, correctly, is able to condemn those attacks on democratic rights, those repressive actions, is not willing to do it when it comes to the likes of the US Government? We made the point in the House about the US Government brutally oppressing indigenous people at Standing Rock. We called on the then Fine Gael Government to take action, to refuse to provide legitimacy to that regime and to show clear and unconditional support for the indigenous people, but it did not. The same happened in terms of the Black Lives Matter Movement, when we had police repression on the streets of the US, injuring thousands, in that we called for a statement of opposition and to expel the US ambassador. We look at what is taking place in Guantanamo Bay. The US has more than its fair share of political prisoners yet this Government would not be caught dead taking a stand.

5:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Brendan Griffin, who is sharing time with Deputy Cormac Devlin.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. I welcome that the Government, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, have brought the motion before the House as it is very important that we would do that. As I was coming into Leinster House earlier today, I paused briefly to speak to some of the demonstrators who had gathered outside the gates in solidarity with the people of Belarus. The thought struck me, as I informed one of the protesters that I would be speaking on the motion this evening in solidarity with them, that, in their own country, those people could not do that. Thankfully, in our country, in our democracy, we can do that freely and safely without the risk of being imprisoned like the hundreds of political prisoners in Belarus at the moment.

On the doorstep of the European Union in recent times, we have witnessed appalling abuses of fundamental human rights, whether it is from the regime in Israel most recently, as they shamed itself in front of the world, in Turkey or, of course, in Belarus. I concur with the very strong condemnation that has been expressed by Members on all sides of the House in regard to what has been happening in Belarus. When we think about this, it is just over a two and a half hour drive from one of our EU capitals to Minsk but, really, it is like driving into a different world, a far darker world, a far more dangerous world and a repressed world, right on the doorstep of the European Union. How we act now and into the future will be critical in regard to the stability of that entire region, and the safety and security of the European Union as well.

I want to express my solidarity with Roman Protasevich, Sofia Sapega and all of the aforementioned prisoners in Belarus. I am calling for their immediate release and for fair and free elections to take place in Belarus. I concur with the entire wording of the very strong motion that is before the House. I echo the words of Deputy Neale Richmond in regard to ensuring that we go further and that we fully utilise our position on the UN Security Council to ensure there is a strong global response and strong global action against this tyrannical regime in Belarus. We have to give full consideration to the call by Deputy Richmond in regard to making Ireland a safe place for those repressed activists in Belarus to come to. We have to follow our words with strong actions. Deputy Richmond's proposal this evening is a very solid one and one that should be given strong consideration by the Government and enacted, if possible.

What happened in regard to Ryanair flight FR4978 was an affront to the European Union and to all of our freedoms. As an Irishman, given it was an Irish airline, I feel it was an affront to our country as well. We cannot allow that to happen again. We must ensure there is severe punishment for what happened. The danger of normalising this and allowing it to happen again is that it would have far-reaching consequences. I hope this was the final straw, that bridge too far. It was total brazenness by the regime in Belarus. I hope it will now also be the catalyst for a change of regime in Belarus. It is simply not acceptable and it can never be acceptable. As I said, it puts all of our freedoms at risk when this type of thing happens.

The work of Libereco has been mentioned. I have signed up to be a godparent for one of the imprisoned activists in Belarus and I would encourage all parliamentarians in this country to do likewise. I commend Deputy Richmond on his proactive work in that regard and the other Irish parliamentarians, here and in the European Parliament, who have done so as well. It is very important that we would show solidarity with people who are defending what is right, defending democracy, defending what we hold so dear and what we value as a country and as a people. It is right that we, as the fairly elected representatives of our people, send a very strong message across Europe and across the world in solidarity with people who are incarcerated for defending that very right. It is not acceptable and it is never acceptable.

