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What future for environmental protection in Belarus?

Just beyond the border of the EU, in Belarus, environmental NGOs are struggling to make progress as environmental activists are being unlawfully arrested, kidnapped and detained.

Harassment of environmental activists is all too frequent in the world, including in Europe. Last month, three environmental activists were arrested without any explained reasons in Belarus, clearly breaching activists’ environmental rights.

On the 5 and 6 September, Irina Sukhy, Andrey Egorov and Anastasia Zakharevich were arrested and detained without any justifiable reason. The activists have been working in the environmental sector for the last years, both spreading awareness of environmental injustices within the state and taking part in peaceful protests such as those held at the battery power plant located in Brest. 

Unlawful arrests have occurred long throughout Alexander Lukashenko’s presidency. These are a violation of the Aarhus Convention, which grants citizens the right to access environmental information, public participation and access to justice. Belarus is one of the 39 signatories of this convention but the three rights are being broken by the government through its suppression of peaceful protests and unwarranted arrests.

The tactics of fear-mongering and intimidation used in Belarus are an attempt to repress environmental activists and NGOs to let projects of nuclear energy, battery power plants and sulfate pulp plants running.  

International response  

On 9 September and following these events, the Belarusian state received a letter from the UNECE Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee asking for explanations.

Two days after the deadline given by the Committee, the Belarusian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection responded that “there has been no evidence of harassment, penalization, and persecution of members of public exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Aarhus Convention in Belarus.” 

Numerous cases discredit these statements from the ministry, and activists are afraid that these unlawful arrests and detention would in fact be a daily basis across the state. Statements such as this show that the current Belarusian government has no intention to make democratic progress or acknowledge its crimes.

“Not only civil society, but also governments from around the world as well as the UN Secretary-General and the EU have condemned the appalling violence used against those demonstrating, as well as the mass arrests and torture of those standing up against Lukashenko,” said Patrizia Heidegger, the EEB’s Director for Global Policies and Sustainability. “Also, those opposing short-sighted and environmentally harmful projects must be guaranteed the right to express their opinions. There is no sustainable development without human rights,” she said.

Smoke and mirrors

Despite evidence of not being in the city, the activists have been accused of participating in illegal street mass gatherings in Minsk, a concealer for preventing the activists from demonstrating against the reopening of Ostrovets’ nuclear power plant.

The nuclear power plant in Ostrovets was built by Rosatom, a Russian nuclear agency, and was financed on behalf of Moscow with a 10 billion dollar loan. Ms. Sukhy and many other activists have been vocal about their opposition to the opening of the reactor in Ostrovets and have taken part in protests throughout 2020 in an attempt to prevent it. Investments and operations from Russian and Chinese companies is not an issue unique to Belarus, it is echoed across Eastern Partnership countries, as well as Western Balkan states where environmentally damaging power plants continue to be fed from Russian and Chinese hands. 

This is not the first time China has highly invested in Belarusian infrastructure. The so-called ‘workshop of the world’ has been accused of using debt-trap diplomacy with the fragile state by investing 520 million euro into ‘Great Stone Park”, in Belarus. This industrial park is an attempt to create the Eastern European China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park. Yet, with only 60 companies residing in the park (over half of which are Chinese),[2] the project seems to be a prime example of the negative consequences of the Chinese led Belt and Road Initiative. The Asian superpower extends its influence West while financially plunging a state into debt via loans and environmentally burdening it via increasing emissions, carbon leakage and the abuse of natural resources, “they invest in countries with natural resources, underdeveloped state institutions and risky (for conducting business) political environments.”[3]

According to The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, in May of 2020, a group of around 300 protesters took to Lenin square in Brest to demonstrate against the construction of a battery power plant on the outskirts of the city. After this rally, human rights lawyer Roman Kislyak was arrested by the authorities. Vladimir Velichkin, from the Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’, disappeared on the same day following the Brest protest. The two activists were detained for two days without their location being disclosed to family members. Both men were charged with a fine for their “participation at an unauthorized mass event”, a vague penalty that is often issued from the courts against activists in an effort to hinder and discourage further actions. 

[2] Belta, “Investments in China-Belarus industrial park over $520m”

[3] Rola krajów Europy Środkowej i Wschodniej w Inicjatywie Pasa i Szlaku – determinanty chińskich inwestycji bezpośrednich w krajach CEE–16 –