Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

2:30 pm

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for coming to the House on this very important issue.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank that Seanad for inviting me here this evening and for giving me this opportunity to discuss the ongoing disturbing developments in Belarus. I will come back to this point but I will begin by praising the work done by Irish parliamentarians on this issue to date. It has been truly exemplary. In particular, I thank Senator Barry Ward for championing a motion on the political regime in Belarus in July. This political interest is testament to a broader public consciousness in Ireland of the deeply worrying events happening at the EU's eastern border.

Ireland stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus and we will continue to do so. The people of Belarus have been courageous beyond measure. They persist in the difficult work of holding an autocratic regime to account and they are not giving up. They deserve our solidarity and support. How did we get to this place of deep concern? On 9 August 2020, the Belarusian regime held presidential elections and Alexander Lukashenko ran for a further term. For more than two decades he has denied the people of Belarus a free and fair choice for their leader. Since coming to power in 1994, he has ruled the country through fear. Frustrated by his leadership, the Belarusian people expressed their desire for change in the election held in August 2020. However, the regime declared that Lukashenko had won with more than 80% of the vote. International observers condemned the vote as neither free nor fair.There was ample evidence of widespread intimidation and harassment of candidates before the election. There were serious irregularities during the election process. This was a fraudulent election. Something remarkable happened then. The people of Belarus rose up. Throughout August 2020 hundreds of thousands of ordinary people marched through the streets of Minsk in open defiance of the regime. Their daring and bravery impressed many people across the world. It was clear that Lukashenko had underestimated the people he had ruled with an iron fist for a quarter of a century. They stood up for their right to determine their own destiny. They stood up for democracy.

There was a moment when Lukashenko could have accepted the clear will of his people. He could have called fresh elections, free and fair, with international monitoring, and prepared to leave office if his people willed it, in a dignified manner. Instead, sadly, he chose to take the road towards tyranny. Lukashenko used the tools of authoritarianism against his own people. He sent state security forces to attack, arrest and torture peaceful protestors whom the state-controlled media then labelled as extremists and terrorists. He took measures to make life intolerable for civil society organisations, independent news agencies and anyone else who could question his version of events. His regime threatened and harassed oppositions figures, activists and human rights defenders. There were even reports that some women activists were threatened with having their children taken away. Many people had to flee their homes and seek safety abroad. Most tragically some lost their lives.

The abuse, however, only served to increase public outrage. Tens of thousands continued to demonstrate peacefully for fair elections, justice and a better future. Instead of looking for a national dialogue, the regime launched hundreds of politically motivated criminal cases against opposition members, protestors and supporters. They detained, beat, fined or deported journalists who covered protests and stripped them of their accreditation. They blocked dozens of websites and periodically restricted access to the Internet. Police often denied detainees food and water. Guards at detention facilities confiscated people's medications, frequently ignoring calls for medical care, in some cases denying it altogether. Detainees were denied access to a lawyer, and the list of abuses is long and concerning.

In May 2021 a Ryanair flight travelling between two EU capitals, Athens to Vilnius, was ordered by Belarusian authorities to land in Minsk. The plane was escorted by a military jet. The regime claimed there was a bomb on board. This was untrue. There was no bomb on board, only a Belarusian journalist, Roman Protasevich, whose coverage of Lukashenko's antics had angered the regime. Mr. Protasevich and his companion were illegally detained and the plane was sent on its way. This appalling incident brought Belarus back to the top of the international agenda. The incident is under investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Ireland and the EU reacted swiftly and firmly. In June myself and the other 26 EU foreign ministers decided to impose targeted sanctions against those responsible for the ongoing repression of the Belarusian people. The Lukashenko regime prepared a cruel response by weaponising migration of vulnerable people against the EU's external borders. Since mid-May Belarusian state entities have been actively transporting migrants who have arrived in Minsk on direct flights from Baghdad or Istanbul to the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Migrants who have been declined entry into the EU but who are not allowed to return to Belarus are effectively left in limbo at the border. The Belarusian regime is complicit is leaving vulnerable migrants, including minors, in a very dangerous situation and this cannot continue.

I will continue to work with my European counterparts on our shared response to what is currently happening in the context of Belarus. Ireland has already contributed €100,000 to the Lithuanian Red Cross in response. I am glad to have the support of Senators, Deputies and the broader Irish public in this work.

Irish people have a long connection with Belarus. Irish families have provided a home away from home for thousands of Belarusian children over the decades thanks to the work of Adi Roche, among others, and her foundation Chernobyl Children International as well as other organisations led by other people. Indeed, Senators will recall the visit this summer of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader in exile of the Belarusian opposition and her heartwarming visit to her former host family in Roscrea, which was powerful. I also had a long meeting with her and her courage and determination are extraordinarily impressive.

Political action in the Dáil and Seanad has reflected Ireland's links to Belarus. I recall with gratitude the unanimous Dáil support for my motion on 1 June, Seanad support for Senator Barry Ward's motion on 15 July and the interest shown by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in Ms Tsikhanouskaya's testimony during her visit in the summer. I look forward to hearing and engaging with Members' statements. I am interested in Members' ideas on how we can continue to engage bilaterally and multilaterally to improve the deeply concerning situation in Belarus.