When we look at the world in recent years, when we look across the Atlantic, when we look at the devaluation of democracy that we saw in particular during the Trump Administration, that goes some way to explaining how there can be a devaluation of democracy in far more questionable regimes. That is the thin end of the wedge, unfortunately, and it has played a part in where we are at today.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, for bringing this robust motion before us. As many speakers said, the interference with Ryanair flight FR4978 by the Belarusian regime on Sunday, 23 May, was extremely worrying and frightening, especially for those on board. This Ryanair flight was operating between two EU capital cities, Athens and Vilnius, and was carrying more than 170 passengers, including many EU citizens, and six crew, when it was forced to land in Minsk by the military forces of the Belarusian regime. What would have happened if the flight had not co-operated with those instructions? As we know, it was escorted in the air, which is extremely worrying.

The illegal removal and detention of Roman Protasevich and his companion, Sofia Sapega, was a breach of all international norms and a gross violation of their human rights. This act of international piracy, committed by Alexander Lukashenko and his regime, was outrageous and cannot go unanswered. The brutality of the Lukashenko regime, now in its fifth term, is unprecedented and cannot be tolerated. The EU must respond firmly to this despicable crime and the ongoing repression and silencing of the opposition in Belarus. Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega must be released immediately. I will be continually asking through monthly parliamentary questions about their well-being until they are released.

Sadly, every day, we continue to see the regular harassment and intimidation of Belarusian civil society, journalists and independent media, with unjust detentions and apparent attempts to criminalise human rights work. The repression of the Belarusian people, who are peacefully and courageously defending their democratic and human rights, is totally unacceptable.

As we heard from my Fianna Fáil colleague, Deputy Seán Haughey, the 2020 Belarusian election was rigged, with Lukashenko receiving less than 25% of the popular vote. Fianna Fáil rejects the democratic and moral legitimacy of the Lukashenko regime and supports the Belarusian people in their demand for new and free elections, under the supervision of independent observers.

I welcome the European Council’s strong condemnation of the hijacking of the Ryanair flight and the detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. The move to restrict EU flights from Belarusian airspace is welcome, as are plans to increase economic and political sanctions on the leaders of the Lukashenko regime.

I call on the Minister to raise the hijacking of Ryanair flight FR4978 and the other crimes of the Belarusian regime at the UN Security Council. There are currently 421 political prisoners in Belarus. I support the Government’s motion calling for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, Sofia Sapega and all those unjustly detained in Belarus. It states that the Dáil rejects the democratic legitimacy of Alexander Lukashenko following the fraudulent 9 August 2020 elections, and that Ireland stands in solidarity with the Belarusian people in their peaceful defence of democratic principles and fundamental human rights.

As we heard earlier, people are protesting peacefully outside the Dáil today, not only trying to raise the plight of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega but of all those who have been impacted since the regime took hold. It is important, as we have heard unanimously across the House, that people stand in solidarity today. It underscores the seriousness of what took place a few days ago. It is really important that the Government is able to speak with one voice on behalf of the people of Ireland to articulate our concerns and that of our European counterparts that this should not and will not be tolerated and that we stand in solidarity with the Belarusian people. I hope this motion passes.

5:45 pm

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I support the motion and call for an end to the repression in Belarus. Hijacking and piracy have no place in today's society regardless of who may be on board or their political persuasion. This was an Irish-operated flight with innocent passengers and flight staff on board. The grounding of this plane by this repressive regime is wrong and caused great fear, endangering innocent passengers and staff alike.

The attacks on those who oppose this anti-democratic regime must end and those who carry out these attacks on their behalf must be held accountable. There has been international condemnation of these actions from the United States and the EU, which is right and proper, but we also need to acknowledge the selective non-condemnation of similar events. For instance, in 2013, a French plane with the Bolivian president Evo Morales was grounded on the suspicion that the US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was on board. On that occasion there was not a peep of condemnation. Unfortunately, many of those who contributed here have also engaged in selective condemnation of such incidents.

The EU must be seen to act fairly in its sanction and breaches of international law. To be clear, I commend those who have called for sanctions to be imposed on Belarus for this air hijacking. All countries which break international laws should be brought to task for their actions. Again, I note the total lack of calls for sanctions on Israel and the Israel Defense Force for its onslaught on innocent civilians, Palestinian men, women and children, with indiscriminate bomb attacks and a displacement of Palestinian families who have lived in their homes for many, many generations.

