“Dear panelists, dear colleagues, and friends,

Thank you for inviting me to this panel and sharing some thoughts with you on how, together, we can resolve the political and humanitarian crisis in Belarus. This is the question of today’s discussion, and this is the question that is at the heart of my team’s everyday work. We need to resolve the crisis, we need to stop this suffering, we need to pave the way for future democratic Belarus. There should be no place for torture and humiliation in Europe.

It has been over a year since the start of the presidential campaign in Belarus. It has been a year since hundreds of thousands of Belarusians volunteered to support independent presidential candidates, hoping for change. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who believed that, and I quote the presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka, “they could build a country based on the fundamental human values, respect for human dignity, that we would have a chance to change the personalized power, that it would not ‘me’ but ‘us’ who would decide what to do”.

This is what Viktar Babaryka told the Minsk court during his final statement, firm in his beliefs and unbroken – despite months of humiliation and torture. State prosecutor Siarhei Hirhel asked the court to sentence Babaryka to 15 years in prison. 15 years. Because he dared to challenge the authoritarian rule of our country and mobilized Belarusians to demand change. This fate is awaiting also my husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a would-be Belarus presidential candidate who was detained on fabricated charges and imprisoned, pushing me to run instead.

This sounds like a faraway story that – yes – concerns hundreds of political prisoners and thousands of people in Belarus – but doesn’t concern us. But this is not true. That this is not true has become clear when Lukashenka forced the Ryanair aircraft to land in Minsk, plotting his revenge against opposition voices.

The plane – with European citizens on board – was on its way from Athens to Vilnius. It could have been any of us on board this plane. I took exactly the same route just one week before the incident. Belarusian authoritarian ruler is a threat to all of us. We cannot and should not tolerate this attack on democracy, freedom of speech, and people’s safety.

Belarusians have clearly demonstrated in selfless campaigns and peaceful protests that earned respect and admiration in the world that the Lukashenka regime has no mandate and legitimacy to govern the country. Its only source of power is violence and torture.

Our key demands haven’t changed since August 2020 – 1. the release of all political prisoners and people who have been politically persecuted. 2. Free and fair presidential elections under international observation. I won’t be tired of repeating that political prisoners shall not become the subject of bargaining games. These are Belarusian citizens who committed no crimes – in free, democratic countries, they would have been celebrated for their deeds, for their selflessness, solidarity, and heroism.

We need to resolve this crisis, and I truly believe that it is only with the joint efforts of the international community that we can achieve this.

We appreciate the UK’s role since the beginning of the Belarusian crisis. You didn’t recognize the fraudulent results of the 2020 presidential elections. You didn’t hide away and put those who violated and continue to violate human rights on the sanctions list – together with the EU. The UK has doubled its financial support for human rights groups, independent media, and local communities in Belarus – this support is vital in a country cut off from the world and where the state has declared war on any civic activity.

We welcome the UK government’s efforts to establish the International Accountability Platform for Belarus. It is crucial to further develop this platform and ensure its effectiveness. The G7 countries’ joint statement urging to punish those responsible for the Ryanair incident as well as calling to conduct new free and fair elections has been of crucial importance – the international community stands united in the face of lawlessness and horrific human rights violations.

Thank you for providing this support, Mr. Tugendhat, which gives us hope to resolve this ongoing crisis in Belarus. However, more needs to be done. While Mr. Tugendhat will elaborate in more detail on how the UK can help resolve the human rights crisis in Belarus, please allow me to share some thoughts on what support can be provided to the people of Belarus with whom I am in constant exchange.

There are three key ways to increase pressure on the Belarusian authoritarian regime: 1) sanctions, 2) the international community’s coordinated position and actions towards resolving the crisis, and 3) financial support for victims of political repressions, civil society, and independent media.

Further sanctions on the regime should be imposed not only on civil aviation officials but should also target those who support the Lukashenka regime. It is important to cut off the regime from financial streams – implement sanctions against Belarusian state-owned enterprises and sanction any products of the petrochemical industry. Sanctions need to be extended to individuals who provide support and help sustain the regime. The UK could send a strong signal to Russia that any agreements with the illegitimate Lukashenko regime will be reconsidered.

We need to keep the momentum in informing the world about the situation in Belarus and consolidating the international community’s position of Belarus’s friends in the EU, US, and Canada. We are calling on you to organize an international high-level political conference to resolve the crisis in Belarus. This summit should involve representatives of the Belarusian regime and Russia. It is also crucial that the UK brings the Belarusian question to the G20 summit, which will be held in Italy. We believe that the UK could be a leading voice and help coordinate efforts and joint positions on Belarus. Suspending the Mutual Legal Assistance in criminal matters that allows cooperation with the current Belarusian authorities and access to Interpol would be an indispensable, crucial measure to protect Belarusian citizens in the UK from extradition and prosecution. We urge you to suspend the MLA and block Lukashenko from using Interpol.

And finally, financial support is crucial for Belarusian human rights defenders and independent media. Providing financial assistance to students and academics expelled from Belarusian universities for political reasons and allowing them to study at British universities would be a sign of solidarity and investment in the future. I would also like to emphasize how important it is to cover the situation in Belarus. The UK could expand the Belarus coverage by the BBC and make sure that enough resources are provided. One possible solution could be to create a Belarusian desk with a dedicated staff member. There are precedents in other countries – such as Belsat TV station in Poland or Deutsche Welle in Germany, that provide extensive coverage of the situation in Belarus. The financial support should also include independent Belarusian media, the only resources able to provide adequate, balanced information on what is happening on the ground.

To reiterate what Viktar Babaryka said in the court trial, I do believe that we now have a historic chance to build Belarus that respects human dignity and the rule of law. We should stand united in defending democracy in Europe because it is not only the fate of Belarus that is at stake but of all of us. I am very much looking forward to listening to your views and ideas on how to resolve the political crisis in Belarus. My words of sincere gratitude to the Henry Jackson Society for organizing this high-level panel. Thank you!”.