I wish to finish by stating what Ireland wants to see in Belarus. We want to see exactly what the people of Belarus deserve, which is to have their human rights and fundamental freedoms protected, to be free from state violence, repression, torture and arbitrary detention. The people of Belarus deserve to be free to speak their own minds, to be permitted to protest, to assemble publicly and to have access to independent media outlets that will print and broadcast genuinely independent voices, but most importantly, the people of Belarus deserve fresh, free, fair elections that are internationally monitored. The people of Belarus surely deserve to decide on their own destiny and we have a responsibility to do all we can to help them.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for outlining the situation in Belarus. I also pay tribute to Ms Tsikhanouskaya and to all the Senators who supported her during her visit. I mention the Seanad's resolution which was presented to her when she visited Leinster House and in our support for her and for the people of Belarus in their struggle for free and fair elections and for freedom from oppression, which they now suffer.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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It is a pleasure to speak on this motion. As the Cathaoirleach indicated, this is an important matter, which has been discussed in this House on a number of occasions. I acknowledge the fact that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has come to the House himself to speak to Members about this. The things he said are important, and I will go into them shortly, but I also want to acknowledge his own deep connection to Belarus. I know the Minister has been there and has spent time with Belarusians both here and there. It is tremendously important to have that insight at the top of the Irish Government, that the Minister understands what they have gone through and that is willing to lend an ear to them and to sincerely take on board what they have said to him, which many of us have heard as well.

It is difficult in many respects for us as Irish people who enjoyed, if not a peaceful transition, an ordered transition, one hundred years ago as we moved out of colonial status and into Free State status. We inherited institutions that functioned in the new State and continue to function today, many of them based on what was there before them. It is difficult for us to understand what happened in Belarus in 1994 as it became a new free state, free from the Soviet Union. It did not enjoy any of that stability or that order. The Civil War here at the beginning of our State pales in comparison to what has happened and the scale on which it has happened in Belarus over the past 30 years or so.

The Minister, Deputy Coveney, talked about how Alexander Lukashenko underestimated the people he had ruled with an iron fist and underestimated their daring bravery. That is very much what we are talking about here.

I am lucky enough to have a number of friends who are both Irish and Belarusian and I have travelled there on a number of occasions and met with people. The most recent visit was two years before the 2020 elections. At that time people in Belarus did not talk about politics. They would not discuss the Lukashenko regime or how they felt about politics or particular issues.The most marked change in August 2020 and the groundswell of public resistance to what happened during the so-called presidential election was that people were talking openly about it. They discussed it on WhatsApp and in telephone calls. In the past, people did not even talk about it on the telephone, but after the election they publicly discussed how uncomfortable and unhappy they were with the usurping of their democratic right and the continued takeover by an autocrat.

The Minister highlighted that this is happening on the edge of Europe. Belarus borders Poland and Lithuania. It is right at the edge of the European Union. Mr. Lukashenko is described as the last dictator in Europe and that is probably accurate, but it is extraordinary in many respects that he has been allowed to survive and continue in that role since 1994, overtaking a constitutional forum and deciding unilaterally if there will be any kind of consultation with the people, whether it is entirely false or not. The Minister pointed out that, exceptionally, there is universal disdain for this election internationally, including at European Commission level and US State Department level. All of the international bodies that examine elections around the world have stated this election was neither free nor fair. There can be no dispute about it. The people on the ground saw that too, which is why they rose up against their oppressor, Mr. Lukashenko.

The peaceful protests to which the Minister referred were suppressed with the kind of violence and heavy-handedness that we have not seen in Europe for a very long time. The oppression was stark. The Minister referred to those who were attacked, including women, journalists and peaceful protestors. I pay tribute to Viasna, Libereco and the other international human rights organisations that have done a really good job of highlighting that there are still more than 500 political prisoners in prison in Belarus. Such prisoners have been adopted by parliamentarians here and in other parliaments across Europe, including the European Parliament. I adopted Maksim Pauliushchyk. He is an ordinary civilian who spray-painted the slogan "We will not forget" on a pavement near where one of the first protestors was killed. More than a year later, he is still languishing in prison. He is just one of hundreds of people in such situations.

The Minister referred to the audacity of the Lukashenko regime in grounding a Ryanair flight. A European civilian flight was essentially taken hostage by Belarusian military forces. It is extraordinary that has been allowed to happen. I do not lay that criticism at the door of anyone in particular, but there are several countries that would have begun an armed conflict if it had happened to them. It is extraordinary that Lukashenko has been allowed to get away with grounding a civilian aircraft using live military assets and on the basis of a complete falsehood, as the Minister stated.

We are dealing with a person who has no respect whatsoever for the rule of law. Sanctions have been imposed on him but they have not worked. I refer to the reduction in the number of potash sales that can be made to farmers in Europe while the deals already in place with Belarus are allowed to continue. That is not the fault of the Minister. I recognise the work he has done on the issue. However, the approach and response at European level and world level has been insufficient to deal with this because Mr. Lukashenko, the so-called president, remains in his position and continues to act with impunity. If there is a message that we can send this evening, it is that this cannot be allowed to continue.

All Members recognise that it is wrong, that the election was fraudulent and that Mr. Lukashenko has acted in a heavy-handed, illegal and autocratic way. We recognise that he sits on the border of a democratic union, the European Union, and continues to imprison journalists and other citizens who have done little wrong other than to protest against his regime and disagree with his autocracy. We are to a large extent helpless and unable to act because even the sanctions that have been put in place are insufficient to put pressure on this man and impress upon him that he is not wanted and will not be tolerated. I do not think he has got that message. I recognise that sanctions are a blunt instrument and that often when they are imposed on a particular regime, the people who really suffer are the ordinary citizens on the ground, as resources are centralised and kept within a small group of people. I recognise that is a problem, but I feel strongly that not just Ireland, but Europe must take a stand and implement much stricter sanctions against the Lukashenko regime and the individuals within it. Those who we know are involved in Lukashenko's central committee or his inner circle must also be targeted. There should be no mercy in the context of making it clear to them that this simply will not be tolerated.