Let me echo the call for the EU to impose the strongest measures available as soon as possible, but also to impose the same sanctions on all those who break international law, including in the last number of weeks and in previous years in respect of the attacks on Palestine by Israel, which have been acknowledged as major breaches of international for decades. It is critical that the international community sends the message that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated by any country and it is of the utmost importance that the Government uses its place on the UN Security Council and within the EU to make it abundantly clear that Ireland condemns these actions and all actions against international law in the most robust terms.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I welcome this debate and the opportunity to speak on the worsening situation in Belarus. I note the comments of previous speakers and wish to add my voice to the chorus of condemnation that has already been heard in this Chamber. Accordingly, I am very happy to support this motion as it stands. The events of 23 May over Belarus were scandalous and completely unacceptable at so many different levels. First, the intercepting diverting and forced landing of a Ryanair civilian airliner in Minsk was an incredible and unprecedented event in modern history. For all intents, it was state hijacking, state terrorism and state piracy all in one on a ridiculous pretext of a bogus bomb warning from Hamas and the subsequent charade of a baggage search on the airport tarmac. It was an insult to everyone's intelligence. Second, it was also the state kidnapping of a journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his travelling companion Sofia Sapega. If that was not enough, both detainees were subjected to forced confessions on television, sporting bruises on their faces, as well as their ongoing arbitrary and indefinite incarceration. Third, at an EU level, it was also an attack on both freedom of expression and freedom of movement and a threat to the safety of civil aviation, not to mention the unjustified subsequent expulsion of Latvian diplomats from Belarus, again, on false pretences. In summary, this was a new low for an already discredited authoritarian regime and when coupled with the rigged elections of nine months ago, which were neither free nor fair, it represents a further significant and sinister deterioration in the situation.

From a specifically Irish perspective, however, the ability of foreign agents to operate so freely in Athens poses very uncomfortable questions for our own sovereignty as it brings into sharp focus the potential for similar actions by foreign agents in this jurisdiction and our lack of counter espionage security services and resources. Furthermore, it once again highlights our own sovereign lack of control of our own airspace, if any more evidence was needed.

Where do we go from here? I am glad the Minister for Foreign Affairs confirmed that an investigation by the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization is now under way to formally determine the facts of the incident and that this committee will report by 26 June. Second, I welcome the fact that EU aircraft will no longer overfly Belarusian airspace and that Belarusian aircraft will no longer be permitted to land in EU airports or even enter EU airspace. Finally, I welcome €3 billion of EU money that has been provisionally put on the table to encourage a peaceful transition of Belarus from an authoritarian state to a functioning democracy and I am very glad this investment is on hold with the transition process gets under way. All these measures are appropriate, but we can go further and the EU needs to adopt a tougher stance from a Belarusian point of view. For instance, additional targeted sanctions on President Lukashenko and his senior officials and entities should now be considered, unless there is an immediate and unconditional release of both detainees. Targeted sanctions will not suffice, however, and we should also couple sanctions against the regime with supports for the innocent general population. For instance, EU visas could temporarily be considered for Belarusians facing persecution or the risk of arbitrary arrest at home. The EU should also engage with and support the Belarusian government in exile and recognise it as the legitimate transitional government of Belarus. Perhaps most importantly, consideration should be given to inviting Belarusian opposition leaders to address the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence or perhaps even the Dáil proper in plenary session. Finally, more pressure should be exerted on Moscow to intervene positively. New independently monitored elections are needed in Belarus as soon as possible.

The regime of President Lukashenko is one of the last dictatorships in Europe. Ireland needs to leverage its influential position at EU and UN levels to mobilise the international community and support the peaceful transition to democracy.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minster of State for the strong statement from this House, and I trust the motion will pass later. I admire the principled stance the Government has taken on this matter.

I acknowledge the speed with which the UN has acknowledged that this matter, particularly the forced landing of an aircraft to extract a citizen from it, is very serious. It is a disgraceful act of tyranny.

