Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  7:02 pm, 29th April 2019 

It is a pleasure to hear that the importance of rolling over these sanctions is supported on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke with considerable knowledge and authority about the sanctions against Syria. I will concentrate on another of the three countries on whom this set of sanctions will be maintained: Belarus.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Belarus in this place, and last year led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Minsk. Later this year, we will be inviting Belarus to pay a return visit and send a delegation to visit the UK. The explanatory memorandum to these sanctions regulations refers to the need for respect of “democratic principles and institutions” in Belarus; but one has to say that there is still some way to go. The Parliament in Minsk and the parliamentary institutions of Belarus are not quite as we would recognise in this country. Those who do sit in Parliament have been largely appointed by the President, and those who were not appointed directly have certainly been approved by the President in taking up their position. The President himself first took office in 1994. He has won several elections since then, usually by over 90% of the vote, and the bodies that have observed those elections—not least the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—have raised considerable concerns about their validity.

Belarus is also undoubtedly still firmly within the Russian orbit, and one has to accept that its room for manoeuvre is severely limited by what the Kremlin allows. Having said that, there are some signs of progress. Belarus did not recognise the Russian occupation of South Ossetia, of Abkhazia or of Crimea, and there are signs that it wishes to edge away and that some progress is being made. It was for that reason that the IPU decided that it was worthwhile to send a delegation to encourage further steps of progress, and I pay tribute to our excellent ambassador in Minsk, who is pressing for reform while also seeking to ensure that we have relations with the Government and institutions of Belarus.

There are also economic opportunities in Belarus, as Douglas Chapmanpointed out. The UK is a considerable market for Belarus exports. I have to say that Belarus is a rather smaller market for UK exports, but nevertheless there is an opportunity there. However, when it comes to human rights, it is worth noting that Belarus is still, I think, the only country in Europe that institutes the death penalty. The number of people executed actually doubled last year—to four. Assurances that Belarus is seeking to have a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty have been rather disproved by its recent actions, and that too is a considerable stain on its record and prevents it from joining the Council of Europe among other things.

The explanatory memorandum for these sanctions names four individuals. The first three—Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar and Anatol Krasouski—were all opposition politicians who were previously quite close to President Lukashenko, but found themselves in opposition to him and then died in 1999. Some were abducted, and the courts have now ruled that they were almost certainly murdered. Quite exactly what happened, we still do not know.

The fourth individual named on the explanatory memorandum and the regulations is Dzmitry Zavadski, and I mention him specifically because although he was President Lukashenko’s personal cameraman, he also practised widely as a journalist. As the Minister and others may know, I am a very strong supporter of media freedom. I strongly welcome the initiative that the Foreign Secretary has taken to make media freedom a priority of this Government to the extent of organising an international conference on it in July. The IPU, which I have the honour to chair, will be following that up.

The death of Mr Zavadski is a terrible blot, but it is worth mentioning another individual who worked alongside him—Pavel Sheremet. Pavel Sheremet was another Belarusian journalist who fell out with the President. He was also a critic of President Putin and a great friend of Boris Nemtsov in Russia. He was assassinated in a car bomb in Kiev in 2016, and his murder is another example of the risks that journalists take and how they sometimes pay a price with their lives. We should always raise the issue of Pavel Sheremet. Quite who was responsible for his death is unclear—he made a number of enemies among people who could well have been responsible—but he was a Belarusian journalist. He was also one of the founders of Charter 97, which is a human rights organisation that operates in Belarus. I met representatives of Charter 97 just a few weeks ago. Its founder was also killed, the editor-in-chief fled and is now in Poland, and access to its website is blocked in Belarus.