I acknowledge the work done by the Minister. He mentioned Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is one of the hundreds of political prisoners. I had the honour of meeting her on several occasions when she visited Ireland recently. Her courage is testament to the courage of a whole nation. She has indicated the strength with which the Belarusian people are willing to meet Lukashenko's autocracy. I ask that we, as a country and as the European Union, match that courage and make a clear statement that we will not tolerate the autocracy in Belarus.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. In an election in August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko got 80% of the vote. This is his sixth term in office, having first been elected in 1994. This is a man who relies on fear in order to stay in office. Any voices of dissent, whether online or in the streets, are found, beaten, jailed and tortured. There are 650 political prisoners in Belarus today. Indeed, the mass demonstrations in the months after the 2020 election are no longer taking place because people fear arrest and torture. It is a situation that is chillingly reminiscent of the quietening of protests in Hong Kong in recent times. As bizarre as it sounds, a person can be arrested in Belarus for walking down the street wearing any combination of red and white clothing, those being the colours of the original flag of Belarus which has been adopted by those seeking change. That is what happened to Natalia Sivtsova-Sedushkina.

The Minister is familiar with, and my colleague, Senator Ward, mentioned, the outlandish and outrageous forced landing of a Ryanair aircraft in Minsk last May and the capture and imprisonment of journalist Roman Protasevich. The impunity and brazenness in respect of that one-way flight to Minsk really caught people's imaginations because it is reminiscent of a time that we thought was long gone in Europe.

The Minister is familiar with reports of the staged hanging of Vitaly Shisov, a dissident, in a park in Ukraine last August. He led an organisation in Ukraine that helped Belarusians fleeing persecution in their homeland. His death showed that, just like Russian dissidents, Belarusian dissidents will be pursued wherever they run, with little regard for the laws of the countries in which these outrages occur. His death reminded us of the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018.

The church in Belarus has not escaped the wrath of Lukashenko and his regime. A bishop was refused permission to re-enter the country as he was believed to have been critical of the regime. Priests are being detained and accusations of incitement are being made against them. I saw recently the horrible caricaturing of Catholic clergy in the Minskaya Pravdanewspaper which depicted crosses being turned into swastikas. That is an example of the hateful propaganda of a hard left, hard Communist regime.

Since the election last year, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the rightful victor, who has visited Ireland, has met with more than 30 heads of state, as well as the Minister, to make the case for free and fair elections in Belarus. It is important to note that she does not wish to be President of Belarus. The only thing she seeks is the holding of free and fair elections and would thereafter depart office. She only ran for the presidency because her husband, who sought to be a candidate in the election, was jailed in advance of the campaign. She is widely accepted as having won the presidential election. As was noted, she visited Ireland in July 2021 and met the Deane family, who hosted her in Roscrea in the 1990s as one of the Chernobyl children.

In an initiative that shows solidarity with the people of Belarus, Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas have adopted several political prisoners. I was not part of that initiative but I strongly support and commend all those involved. Ireland, principally through the Taoiseach and the Minister, has been supportive of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her calls for the release of all political prisoners and the running of free and fair elections.The European Union has played its part in co-ordinating with the US, the UK and other nations in devising sanctions against Belarus.

Of course, we cannot forget that Russian President Vladimir Putin is central to this story. Belarus is viewed by him as being strategically important to Russia's security and Russia has a number of military bases in Belarus. He has been pushing Belarus to formalise their alliance in a way that would result in Belarus effectively becoming part of Russia once more as in the days of the USSR. It is horrible to think that in order to punish its former Soviet bloc nation colleagues on its western borders, including Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, the Lukashenko regime has effectively been bussing refugees from the Middle East and Africa to the western border, trying to stoke a fresh migrant crisis by sending them to those neighbouring countries.

We can think of what action is needed. Lukashenko only remains in office because he has the military and financial support of Putin, and without Russia's military and financial support, the regime would have fallen by now. In addition to applying pressure on Lukashenko, therefore, pressure must also be applied on the Russians to allow the people of Belarus the space and freedom to choose their own leader, although I admit this is a much harder task. The EU must devise a further round of tougher economic sanctions, and I understand a fifth round of sanctions has already been planned. Last August, the International Monetary Fund, IMF, granted $1 billion to Belarus in a move that was grossly out of step with the strategy being adopted by the EU and the US. We need consistency, and I will return to this point about consistency in a moment. Ireland and the EU must assist with efforts to bring about the initiation of a criminal prosecution against Lukashenko and his regime. Critically, we must use our seat on the UN Security Council and make Belarus a key priority.

I will conclude by speaking about the need for consistency and our stepping up to use our UN role as much as possible. I have criticised the Minister and his Government in a respectful spirit and not in a personal way because of an apparent inconsistency in the way different countries with deeply problematic human rights situations are treated. Senator Barry Ward correctly commended the Minister on being here in person for this debate. It is important to remind the Minister nonetheless that the Seanad unanimously passed a motion calling on Ireland to use all diplomatic and trade channels to put pressure on China over what is happening in Xinjiang - we might add Hong Kong to that - and the terrible persecution of countless people in the country for religious and other ethnic reasons. It seems harder to get a consistent and strong answer out of the Government on that. I have warned in this House that it must not be a nod to human rights on one hand and a wink to trade on the other.

I know that is hard and it is harder to be a Minister with responsibilities for such matters than it is to be an Independent Senator. The Minister's instincts are solid and good so I have confidence in saying he will be at his strongest when he is consistent. Ireland will be at its strongest when it is consistent on the question of human rights. Mr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian and anti-Nazi martyr, warned about the concept of cheap grace, and a modern secular equivalent might be that of virtue signalling or the idea that we go in hard when it does not cost us. When it comes to defending human rights on the international stage, we must go in hard anyway, even if there is a cost. We must be vocal on the question of Iran and China. I say this as a son of the land and I care about our exports. Human rights cannot be sacrificed on the altar or our prosperity. I want the Minister to follow with the same consistent strength he has on Belarus in those other fora.