The circumstances in Belarus has been deteriorating for some time. I visited Minsk some years ago with fellow Members of the Oireachtas and saw at first hand an entire generation of Belarusian citizens who were unfortunately still suffering from the effects of the Chernobyl tragedy. The current events are so horrific and, considering the response of the west, involving inevitable sanctions against the Belarusian Government, the citizens will suffer. While I welcome the €3 billion commitment by the EU, I do not believe it is enough. We should do more in that regard.

I commend the many charities that do incredible work in Belarus. Ms Adi Roche was mentioned by Deputy Richmond. Former Deputy Coonan did great work with children in Belarus. It is important that we continue our outreach work in that country.

The oppressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko has lost all credibility, not that it ever had any. It is not fit to represent the people of Belarus. They do not see the recent election results as legitimate. I stand in solidarity with them today and those members of the Belarusian community who were outside Dáil Éireann a little earlier. The 2020 election saw significant irregularities, and independent experts have cited widespread electoral fraud in favour of Mr. Lukashenko. Since that time, the regime has launched brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters and the media. It was mentioned that there were tens of thousands of arrests, and many have been subjected to a denial of human rights and civil liberties.

We in Ireland have a long and rightly proud history of speaking out against authoritarian governments and highlighting the plight of persecuted peoples. Our positions in the EU and on the UN Security Council afford us an even greater platform to shine a light on authoritarian leaders and foster the growth of democracy. As a former head of delegation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which position I had for the past seven years, I met many parliamentarians from around the world, including Belarus. This latest turn of events appals both them and me. Mr. Lukashenko's government has acted increasingly erratically. The forced landing of the Ryanair flight is a symbolic sign of desperation. Forcing the landing of a civil aircraft flying between two EU nations is simply unacceptable. It is a State-backed act of piracy.

The seizing of the aircraft to facilitate Mr. Roman Protasevich, a journalist who has been critical of the stolen election in 2020, symbolises all that we know that is true of tyrants: they fear an open press, they fear allowing their people the freedom to choose, and they fear an independent judiciary. We know the regime is using violence and intimidation in a desperate attempt to suppress the will of the people. This includes mass incarceration on political grounds, the use of torture and disappearances. This is an affront to anybody who believes in human rights, democracy and freedom. We must use our position in the international community to foster a democratic movement in Belarus and support the operation of a free press within the State.

Supporting sanctions against the regime, along with other international measures, must be only the first step on a path to allowing democracy to flourish in Belarus. Supporting the opposition, electoral reform efforts and system change must be further encouraged. I am pleased the EU is committing to a fund of €3 billion but it is not enough. We must and can do more. We must also recognise that support for the regime should not be tolerated by any nation.

We cannot avoid the fact that the Russian Government has provided Lukashenko with political cover and offered a range of supports to the regime. It is not the first time the Russian Government has done this, and it most certainly will not be the last. Russia has destabilised regions of eastern Europe and far beyond. The annexation of Crimea in recent years, the threatening of nations such as Georgia, the attacks on critics of the Kremlin at home and abroad, certain cyber activity, and the brutal repression of opposition journalists and activists are examples. This behaviour is a threat to all European nations. It has been mentioned by one of my colleagues. Countries on the doorstep of the European Union have experienced difficulties associated with the Russian regime.

A fundamental pillar that underpins freedom and democracy cannot be taken for granted. Freedom and democracy require dedication and the continuous efforts of successive generations. We can see these norms being chipped away at within the EU and externally. Hungary and Poland, for instance, have both shown willingness to roll back on the liberties that have been so hard won.

5:55 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to have an opportunity once again to speak on this subject. Through the good offices of the Ceann Comhairle, I had a Topical Issue debate on the subject last week. For that, I was grateful. I believe, having listened to the various speeches in the House, that it is generally recognised that a situation is developing in Belarus caused by its hijacking of a civilian aircraft en route to a destination in the EU. This is sinister. It is terrorist activity and it needs to be dealt with. If it is not dealt with forcefully and convincingly, there will be repeats. One should remember that in the not-too-distant past in the region of eastern Europe in question, aeroplanes, including passenger aeroplanes, have been shot down, resulting in the annihilation of all the passengers. I cannot imagine the terror on board the Ryanair flight when it was hijacked and directed to a different location than the one it had in mind. What occurred was done irrespective of international law. International law did not matter and does not matter to some people.

