Dáil Éireann - Volume 487 - 19 February, 1998

Written Answers - Developments in Belarus.

46. Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will outline the current situation on human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Belarus. [4278/98]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Andrews): Ireland, together with EU partners, has been seriously concerned at developments in Belarus since President Lukashenko effectively abrogated the separation of powers in a controversial referendum in November 1996. While anxious to avoid isolating Belarus, the international community, including the EU, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, has been working to encourage the Lukashenko regime to abide by international standards of democracy and the rule of law.

Acting on a proposal from Ireland, the EU sent a fact-finding mission to Belarus in Janaury 1997. The mission, which included OSCE and Council of Europe representatives, was highly critical of [975] the situation there and, particularly, of the almost complete absence of separation of powers. Subsequent efforts to work constructively with the Belorussian authorities to overcome the democratic deficit were unsuccessful. In the light of this impasse the General Affairs Council on 15 September 1997 reaffirmed that, while it did not wish to isolate Belarus, the failure to implement reforms would have negative effects on relations with the EU, including the non-conclusion of the Partnership and Co-operation and Interim Agreements, withdrawal of support for the Belorussian application to join the Council of Europe, restrictions on ministerial level contacts, and the suspension of technical aid programmes with the exception of those designed to assist in the reform process.

However, in spite of the strong pressure from the EU and other international bodies, negative developments in the area of democracy and human rights continued to take place. Over the past year these have included the arbitrary arrest of demonstrators and members of the opposition in April, the introduction of restrictive measures on lawyers and notaries in July, the application of strict new conditions on the accredition of foreign journalists also in July, and the closure of the leading independent newspaper, Svaboda, in November.

Throughout this period the OSCE, with strong support of the EU, pressed Belarus for agreement to an OSCE presence on the ground. On the eve of the OSCE Ministerial Meeting in Copenhagen on 18 December last, final agreement was reached with the Belorussian authorities on the establishment of an OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk. The AMG which is due to commence operations next week, will focus initially on legislation, human rights and the development of democratic institutions.

Ireland welcomes the Belorussian agreement to host the AMG. We believe it can play an important role in helping the authorities to develop democratic institutions and to ensure compliance with OSCE principles and commitments, including respect for human rights. Together with EU partners, Ireland will be working to encourage Belarus in the months ahead to make the greatest possible use of the important facility provided by the AMG to help it address the current difficult situation there.