As the Minister's instincts are so good, I will make a final request of him. I do not intend to revisit what happened with the appointment of a special envoy but many countries and the EU have led the way in establishing an envoy for freedom of religion and belief. That is a much more established type of envoy as many people are being prosecuted for religious beliefs and for not having such religious belief. I will write to the Minister on that subject because it would be a great initiative for the Government to take. It would be a great response to the recent controversy and it could unite all sides of the Houses as well.

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for attending the House today. This is a topic on which many of us are ad idem. Many of us had the opportunity meet Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya when she was in this country. We know Sviatlana, along with her compatriots, have unceasingly and courageously stood up for human rights and basic freedoms. As others have outlined, they have sought democratic elections in the country. Others have said Ms Tsikhanouskaya put herself forward because her husband was jailed by the Lukashenko regime. I know she is, like me, a mother of two young children and she is travelling the world fearlessly and courageously in trying to ensure her country can see democratic action in its next elections.

I am part of the group that has "adopted" prisoners in Belarus. I have "adopted" the case of Mr. Pavel Mazko, an 18-year-old prisoner who has been incarcerated since March 2021. He attended one of the peaceful demonstrations against the falsification of election results. He is very well known in his community for being a disability activist and I know his parents are very concerned that he is still behind bars. It is heartbreaking for them that he is still incarcerated. One of my colleagues has mentioned there are 500 political prisoners and Senator Mullen spoke about 600 prisoners. I have a figure indicating there are over 700 political prisoners. It is a huge number.

Over a year on, we know these calls remain unanswered and the Lukashenko regime has cracked down on its own people, exacerbating the rift between state and society. Representatives of the opposition and pro-democratic forces, together with thousands of citizens from all sections of society, have either died in uncertain circumstances, been incarcerated or been compelled to leave their country and live in exile, as Ms Tsikhanouskaya has had to.

According to Viasna, the Belarusian human rights non-governmental organisation, there are now 722 political prisoners and among them are members of the opposition, human rights defenders, journalists, defence lawyers, trade unionists, peaceful protestors and activists, including Mr. Ales Bialiatski, chair of Viasna. Ms Michelle Bachalet Jeria, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her update to the UN on 24 September, just last week, indicated that approximately 497 journalists and media workers were arrested last year, with at least 68 reportedly subject to massive ill-treatment. Approximately 27 journalists and media workers are still in detention, including Mr. Roman Protasevich, who we all know as the man detained after his flight from Greece was illegally forced to land in Minsk.

Independent news portals Tut.byand zerkalo.iowere designated as "extremists", making it a crime to disseminate any of their output. Approximately 129 civil society organisations reportedly closed by the end of August and scores more were closed during September. These include several long-standing partners of the UN, and examples include the Belarusian PEN centre, the Belarusian association of journalists and the oldest human rights organisation in the country, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. Ms Bachalet Jeria also indicated she is deeply concerned by increasing severe restrictions on civic space and fundamental freedoms, including continuing patterns of police raids against civil society organisations and independent media, as well as what appear to be routinely politically motivated arrests and criminal prosecutions of human rights activists and journalists.

Of major concern is gender-based violence in detention. It has been reported 30% of those arbitrarily detained are women and girls and the UN office reports sexual violence committed by law enforcement officials primarily but not exclusively against women and girls. This includes reports of sexual assaults, threats of sexual assault, psychological violence and sexual harassment against both women and men. Psychological violence has reportedly been widespread, including threats of sexual assault and threats of removing a victim's children, and some of these threats have been realised. My colleague and the Minister have outlined that the Lukashenko regime is now using the migrant crisis as a political weapon and retaliation for sanctions, which is a fact that the EU must take on board. The use of humans in this way is deeply concerning, cynical and akin to extreme military violence. All of the partners in the EU must continue to support the people of Belarus, including by providing emergency assistance to the victims of oppression and the independent media and by getting humanitarian assistance to the civilian population. We need to support the migrants who have been transported to the borders of the EU because they do not deserve to be used as a political missile. We must continue to support the democratic, independent, sovereign, prosperous and stable Belarus. The voices and the will of the people of Belarus will not be quelled.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for her interesting words.

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé sásta go bhfuil seal agam chun cúpla focal a rá ar na ráitis seo anocht.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber for statements. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I extend our solidarity and support to the people of Belarus and their opposition to oppression by the Government of Alexander Lukashenko. The people of Ireland know only too well what it is like to live in circumstances where the people's expressed will at the ballot box has been ignored, suppressed and replaced with the expressed will of military aggression, and even occupation. The eventual partition of our country 100 years ago this year is a living expression of that type of aggression albeit in a different form but nonetheless at its heart a denial of the expressed democratic will of the vast majority of a people for national freedom and independence. Thankfully today the people of Ireland, through the Good Friday Agreement, have a peaceful opportunity to end partition and establish independence. The people of Belarus need to hear from the elected representatives in the Oireachtas that we stand with them in their peaceful defence of democratic principles and fundamental human rights. They need to know we stand with them in their demands for free and fair elections; for an end to the mass arrests and the detention of those who oppose the Lukashenko Government; and for the removal of the restrictions on the Internet and independent media and the shutdown of other media outlets.

I would like to add the voice of the Sinn Féin Seanadóirí to our party's Deputies in condemning the act of international piracy that other Senators have referred to in this debate by the Lukashenko regime when it hijacked a Ryanair flight in May and seized and imprisoned the journalist and opponent, Roman Protasevich, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. I hope that the people of Belarus will take heart from the Irish Government's commitments to keep the situation there high on the international agenda, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council and at meetings of the UN Security Council. The hijacking of the aeroplane was a deliberate and high-profile act of international intimidation. It was not only designed to strike fear into the opposition in Belarus but also to frighten those opposed to Lukashenko's regime outside of Belarus. The hijacking had the simple message that no place is safe from Lukashenko's reach. In that regard, it is crucial that the members of the Belarusian community in Ireland see the Irish Government take a welcome international position and provide protection and reassurance to those who live here that they are safe. Lukashenko has attempted to increase pressure on the Belarusian opposition who live abroad by targeting their families in Belarus. I, like my colleagues in the Dáil, commend the sanctions that have been imposed on Lukashenko's Government by the European Union. This is correct and in order with the rule of international law. When nation states are found guilty of breaking international law, they must know they will face consequences in proportion to the crimes they have committed. It is, therefore, disturbing to say the least that some eastern European countries that have been most vocal about the oppressive behaviour of Lukashenko have been silent about human rights abuses by other Governments elsewhere in the world. I am thinking, in particular, about the Israeli Government's repeated abuse of international human rights and laws, and its persecution of the Palestinian people. It is correct that the EU imposes sanctions against Belarus but it is shameful that it has refused to impose sanctions against the Israeli Government for its crimes against humanity that have killed hundreds of Palestinians, including children.

I listened with much interest and respect to the opening remarks made by Senator Ward and the Minister this evening. Senator Ward spoke about the proximity of Belarus to the EU. He is absolutely right that this should give us cause for concern and compel the EU to act. This also made me think about the Spanish Government's oppression of the Catalan people and their expressed democratic will when they sought to do what we did when we gathered in the Mansion House in Dublin two years ago to honour and remember what happened in this country, and that was to adhere to the expressed democratic will of the people and establish a democratic government and national independence. Spain is in the EU. I agree with other colleagues that we may have different priorities as elected representatives, and I am glad that there is unanimity in the House tonight, but I agree with the sentiment that we need to be consistent in our approach.

The Irish Government is right to stand up for the international rule of law but in doing so it must show leadership in ensuring the same respect and support is shown to others around the world as it is to the people of Belarus. If it is right, and it is, to impose EU sanctions on the Government of Belarus then it is also right for the EU to impose sanctions on the Israeli Government, as just one example. It would also be right to act against Spain for its actions in oppressing the Catalan people and their elected representatives, who are people like us, whether they come from councils or other assemblies, and trying to silence the voice of media outlets.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter. There is a genuine sincerity across the House in wanting to assist the Minister in anything that he is doing. I ask that this House conveys to the Belarusian people that they have our solidarity and support today and going forward.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House to speak on this important matter and acknowledge that Senator Ward has previously tabled a motion on this issue.

I do not need to repeat the litany of actions that have eroded democracy in Belarus. They include the extension of the number of years that a president can serve from five to seven, in 1996; the referendum to remove the constitutional term limits in 2004; the arrest and beating of his opponent, Alyaksandr Kazulin, in 2006; and the widely condemned way that the election was run in August 2020. As has been outlined, that election is widely regarded as not fair, not free and not credible. There is a litany of ways in which democracy is being chipped away.

Senator Ardagh spoke very well about the report by the UN High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, who has personal experience of a creeping dictatorship in Chile. She has written very strongly around the human rights breaches, particularly the treatment and violence meted out to journalists. The most high-profile case - it has rightly been described as piracy - was the abduction of the journalist, Roman Protasevich, from a Ryanair plane. We also know that journalists within Belarus have been subjected to abuse. We have heard reports of hundreds of political prisoners and of gendered violence and gendered abuse. We have heard about psychological abuse in the threats and in their execution. We know there are very strong women in the movement for democracy within Belarus. Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been spoken about and she has a strong connection to Ireland. Many other women have been very strong and they have been the target of gendered abuse. Additionally, students and students' unions have been targeted. According to the Belarusian Students Association, an independent student union, 466 students have been detained, almost a third of whom are women. Many were put under administrative detention or fined amounts that were unachievable for a student thus leaving them unable to pay and we know that six students have been sentenced to imprisonment.Most recently the entire Belarusian Students Association executive was forced to flee after raids by the Belarusian authorities on its offices. These are the blocks and threads of society, including journalists, unions and students and each of these groups are being targeted.

This is an extraordinary area of concern but what action can we take and what action should we take? It is vital that we press for the release of political prisoners and for free elections. There is an investigation being carried out by the International Civil Aviation Organization into the Ryanair incident. As was mentioned, sanctions are a valid and legitimate tool and they are being used. I refer to the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union on Rosneft in occupied Crimea and the sanctions on goods from there. It was found in that case that it is a matter of public policy to have sanctions when human rights are being violated and when it is legal within our trade law. It is appropriate that they are being used in that case but as has been said, it is shameful that sanctions are still not being used or looked to by Europe for Israel, even though it is a legitimate tool. We know that from the Rosneft ruling and we have never heard why that cannot be deployed. It is important to note that the European Council's actions and sanctions in May 2021 against Belarus specifically focused on technologies used in surveillance and we know that the tools and technologies of oppression are an appropriate area for sanctions in respect of Israel. Let us use these tools, let us look to every diplomatic tool we can use and let us use them wherever human rights violations are taking place. I support the strengthening of our use of such tools.