I congratulate the Minister and Minister of State for the tremendous work they have done in this area and for bringing this issue to the fore, not only here but also across the rest of Europe. I have no doubt they will continue to do so through the United Nations. If this kind of atrocity is not dealt with meaningfully, it will happen again.

I said last weekend that I believe the international criminal courts are the places to deal with these matters. If people have to be tried in their absence, let them be, but there must be retribution. If there is not, the circumstances will arise time and again. It would only remain to be seen who would take the opportunity next to do something similar. If it goes unpunished, there will be repeats.

As others have mentioned, that are various locations across the globe where there are major and frightening abuses of human rights. People say from time to time that we do not have civil liberties, including in Ireland, but it must be realised that in some parts of the globe, things are happening to peace-loving people, including women and children, that are appalling. That these abuses should happen in the 21st century is a sad reflection on society. It is a sad reflection on humanity and on what humanity can do to humanity at certain times. Sometimes it is in times of war but sometimes not. Widespread and large-scale abuses against women and children all over Africa and in some parts of eastern Europe, including through the slave trade and the trafficking of women and little children, occur without demur. Nobody raises a word about them and those who do are deemed to comprise a fringe group.

I would say the time has come for the international community to recognise the seriousness of the situation that is unfolding before us and to take clear action. We should let it be known to the perpetrators that whoever they are and wherever they are, there will be retribution and the price that can and will be paid is high from their point of view.

I believe people will always suffer. The crucial issue is that people do something about it when someone raises the issue. However, people have to raise it again and again. We should introduce sanctions in every which way possible to ensure the perpetrators know full well now that whatever they do in future there will be a price to be paid.

6:05 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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Tensions between the European Union and Belarus have increased since a Ryanair flight was forced to land in Minsk and a Belarusian journalist was taken off a flight. Since 23 May the journalist and his girlfriend have been detained in Belarus. This journalist ran a blog that was in opposition to the current Belarusian leader, Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994. The main opposition leader against Mr. Lukashenko in the country's elections last year said that a lawyer who visited the couple said they were fine. Yet, it was doubtful because for sure the journalist was tortured and beaten. He was charged with organising riots, a charge that carries a potential sentence of 15 years. A day after he was arrested the journalist said he was confessing, but observers said the statement appeared to be forced.

When the Belarusian strongman plucked a dissident journalist out of the sky he proved two things. The first is that his 27-year grip on power is unhindered by international isolation. The second is that in the absence of meaningful action by the United States and Europe, whose citizens were among the passengers on the hijacked flight, nothing will change. It now appears that the journalist has been beaten and forced to confess to organising mass riots. As many Ministers in this country have said, this is nothing short of an act of piracy. It has also been said that we have to ensure the journalist and his partner need to be protected in every way possible.

We also need to look at our country and the incident that happened off the coast of Castletownbere last Friday, which was nothing short of an act of piracy. A Spanish trawler tried to ram into an Irish fishing vessel. It was a scandal to say the least. Regardless of all the pleas for help to our Naval Service to save our Irish vessel, it was left for 12 or 14 hours before any actions took place and the Spanish trawler had taken off. Acts of piracy can take place in the air and on our seas, and they can go unhindered. We need a strong Government to be able to act with our partners in Europe to ensure our skies are monitored and actions like this never recur. We also need our Government to act and support our fishing vessels off Castletownbere when our citizens are in danger and continue to be in danger.

Today, the Taoiseach made a false statement about me in the Dáil. I would appreciate if he retracted that statement. He said I had been ringing him seeking favours. I never rang the man in my entire life, to be honest, but that is another issue for another day.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the opportunity to talk on this important matter. I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney; the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne; and the Government for being proactive in this regard. This was a terrible thing that happened to a Ryanair plane. It was forced to land. It reminds us of James Bond but there is a more serious aspect to this when we see what they did in the open skies to a plane that was not theirs and there were civilians on board. What are they doing to their own people in their own land? That is what we are hearing.

I am worried about sanctions. That government or dictatorship has to be sanctioned and it has to be rooted out. The global community must get together and root these fellows out of office, make it difficult for them and get them out of power. We are all calling on the EU, the UN, the United States and everyone. We must join together to ensure that this dictatorship is got out of office. We should get him out of power and restore an elected government in that country for the people who live there. Like Deputy Durkan said, it is so sad to see what these villains are doing to ordinary human beings. It is terrible and we must all stick together to root these people out of where they are.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I compliment the Government and support the motion this evening. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The dictatorship has been in power for that length of time. The strongest rebuttal must be sent to this action from those of us in Ireland. Ireland is a neutral country, as we always claim. We must defend the persecuted people of Belarus.

I have fond memories of Adi Roche, a Clonmel woman, the children she brought and all the host families after that awful tragedy with the nuclear power station. The Irish people supported them and showed courage and generosity.

The Government with this motion will relay a clear signal to the UN and the EU that we cannot have European airspace invaded or have a plane forced down and people kidnapped from it. It is an act of war really and of total oppression. Then we hear about intimidation and mistreatment and people being forced to make false statements. It is all because they were trying to promote democracy and had the courage to oppose that dictator in an election and try to change the life of the people. Russia has to be held to account as well. While sanctions will hurt ordinary people, they are really necessary. We know how fragile democracy is. In the past 14 months we have seen in our country how fragile democracy is and how people are concerned about further erosion of power. We need to be careful. We need to send the clearest and strongest message to every country in the world that this cannot and will not be tolerated.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have no hesitation in supporting the motion. I note that the language was strengthened from the original motion from the committee in the name of the former Minister for Justice. I have no difficulty with that.

However, I have to balance that by saying the strength and speed of the reaction screams out in respect of our failure to act up to now on Palestine, Poland, Hungary and other countries to which I will come back. We should be mindful of the role that America has played and continues to play in destabilising many countries in the world, especially in Latin America and Central America.

I welcome the motion and have no hesitation in saying it. I also welcome that the International Civil Aviation Organization is conducting an investigation. We will wait to see what happens but I have no doubt those responsible have completely transgressed international law and acted completely without legal authority. I have no problem in saying that.

On 24 May the EU Council adopted conclusions on Belarus at its summit one day after the plane was taken from the sky. We have economic sanctions banning overflight of EU airspace by Belarus. The statement calls on all EU carriers to avoid overflight of Belarus and correctly demands the immediate release of the journalist and his girlfriend.

What do we do about Poland? There are lesbian, gay and LGBTI-free zones and increased levels of people being arrested. The country has rowed back on abortion rights. In Hungary we have seen the erosion of the rule of law, academic freedom and media independence. I could go on but my time is limited.

The volume of trade between the EU and Israel speaks volumes. In 2020 the figure amounted to €31 billion. The trade between the EU and Saudi Arabia amounted to €40 billion.

We have taken no moral stance, or any other stance, with regard to Israel or Saudi Arabia. Jamal Khashoggi - and I apologise if I have mispronounced his name - was shockingly murdered in Turkey in 2018 and Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen since 2015. Some countries, such as Germany, have done the right thing and banned arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Others have not. France was the third largest exporter of arms to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. I will finish in the coming seconds but, if we want to remain a credible influencer in the world, we must look in the mirror and judge this action by the same standards as all these other actions. Let us look have a look at our approach to Palestine, Poland, Hungary and other countries and change that approach.

6:15 pm

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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The recent abduction of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega was an act of air piracy that should shock us all. It was a brazen upfront demonstration on the part of Belarus that it will do whatever it wants on its own territory and elsewhere in its efforts to silence those who try to hold its government to account. This act further reflects the growing authoritarianism that is insidiously creeping across the world, backed and supported by other authoritarian regimes. Here in Ireland, we sit comfortably in our homes believing that we are far removed from all of this and that we are safe but the past two weeks should have given us pause for thought as an Irish airline fell victim to a state-sponsored hijacking and our entire health system was brought to its knees, the victim of a cyberattack that is likely to have originated in a country that seeks to destabilise western democracies. We may think we are insulated on our little green rock in the Atlantic, but we are not.