The record in Belarus is not good. I therefore certainly would not argue that sanctions should necessarily be lifted. However, I would say that we should keep them under review and that we should encourage where there are signs of progress. I hope that there is some movement towards greater liberalisation and away from the alliance with Russia. On that subject, I will not bore the Minister by repeating what has come up regularly in these debates but merely say that the sanctions against Russia remain of huge importance. We await the Government’s announcement of the implementation of the Magnitsky sanctions following the passage of the necessary legislation in this House. If ever we needed an example of why those sanctions against Russia remain of huge importance, it was the Minister’s excellent response to the debate that we had last week on the Russian annexation of Crimea. He will know that within hours of that, the Russians announced that they were going to make passports available to people living in Donbass. I am very pleased that the Foreign Officemade clear our condemnation of that further provocation by Russia against the people and Government of Ukraine.

I strongly support these sanctions. However, I was keen to take this opportunity to put it on the record that although the sanctions against Belarus are justified, there are nevertheless small signs of progress.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  10:09 am, 24th April 2019 

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate at an extremely important time for Ukraine, and on doing an excellent job of setting out the facts about the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Like Angela Smith, three weeks ago I spent my Sunday sitting in a polling station in Desnianskyi district, a poorer suburb of Kiev, and this Sunday I was in a polling station in Bucha, watching democracy in action. It is always inspiring to see a democratic election in a country that has only recently become free.

One of the striking things about the Ukraine election was that there was absolutely no question about the people’s desire for change. As overseas observers, we had some criticisms about access to the media, financing and resources, but there can be no doubt that the result—the election of President-elect Zelensky—reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. I pay tribute to President Poroshenko, who I think achieved many things, but there is a real and deep-seated wish for change, and it was undoubtedly a genuine election.

One of the first things that President-elect Zelensky will have to do is decide how best to confront the Russian aggression and the occupation of parts of his country. The war in Donbass gets a lot of attention—it is a hot war and people are dying there; I went last year to Avdiivka, which is right up against the frontline and is regularly subject to shelling—but we must not overlook Crimea, which has spent five years under occupation.

President-elect Zelensky has not yet said a great deal about his policy, and we must wait to see who he will appoint to key positions such as Foreign Minister, but he has referred to the Budapest memorandum. The signatories to that memorandum—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly drew attention to the fact that the UK is one—have said that they will protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have an expectation that that commitment will be honoured, even though one of the signatories is responsible for the invasion and occupation of their country. I know that our Government want to pursue the existing dialogue with Russia through the Normandy agreement and the Minsk process, but President-elect Zelensky has said that he sees a role for the Budapest signatories, so if he approaches the UK Government to assist in resolving the situation, I hope that they will respond positively.

My hon. Friend made several points about the invasion of Crimea five years ago; I do not want to repeat them, but I will make a couple of observations. One of the reasons given for the invasion was that, following the revolution of dignity in the Maidan, Kiev was under the control of a fascist and antisemitic Government. Ironically, not only is there no evidence of that Government ever being fascist or antisemitic, but as of Sunday, Ukraine will be only the second country in the whole world, after Israel, to have a President and a Prime Minister who are both Jewish.

The second reason given for the invasion was the referendum in which the occupants of Crimea expressed a wish to rejoin Russia. It is true that in 1990, when there were genuine plebiscites across Ukraine to determine its future, the biggest minority in favour of joining Russia was in Crimea, although it was only 41%. However, the so-called referendum that took place five years ago did so under the barrels of Kalashnikovs after all media from Ukraine had been cut off. There was a relentless barrage of Russian propaganda, including footage that showed thousands of Ukrainians allegedly fleeing from what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as threats of a massacre—I say “allegedly” because it subsequently emerged that it was footage of a traffic jam of Ukrainian vehicles heading across the border to Poland to do some weekend shopping.

The referendum offered a choice between joining Russia immediately, and retaining independence with the right to join Russia after a specified period. Remaining part of Ukraine was not on the ballot paper. Just imagine if a similar question had been asked in our EU referendum three years ago. As my hon. Friend said, the referendum on joining Russia rightly received international condemnation, including by the United Nations General Assembly; resolutions have been passed that point out that the annexation and occupation continue to be illegal.