I want to focus on the people fleeing Belarus. We have heard about the weaponising of vulnerable migrants but I had an unease when we heard the phrase. Belarus is carrying out an abuse in that respect but we should not treat vulnerable people as weapons. Belarus may choose to do so but we must not. It is not a sufficient defence for Europe regarding its human rights obligations that it would point the finger and say they are being used in an appropriate way, that people are arriving at the border in a way that is inappropriate and condemn the actions of Belarus. We must be responsible for our actions. We must not allow people to be treated as weapons and we must not treat them as weapons. We must treat them as human beings and human rights holders to whom we have obligations, including obligations under the Geneva Conventions.

In that context, last month we saw four people left stranded on the Poland-Belarus border die of hypothermia. Poland has sent thousands of troops to the border and built a razor wire fence along its length. On Thursday it extended a state of emergency which bars journalists and aid workers from accessing the 3 km deep strip for a further 60 days. Amnesty International has reported that satellite imagery and other photos and videos show evidence of the pushback of refugees in August and there have been concerns around the evidence of an unlawful pushback which has occurred as armed Polish border guards surrounded the refugees' camps. This violates international law, particularly the principle of non-refoulement, given that we know the human rights situation in Belarus is completely unacceptable.

This is in no way to lessen the condemnation of the human rights violations of Lukashenko and the Belarusian authorities. Europe must show clearly that it takes human rights violations seriously where they are occurring in Belarus, that we take human rights' standards exceptionally seriously within the European borders and that we will not just demand better human rights policies but that we will model them as well. That is one of the ways we can show that this tactic by Belarus will not have an impact or erode the commitment of the European Union to proper and robust action against Belarus.

I thank the Minister and I commend Senator Ward for giving leadership on this issue in the Seanad. We have a good and strong record in the Seanad of working on international human rights issues across the board and of trying to have cross-party collaboration on those issues.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for being here to listen to our deliberations and to discuss them with us. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the situation in Belarus on the record of the House because as we all acknowledge, the situation in Belarus challenges the democratic fabric that our societies and our Continent are built on. We have to show true solidarity with the Belarusian people in their peaceful defence of democratic principles and fundamental human rights.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Council of Europe in Strasbourg together with colleagues from the Seanad. I was privileged to meet Tatsiana Khomich, who was representing her sister, Maria Kalesnikava, who is one of the leaders of the Belarusian opposition. Maria was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September after standing trial behind closed doors. It was a unique opportunity to listen to the lived experience of somebody who is so concerned about her sister in prison and about the human rights of the people of Belarus. She spoke in an articulate and emotional way about how in August of last year the people of Belarus saw their hopes to elect a legitimate leader of the country viciously ruined.

Since then, we have born witness to the people of Belarus unceasingly and courageously stand up for the respect of human rights and basic freedoms. They were perfectly right to seek new and democratic elections. They have peacefully protested in the face of the Lukashenko regime's contempt for the rule of law and Belarus's international commitments and human rights obligations. Their call remains unanswered. The Lukashenko regime has cracked down on its own people and is exacerbating the rift between state and society. Representatives of the opposition and the democratic forces, together with thousands of citizens from all sections of society, have either died in uncertain circumstances, been incarcerated as Maria has been, or have been compelled to leave the country and live in exile.

The issues that have been bubbling up in Belarus have not been sufficiently tackled by the international community in my view. It is not just a political issue; it is a humanitarian one. The migrant situation at the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland is concerning and we stand in solidarity with and support them. The migrants who have made it to the border need to be protected. We need to ensure that the right to request international protection, as provided by the Geneva Conventions, is maintained for these people. Further sanctions are needed, particularly sanctions that target those facilitating the instrumentalisation of migration at the EU's external borders. The Belarusian response to EU sanctions has been unacceptable, especially Lukashenko's movements to exploit migration against the EU borders. In light of the situation in Afghanistan, there is a concern that Lukashenko will also seek to instrumentalise Afghan refugees. The Belarusian airline, Belavia, is accused of transporting migrants to Belarus to pressure the EU. This is a direct tactic to taunt and challenge the European Union and it must be dealt with effectively and quickly.

By having this debate and by having the Minister present we are sending a strong message of solidarity with Belarus and the Belarusians who live within our country.It is important we stand up for the human rights and democratic principles of the people of Belarus and that we work with our European colleagues and neighbours to ensure these human rights are upheld and that further sanctions are put in place.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Senator Conway.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I commend his empathetic involvement with this abhorrent state of affairs. There are 650 political prisoners in prison in Belarus. Not only are they in prison in the normal sense, they are subject to torture and sexual assault. As cited by the Minister, the threat to the children of the female prisoners is a horror. It is all a horror. The abuse and misuse of migrants as objects of war and collateral damage, leaving them stuck at the border, is shocking. I agree with my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, that they should be given international protection and support.

Ireland supported the appointment of the UN High Commissioner to examine human rights violations. I ask the Minister to comment on how that is progressing, if a report has been published and the outcome in that regard. We are supporting the EU sanctions but it seems they are not having enough impact or achieving the desired result. I ask the Minister to comment in his response on what we can do in the area of further sanctions that might be effective and on whether Ireland could be a leader in that regard. He might also comment on what we have done and can do within the UN Security Council.

It is good we have given €100,000 to the Lithuanian Red Cross. We have a huge connection to Belarus and, I think, to Lithuania in terms of the large immigrant population here and the link with Chernobyl Children International, CCI. It is interesting that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has a direct connection with Tipperary. It gives an Irish feel to CCI and there is popular support here for it. I commend Turlough Deenihan for his work with Libereco on human rights issues here. The situation in Belarus is appalling. We have to continue our work until the regime is brought down but it will be difficult to do that.