I fully support the Government's strongly worded motion. It does not mince words and calls out the democratic illegitimacy of the election of Lukashenko. It condemns the violence and repression perpetrated by his regime and, crucially, calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Protasevich and Sapega.

I cannot imagine and, in truth, do not even want to imagine the fear and terror felt by Protasevich and Sapega as they were dragged off that Ryanair flight. We cannot let that act go unanswered and, so far, this Government and the EU have not done so. Today, a number of Dáil colleagues and I, along with the Minister of State, met a number of Belarusian citizens who are living in Ireland. They described the fear felt by their families, friends and communities living under the repressive regime of Lukashenko and his links to Russia. I have also adopted a political prisoner, Maksim Zinevich, through the good work of Libereco, which is an organisation that works to protect human rights in Ukraine and Belarus. I urge my colleagues to do the same.

Our words today are strong but we can do more. We should look at our economic ties with Belarus and pursue the imposition of sanctions, where possible. We should look at the possibility of providing a number of scholarships for students who have been thrown out of university. We should simplify our visa application process, use our influence in international sporting organisations and, with our EU colleagues, try to support independent news agencies that have been shut down in Belarus. This matter should not be a one-week wonder. It should remain on the agendas of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Dáil.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas le gach duine a labhair sa díospóireacht seo. Members have rightly condemned the actions of the Lukashenko regime. It is important that we have spoken with one voice, across all parties, against the Lukashenko regime and in full support of the ordinary people of Belarus, both those in the country itself and those who can no longer live there and who had to flee to other countries. The diversion of the Ryanair flight to Minsk under transparently false pretences, a ruse, recklessly endangered lives. This outrage joins the countless thousands of other incidents that have brought sorrow to individuals and families in Belarus and among its diaspora. The motion provides an opportunity to clearly express what is happening in Belarus. It is something the whole House finds unacceptable.

Members have spoken about the quick action on this issue. Lukashenko chose the wrong weekend to do this as the European Council was meeting the following day. The Council had no option but to take the strongest possible action, which was called for by everybody, and it did so. That is important because it sends a strong message to authoritarian regimes all around the world. It says that they cannot do this and get away with it. That cannot happen.

Ireland will always play a constructive role in the EU's strong response to the unacceptable actions at Minsk. This happened at last week's meeting of the European Council. The Taoiseach was involved in quite a number of bilateral engagements with colleagues in addition to attending engagements around the Council table. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I also had bilateral contacts, including contacts with the Belarusian opposition. I was glad to take to take a phone call from Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, one of the leaders of the opposition in Belarus, in the immediate aftermath of the incident. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach also had many engagements.

The individual sanctions up to now have clearly not been effective because, had they been, they would have prevented this incident. We now seek to target the wallets of the regime and its supporters. We will continue to monitor our broader relations with Belarus, including involvement in the Eastern Partnership mechanism. Our support for the people is clear and unequivocal. We keep the people of Belarus to the fore in all of our efforts. The EU has diverted funds away from the authorities in Belarus and directed them to civil society. Neighbouring member states have given refuge to those who have had to flee Lukashenko's repression and have supported scholarships for Belarusian students who have been removed from universities for expressing their views.

I pay tribute to the three Baltic states and to Poland, the states most directly affected by the actions of Lukashenko and those that have the most dealings with him. It is very dangerous to be a neighbour of Belarus and these states are particularly concerned. I express solidarity not only with Belarus and its people, but with the country's neighbours as well.

Through the European Endowment for Democracy, Ireland has given money towards projects that seek to protect human rights and media freedoms in Belarus. We continue to do what we can to support these projects. I welcome the positive vision for a future democratic Belarus, which the European Commission has outlined in recent days. The EU has offered €3 billion in funding for an economic stabilisation package, which contrasts sharply with Lukashenko's offer of further repression, corruption, economic stagnation and poverty. Under Lukashenko, escape from the country is all its people can hope for.