My hon. Friend was right to highlight the relentless abuse of human rights in Crimea since the Russian occupation. I draw particular attention to the events of 27 March, less than four weeks ago, in which 23 Crimean Tatar civic journalists were arrested, beaten by the Russian FSB and taken out of Crimea. It is not clear where some of them are being held; I am afraid that they are just the latest in a long list of people, particularly Tatars, who have been subjected to torture, abuse, kidnapping and imprisonment.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the military build-up in Crimea since the Russians took over. There was already a naval base at Sevastopol, of course, but before the occupation there were only 12,500 Russian troops there, whereas there are now estimated to be 32,000. There has also been a build-up of aircraft, naval forces and military vehicles; indeed, it is now reported that there may well be nuclear weapons in Crimea, which is ironic given that the Budapest memorandum was signed specifically in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear weapons.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the situation in the sea of Azov. Just before Christmas, I travelled to Berdyansk and Mariupol, which are both on the sea of Azov, to see the effect of the blockade across the Kerch strait. The bridge that was built prevents a large number of larger ships from entering the sea of Azov, and since the blockade Russian warships have imposed checks on all ships going in. That has had the effect of delaying passage and rendering the businesses of Mariupol and Berdyansk almost uneconomic. Those two cities are subject to economic warfare and must be relieved.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the Ukrainians have done a fantastic job of raising these issues in every international forum. He spoke about his and his colleagues’ work in the Council of Europe; at the annual Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly some 10 days ago, I listened to a very powerful address by Mr Parubiy, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Rada. It was then countered by the Russians, who said that of course there were no Russians whatever in Donbass and that there never had been—it was an entire fiction. There is an absolute denial of reality by Russia, despite overwhelming evidence.

I pay tribute to the representation of Ukraine in this country. It is a great pleasure to see the Ukrainian ambassador, Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko, listening to this debate. She is an assiduous attender of such events and does a fantastic job.

My hon. Friend spoke about the need to increase the pressure on Russia, particularly through sanctions. I agree absolutely that it was very important that we passed the Magnitsky amendment. We eagerly await its implementation; I know that the Government intend to move forward, but we would like them to do so somewhat quicker.

I hope that the message that comes out from this debate, and the number of speakers in it, will demonstrate that across the House of Commons there is unanimous support for Ukraine against the illegal occupation of part of the country and the aggressive action of the Russian Federation.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although any death is a tragedy, the murder of a journalist is particularly abhorrent? Is she aware that Lyra McKee’s death came on the very same day when the world press freedom index was published, which showed the UK rising by seven places? At a time when the Government are rightly championing the protection of journalists, this terrible act is a dreadful stain on our record.

 

My right hon. Friend and I share the honour of having served in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; it perhaps did not have the “Digital” at the time he was there, but we have both been Culture Secretaries and both of us were charged with ensuring that press freedom was respected. The work he did as Secretary of State, which I was fortunate enough to follow on from and take up the mantle of, helps us to be in the position where our status on the press freedom index is improving, but he makes a powerful point about what we have seen in Londonderry and the murder of Lyra McKee.

 

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, already, another seven journalists have been killed in the course of their work this year, coming on top of the 80 who died last year? Two of those were in Mexico, which is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalism. Will he say what more can be done to press the Mexican Government to take action?

 

 

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue, and indeed for raising it consistently. He is absolutely right: Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist. The Mexican Government have taken action, and we are in touch with them closely about what they are doing. However, we need to draw the world’s attention to this issue. According to the latest figures I have seen, 348 journalists were arrested or detained last year for doing their job. That is why this summer, jointly with Canada, we will be hosting the first ever international conference on media freedom at ministerial level.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone; I will be very brief. I was first elected to the House to represent a part of Colchester, so I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) in promoting its many attractions, which I can vouch for.

 

I now represent the Maldon district. We are all part of the east of England, which does not always get the attention it deserves—people talk about the Lake district and the west country—but has many attractions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned some of the attractions in her constituency—indeed, I used to represent some of those as well. We share what is known as the saltmarsh coast, which is an extraordinary asset for recreation, wildlife and sailing.

 

The other great asset I represent is a place that should be nationally famous but is not: the Stow Maries great war aerodrome, the last remaining first world war aerodrome. It is being restored, with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it does not attract nearly as many visitors as it should because it is not well enough known.

 

In Maldon and elsewhere we recognise that digital marketing is key—perhaps the Minister will touch on that—and that people now look online to see where there are attractions, but there is not enough co-ordination. The Maldon district promotes things in the Maldon district, and Colchester borough promotes things in Colchester, but there needs to be more co-ordination so that we can demonstrate all of the region’s attractions to people who are thinking of visiting the east of England. I am thinking not just of Essex; I am very happy for the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) to participate as well to promote Suffolk. We sit on this great asset, and I do not believe we are yet doing enough to exploit it.

 

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I strongly agree that the tech companies need to do more to stop the spread of hate and incitement to violence. However, does he also recognise that the internet is a force for good and that many authoritarian countries—China ​and, now, particularly Russia—are attempting to impose censorship on it for their own repressive political purposes? Does he therefore agree that any measures we take need to be proportionate and targeted, and must not allow other countries, such as Russia, to claim somehow that they are acting for reasons similar to ours?

 

It is tempting to say that my right hon. Friend is asking the wrong person. As Security Minister, I see daily how paedophiles, organised crime, groomers and terrorist recruiters use the internet as not a force for good. As we speak, the internet is being used to undermine our own democracy.

 

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point that, in places where there is no democracy and no rule of law, the internet is sometimes people’s only hope to engage with free thought and the outside world. We have to be very careful about how we balance that but, nevertheless, we know these companies can remove extremist content very quickly when they put their minds to it.

 

There are certain areas on which we all agree. I cannot find anyone in the world who would support allowing child sexual exploitation images to exist on our internet. Violent extremism, beheading videos and bullying online cannot be acceptable in any society. We can all agree that a number of activities should not be allowed or available on the internet without someone taking responsibility for preventing the broadcast or spreading of it. All of us in this House have to try to navigate that fine line, and we will debate it when the online White Paper comes before us.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that five years ago today Russian special forces seized the Government building in Crimea and raised the Russian flag? Will she confirm that the UK Government remain committed to the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, and will she look at strengthening sanctions against Russia until that can be achieved?

 

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. This was an illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, and we have been doing everything we can to ensure that the appropriate sanctions are imposed that will have an impact. We have been one of the voices around the EU Council table that has been advocating the roll-over of sanctions at every stage and ensuring that, as we look at the actions of Russia here and elsewhere, we enhance those sanctions and rightfully put pressure on those who are responsible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole history of the European Union has shown that time and again, when there are intractable disputes, agreement is obtained, often late at night, with about an hour to go before the clock runs out? Will she therefore stick to her deadline, and will she impress on the European Union that there is a majority in the House for her agreement if the necessary changes to the backstop can be made?

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to that issue in relation to the European Union. We are indeed in the process of those talks with the European Union, and have made clear to it that—as the vote in the House showed—there is support for a withdrawal agreement provided that we can see those necessary changes in relation to the backstop.

I very much welcome Dame Frances Cairncross’s report, which I believe addresses one of the greatest challenges to properly functioning democracy today. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the priority must be to facilitate more professional journalists to report on the proceedings of local councils, local courts and other local institutions, which are currently all too often going unreported? The BBC’s local democracy initiative at least starts to address that challenge, so will he look at ways of expanding that initiative, perhaps by bringing on board to it the technology companies that are currently distributing the content but doing nothing to help collect it?

 

I agree with my right hon. Friend. A large part of the answer is, as he says, to ensure that there are more professional journalists in the right places at the right times to provide the scrutiny that we all agree is important and necessary. As he has heard me say, the local democracy reporting scheme is a good example of how that might be achieved in the times that we currently live in. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the part that he played in bringing that scheme into existence in conjunction with the BBC. It is a good thing, but he is right to say that there is scope for further expansion, as Dame Frances Cairncross has also pointed out. That expansion must be paid for, and I will certainly look into his suggestion and pursue further how we might persuade those who are benefiting from the current arrangements to ensure that their worst excesses are mitigated.