Senator Mullen made an interesting point when he said that the numbers on the streets are reducing. That is a grave concern and another reason further initiatives around sanctions and the UN etc. are important. I again thank the Minister for being here for this debate.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator O'Reilly for sharing time with me. I too welcome the Minister to the House and I acknowledge the work he has done in this area. We all want to see free and fair elections in Belarus. That is what we enjoy here, although we sometimes might not like the result. However, that is democracy. The great citizens of Belarus deserve that too. The 650 people who are political prisoners deserve to be released and to be able to participate in the political democratic process, such as we all enjoy and expect.

What went on with regard to Lukashenko and Ryanair was an attack on Ireland, outside of an attack on democracy, Europe, decency and fairness. This matter has not been dealt with adequately either by the Irish Government or by the European Union. To be honest, I do not know how much the Government can do, but we become frustrated in hoping we can do something. The European Union has not acted in the way it should have.

There is a deep connection between Ireland and Belarus. The Burren Chernobyl Project is headquartered in my home town of Ennistymon. The work done by Br. Liam O'Meara and all of the staff and volunteers in that project is heroic. The project regularly sends out articulated lorryloads of humanitarian aid, donated by the people of Clare and the surrounding counties. They have welcomed people from Belarus affected by the Chernobyl disaster to their homes. To a large extent, the people of Belarus are like family to the people of north County Clare and the surrounding counties. The connection and the beautiful relationship that exists between the people of Ireland and the people of Belarus is intrinsically linked and will not be broken. This is why we in Seanad Éireann are standing up to articulate our abhorrence and disgust at the regime stood over by Mr. Lukashenko since 1994. I do not know what we can do to rectify that situation. Clearly, the international sanctions are not working. All they are doing is hurting the most vulnerable. I do not know what we can do. I despair in wondering how we can deal with that situation.

To our friends and comrades in Taiwan, we are all celebrating Taiwanese National Day this evening. It is shocking that 56 fighter jets from China have been encroaching on Taiwanese airspace. We should not be afraid to call out what China is doing. It is not good enough. The Americans have called it out. We should call it out and Europe should call it out. To be frank, our country should open an embassy in Taipei. Every other country has an embassy there. Why does not Ireland have an embassy in Taipei? I do not know the answer, but I think we should have an embassy there.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I apologise for having to interrupt the Senator but I must stick to the schedule. This is a very important debate.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I welcome this opportunity to speak. One of the best things we can do as parliamentarians is to call out the truth as we receive it. I have connections with some people in Belarus and with organisations that work there. I will use my time to call out the truth of their experience and what they report, some of which has been mentioned in this debate.

I want to begin by remembering Kim Samusenka who is in prison. He is a prisoner I sponsor and have written to. His brother is sponsored by Senator Joe O'Reilly. They are in prison for no reason other than that they believe in freedom of expression. That is appalling. I also want to remember the leader of the Office of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Siarhei Drazdouski, who, along with his lawyer, was arrested on 2 February this year, again just for speaking out on behalf of people with disabilities. He is still in prison and untried in any way. They have both been subjected to interrogations and humiliating behaviour and treatment.

One of the topical issues in Ireland all of the time is Covid.What of the people of Belarus during the Covid pandemic? A very small proportion of its population is vaccinated, just 1.5 million out of 10 million. The only vaccines available to them are Sputnik V and the Chinese vaccine. There is a natural reluctance to be vaccinated with either of those because of a mistrust of Russia and because very little of the Chinese vaccine has been available. Some 2,275 NGOs have been closed down or will be shut down. Many of these organisations deal with issues of disability. One of these organisations, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has now been shut down.

Another issue that has been talked about a great deal tonight is that of the weaponising of migrants. The EU really needs to mount a humanitarian response. As has been said, these people should not be weaponised. We should open our borders with compassion. There are fears as to what is happening with these migrants at the borders with Poland and Lithuania.

A journalist working with activists on the ground has said that people are being kept in very unsanitary and inhumane conditions and that they are kept in very close quarters in prisons in which the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. Covid is really bad.

I will end on positive news. Chernobyl Children International is an organisation very close to my own heart. It is an honour for me to be in any way associated with it. It continues its humanitarian efforts on the ground. It is managing all of its programmes in Belarus remotely, ensuring that vulnerable children and families are cared for and protected at this precarious time. I pay tribute to the organisation and to the work of Adi Roche. Its lifesaving cardiac programme is resuming in Ukraine, having been paused for two years due to the Covid pandemic and the travel restrictions. While there have been no surgeries, the organisation welcomes this really good development and interaction. Its paediatric cardiac team will not only be performing lifesaving surgeries on newborns and young children, but will also provide a full training course for local surgeons. It wants to leave a footprint of expertise behind. I will just end on that little bit of good news in the midst of all the bad news this evening.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Seery Kearney for that little bit of positive news at the end. Before I hand over to the Minister, I will say that I feel privileged to have been asked to chair part of this debate. I have listened intently to everybody, starting with Senator Ward, who must be commended, and Senator Mullen, although I was down in my office at the time. I listened to Senators Ardagh and Higgins and all of the other speakers speak with such passion and sincerity. If the Belarusian people ever want a little bit of an uplift, the Irish people can give it to them. I know everyone who spoke was absolutely sincere. We are making a statement on behalf of all of the Irish people. People in every part of the country are concerned about the appalling process that is occurring in Belarus. It is just shocking. Before I hand back to the Minister, I will compliment him on his strong views on this. I know he is doing everything in his power to ensure a better outcome. I now call on him to conclude. He has ten minutes.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I believe that any Belarusians listening to this debate will take some courage from it. I hope they will because it is a country that needs solidarity and support not only from its close neighbours, but from other countries across Europe and the world. The truth is that sanctions very rarely work overnight. Sometimes they do not work at all. The European Union has tried to respond with sanctions targeted at individuals who are involved in, or linked to, inappropriate and illegal behaviour. At the same time, it has tried not to impose sanctions that would cause more misery for Belarusians. It is a very difficult balance to get right. We have a lot of debate within the Foreign Affairs Council on how to use sanctions appropriately. The way the European Union uses sanctions is quite different from how other regions use sanctions. However, the European Union's efforts to isolate Lukashenko and his regime with a view to bringing about change have not been successful so far. That does not mean that they will not be successful in the future. It will take sustained effort and sustained support for democratic movements within Belarus and outside, where many people are living in exile.

Ireland's first approach has been to use all tools of multilateral diplomacy at our disposal. Ireland has been vocal on the situation in Belarus in multilateral settings. Internationally, Ireland has long had a reputation for being a small but vocal country that consistently stands up for human rights, for the rule of law, for fundamental freedoms and for the right of people to choose who rules them. We have a pretty strong record in doing so not only in the context of Belarus, but of some of the other countries also mentioned here today. I have been involved in debates relating to China, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia at the level of the UN Security Council and the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and I have repeatedly raised the plight of Belarus at the Human Rights Council, at the UN Security Council and at a variety of other EU and multilateral meetings. We have called for the implementation of a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and for an expert investigator. We have supported an extension of the mandate for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate human rights violations in Belarus. We continue to speak up. Indeed, this Friday, our ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, will address the matter at an Arria formula meeting of the Security Council convened by Estonia which Ireland has co-sponsored.

With regard to sanctions, as I have said, Ireland has worked in support of EU sanctions against Lukashenko's regime and associated individuals and commercial entities. EU citizens and companies are now forbidden from making any funds available to those on the sanctions list. I can confirm that my diplomats in Brussels are working closely with their European colleagues on a fifth package of sanctions to try to achieve what I mentioned earlier. This is not a fight with the Belarusian people. It needs to be a targeted isolation of a dictator and the people around him.

With regard to Ireland's support for human rights in Belarus, Ireland is giving financial support to projects that seek to protect the human rights and media freedoms of the Belarusian people through the European Endowment for Democracy. Autocrats fear the free press. BelTA, the Belarusian news service, has limited its output and other news outlets have been harassed and forcibly closed down. I am glad that Ireland's funds are helping ordinary Belarusians to access the truth and facts. Other financial support comes in the form of a promise by the EU to provide a €3 billion economic stabilisation package. The funds will be unlocked once Belarus embarks on its democratic transition. If and when that transition begins, the EU will be in a position to provide generous practical financial support to the people of Belarus. We can help make their vision of a brighter future a practical reality on the ground if given the democratic opportunity to do so.

A number of people, and Senator Higgins in particular, have raised the issue of the situation on the EU borders. I thank the Senators who discussed the Lukashenko regime's shocking weaponisation of migrants and refugees. That is not a term I use lightly. Ireland has provided €100,000 to the Lithuanian Red Cross to help migrants pushed into Lithuania's border region by Belarus. We are open to further EU sanctions that specifically target individuals and entities facilitating the weaponisation of migrants. We will continue to stand in solidarity with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in securing the EU's external borders while also ensuring that migrants' human rights are protected.It is important, of course, to situate this crisis in a broader humanitarian crisis facing the European Union. More than 1,300 men, women, boys and girls have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and continuing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere means the number of people attempting to cross the sea or travel through other routes into Europe is likely to continue to increase in future. It is incumbent on member states to abide by their obligations and responsibilities under the Dublin regulation. Ireland has consistently advocated that migration is a challenge that confronts of all as a Union together which we must approach in a greater spirit of solidarity and responsibility if we are to overcome the difficulties confronting front-line states in particular. I have a note on the Ryanair flight but people are already familiar with it.

My approach on this is, I hope, one of consistency. This is a word that came up in a number of speeches this evening. Irish people have an emotional connection with Belarus in a way that adds to the sense of responsibility and solidarity, and to the expectation that I, on behalf of Ireland as its Minister for Foreign Affairs, would take a tough line on this issue that is consistent, fair and truthful, and we will do so. This is why Ireland, despite the fact we do not border Belarus as many EU countries do, has in many ways been one of the most vocal EU countries on what continues to happen in Belarus.

We are also the most vocal country in the EU on the Middle East peace process, despite the fact some people think I do not go far enough. Believe me, I am vocal. I also insist on being balanced and fair. Just like when I am critical of Israeli foreign policy towards Palestinians, I am also extremely critical of violent movements such as Hamas, which are playing a very corrosive role in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. We will remain resolute in trying to support democratic forces.

It is not up to Irish people, or anybody else for that matter, to determine who should politically lead Belarus but it is up to Belarusians to have the right to choose their own leader. This is simply all we are searching for and to call out the actions of a pretty brutal dictator who is looking to hold on to power through fear and intimidation, and who is using the forces of the state and resources supplied to him by some other states not from the European Union to stay in power.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Does the Minister mean Russia?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I suspect this will be a continuing problem for some time. The least we can do is to remain consistent and resolute in the context of the struggle the Belarusian people themselves are leading primarily on the ground. I thank the House for this opportunity and I hope we can come back and address this issue again in a few months' time.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister. I am sure all Senators will agree with me in wishing the Minister well in his endeavours. As we conclude this debate on Belarus, I sincerely thank everyone who has contributed to a valuable debate. I hope any Belarusians looking in are confident the people of Ireland are totally behind them.

Sitting suspended at 7.34 p.m. and resumed at 8 p.m.