Let me be clear that the EU and Ireland are not playing geopolitics. We do not want to alter the orientation of Belarusian foreign relations. All we want is a prosperous stable neighbour that has full respect for the human rights of its citizens, democratic principles and the rule of law. Those three concerns are, of course, central to participation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. As a participating state, Belarus has committed to those principles. It needs to return to, and stick to, those commitments. The chairpersonship and office of the OSCE have offered to facilitate meaningful, broad-based, inclusive national dialogue with the political opposition and civil society. This needs to happen.

Belarus is also a member of the UN, as has been mentioned. I remind the House that the preamble to the UN Charter reaffirms "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person". From the repressive acts we have seen taking place, it is clear that those principles have no home in Lukashenko's Belarus. Belarus must acknowledge its international obligations and fully engage with the investigation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A care for human rights is at the core of our engagement with the wider world.

We take that care for human rights in regard to all of our relations around the world. Our words and deeds have been consistent with this focus and we continue to seek a peaceful and democratic resolution to the crisis. It is essential that the harassment and suppression of the political opposition in Belarus be brought to an end. All of Belarusian society, at home and abroad, needs to be part of creating a new and prosperous future in Belarus, including those who support Lukashenko. This is why dialogue, people coming together and having free and fair elections are so important.

The Belarus opposition is a broad-based movement. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is the international figurehead of the movement. She has never claimed to be the sole representative, but it is worth recalling her links with this country, having come here as a Chernobyl child to escape that particular accident and to get rehabilitation and treatment, along with many other children. She continued to come here after that to help other children affected and, I believe, she worked in this country as well. Like Belarus, she has very strong links with Ireland. Those links date back to ancient history, through migration in very ancient times. There are some similarities between the Irish Celtic languages and Slavic languages. There are other members of the opposition as well under the Coordination Council established by Ms Tikhanovskaya, including the former Minister for Culture, Pavel Latushko, Maria Kalesnikava and the Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexievich. All have either left the country or have been detained by the Lukashenko regime.

The European Parliament has rightly recognised the Coordination Council's courageous and peaceful defence of democracy and human rights by awarding it the 2020 Sakharov prize for freedom of thought. The Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I have all commended Svetlana Tikhanovskaya for her personal bravery. As I said, she knows this country well. We have extended an invitation for her to visit Ireland. It is expected that that may happen in July when public health conditions permit. We look forward to welcoming her back to our shores in the near future. I hope that there will be an opportunity for her to visit Tipperary on that occasion as well.

I want to acknowledge the many Belarusian people who now call Ireland home, some of whom I met today and previously. They have worked tirelessly to maintain public awareness of the situation in the country of their birth. Many Irish people have close personal ties to Belarus, as mentioned in the debate. The Government has received a large volume of communications from Irish citizens about the situation in Belarus. I assure them that we are doing all we can to help the people of Belarus.

A number of issues were raised in the debate. It is slightly unfortunate that some people chose to raise other issues that are not directly related to this matter. On the European Union, the Government is very strong on the importance of the rule of law within the Union. There is no comparison to be made between Belarus and any member state and no comparison to be made with regard to the flight in Austria, which was mentioned by a couple of Deputies. On that occasion the President of Austria had breakfast with the President of Bolivia on the aeroplane. There is no comparison whatsoever in the two situations.

Last week, this House spoke with one voice on the Israel-Palestine situation. We need to continue to speak in one voice. We should not in a foreign policy discussion here say that we support something, but what about something else? This country's interests have been always well served when we speak with one voice on foreign policy, be that in regard to Brexit, most famously over the past number of years or the Israel-Palestine situation on which we made history last week and spoke with one voice. Speaking with one voice today gives us incredible strength.

It appears that nobody is opposing the motion and that it is unanimously supported by Members. I very much welcome that. I would welcome it if, as I expect, the motion will be passed unanimously without the need for a vote.

Question put and agreed to.

6:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Congratulations to all involved.