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Human Rights Abuses.

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 30 June 2004

Wednesday, 30 June 2004

Questions (126, 127, 128, 129)

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

189 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the details of meetings that he, his Ministers of State or officials held with members of the political opposition in Belarus. [19760/04]

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Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

190 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the assistance the Government is providing to the political opposition party in Belarus; if contacts are being maintained on an ongoing basis; and if there will be further meetings. [19761/04]

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Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

191 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his plans in view of concerns expressed to him by the opposition party in Belarus about human rights abuses committed in that country; and if he plans to highlight the matter at EU level. [19762/04]

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Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

192 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he plans to meet or contact the President of Belarus or senior officials to express his concern about human rights abuses in that country. [19763/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Foreign)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 189 to 192, inclusive, together.

EU enlargement on 1 May saw Belarus become a direct neighbour for the first time. Belarus now has a land border with three members of the Union, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. As a result contacts with Belarus have never been so close and the Union's relations with Belarus have never been so important.

During the Irish Presidency enlargement was underpinned by several important initiatives. These included the adoption of a neighbourhood policy for the new neighbours and an intensive review of the Union's relations with its neighbouring states.

The period of the Presidency coincided with a significant deterioration in human rights in Belarus, an increased repression of the opposition, the media and civil society, and the intensification of a peaceful democratic struggle in the country. The EU's three goals were: to maintain the EU's Presidency led dialogue with the government of Belarus to encourage basic democratic reform; to maintain pressure on the Belarusian Government to end repression of human rights groups, the opposition and the media; and to ensure that the people of Belarus benefit from the incentives and funding that will become available under the European neighbourhood policy.

A number of meetings with the Belarusian political opposition were held in the course of the Presidency. A meeting at official level took place in the US embassy in Minsk during the first ever joint EU-US mission to Belarus in March. Its purpose was to underline EU and US concern about the human rights problem and to encourage the administration to embark on a series of reforms. During the course of the mission the Presidency, on behalf of the EU, invited a number of the opposition leaders to visit Brussels. The visit was co-funded by the Irish and Swedish Governments and lasted from 24 to 26 May. Leading figures from Belarusian human rights organisations were also included in the Belarusian delegation. An allocation of €15,000 was made available towards the cost of the visit. Travel costs were shared by the Swedish and Irish Governments. Ireland also co-funded interpretation costs, local travel and subsistence.

The opposition leaders also met Deputy Tom Kitt, Minister of State at my Department, in Brussels. He acted on behalf of the Presidency. They also met Commissioner Verheugen and the High Representative-Secretary General, Mr. Solana. Deputy Kitt's discussions with the delegation were positive and conducted in a frank, open and friendly atmosphere. Members of the Belarusian delegation underlined the need to increase EU assistance for civil society and to maintain pressure on the government in Minsk on a range of issues.

Deputy Kitt confirmed that the EU was ready to engage in a constructive dialogue with Belarus to promote common values. He stressed that it was vital, in the period leading up to the forthcoming elections, that the opposition parties consolidate their efforts to provide a genuine democratic alternative for the people of Belarus. He underlined the EU's deep concern at the deteriorating human rights problem. He also confirmed that the EU insists that an independent investigation be held into the cases of the disappeared and the early release of political prisoners.

Ireland does not believe that Belarus should be isolated from the international community. I was pleased that the ENP conclusions, that were agreed by the Union's Foreign Ministers in June, confirmed that it would be possible to extend the full benefits of the ENP to Belarus when it established a democratic form of government, following free and fair elections. I was particularly happy that the Council confirmed its intention to strengthen support for civil society in Belarus under the ENP and to examine possibilities for further supporting the humanitarian needs of the people of Belarus, including addressing the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

As regards contact with the President of Belarus and his government, I wrote twice to the Belarusian Foreign Minister, in my capacity as President of the Council of Ministers, on specific human rights cases. My first letter concerned the attempted closure of the European Humanities University in Minsk. My second letter was on the harassment of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and its president, Mrs. Tatiana Protko. I was particularly pleased that the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, joined me in making representations in the latter case.

During our Presidency we broke new ground in co-ordinating EU policy with the US Government's policy on Belarus. This was witnessed by the joint EU-US mission to Belarus and co-operation with the Secretary of State on human rights issues. We have also regularly raised the human rights problem in Belarus as part of our dialogue with Russia. I have no doubt that the initiatives that were taken during the Irish Presidency will be developed during the Netherlands Presidency so that the democratic transformation of Belarus, that we all wish for, can be further advanced.

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