Index on Censorship’s Mike Harris joined a panel debate at the OSCE parallel conference on adopting a joint resolution on Belarus, giving consideration to the country’s suspension from the OSCE, which will now go to the Council of Ministers.
At the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) parallel conference in Vilnius this week, NGOs have unanimously backed a resolution calling for the OSCE Council of Ministers to consider suspending Belarus from the OSCE for the “systematic and flagrant non-fulfilment of commitments in the human dimension” and the country’s refusal to cooperate with OSCE bodies.
At the session debating the motion, Mike Harris of Index on Censorship joined the panel of civil society representatives which included: David Kramer, President of Freedom House, Tatiana Reviaka, Human Rights House Viasna; Zhanna Litvina of the Belarus Association of Journalists, Elena Tonkacheva Center for Legal Transformation, and representatives from the Committee of International Control.
The debate began with a statement from Ales Bialiatski, taken by his wife from jail to the assembled delegates from across the OSCE region. It was a sober reminder of the severe deterioration of the situation in Belarus since the post-election clampdown on 19 December last year.
The resolution is available here, and will now go on to the Council of Ministers to be debated. Index on Censorship will be working with Foreign Ministers to ensure the resolution is backed at the highest levels.
Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, gave the following speech:
However much Lukashenko believes in the importance of his personal writ, as we can see from across Europe, even countries such as Italy are now hit by forces uncontrollable by politicians.
Lukashenko can arrest, detain, kidnap and torture – but he has not been able to prevent the devaluation of the Belarusian rouble and the huge fall in living standards.
Only a month after what happened on 19 December, even after the world saw what was happening in Belarus – the detention of presidential candidates, the mass arrests, the brutality of the state against its own people – 4 banks: the Royal Bank of Scotland, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and Sberbank – all sold Belarusian government bonds.
The bond issue in January came to $850 million, around 1.5 per cent of GDP.
In the context of a budget deficit of around 2 per cent of GDP this bond issue was highly significant.
None of the banks made public statements on the offer — hoping the international community would ignore their dirty deal.
And from our research, Goldman Sachs is one of the holders of Belarusian government bonds.
So what we can do?
Especially in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is majority owned by the British taxpayer.
So whilst politicians such as UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Europe Minister David Liddington were making welcome statements on the political prisoners in Belarus, and raising this issue with other European leaders, a state owned bank was selling Belarus’s government bonds.
We raised this directly with Hague and Liddington.
Free Belarus Now took this issue to Angela Merkel who told us she would ring the CEO of Deutsche Bank to complain.
But more important than pressure from politicians, was public opinion.
In a meeting with the Royal Bank of Scotland we made it very clear if they did not publicly state they would not sell any more Belarusian government bonds we would target their banks with protests.
Students are one of their biggest sources of new customers, and we had student groups who wanted to help by protesting outside the bank.
So what does this mean for NGOs in this room today?
We are compiling evidence that European banks continue to hold the deposits of leading members of Lukashenko’s regime.
We are beginning to understand which banks hold Belarusian government bonds.
If the government of Belarus will target NGOs for taking foreign donations, then NGOs must target banks for taking the government bonds of Belarus.
Today — I urge the NGOs in this room to join our banking campaign and ensure that pressure is kept on the government of Belarus.
The second action we can take is to target the personal freedom of Lukashenko.
Lukashenko must never again be given the freedom to travel.
No more meetings with the Pope.
No more international conferences.
So working with human rights lawyers McCue & partners, we have initiated a private prosecution of Lukashenko on the internationally indictable offences of kidnap and torture.
The legal case is available for anyone in this room to download.
It’s the first open source legal action of its kind.
But we need your help. The next time Lukashenko attempts to travel, we need NGO partners on the ground in the country who will apply to a judge for an arrest warrant.
The more partners we have — the more Lukashenko will think twice about travelling.
The final task we have is to set out what politicians should do.
Germany and Poland’s offer of $3.5 billion worth of IMF funding prior to the last election, shows the lack of understanding European governments have about the regime in Belarus.
This is not merely a question of political prisoners or slightly more free elections.
The space for civil society to operate must be significantly extended.
And that means stopping the government attacks on the internet.
International governments must get tough with a regime that engages in cyber-crime.
The Charter 97 website has suffered from continual Denial of Service attacks from a botnet of around 35,000 infected computers worldwide.
The Belarusian government has infected these computers and uses them to take down sites it disagrees with.
There are people today in OSCE countries whose computers can be used at will by the government of Belarus.
This is absolutely unacceptable.
Not only must international governments ensure state-sponsored cybercrime stops; it must make internet freedom a part of its negotiating position with the regime.
It’s clear that international governments have not had a coherent framework for dealing with Belarus.
Internet freedom and space for civil society must be the start.
Index on Censorship supports this resolution. Its unanimous adoption will send a clear message to the OSCE: as a member’s club, when one member breaks the rules there must be consequences.
Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship