Diplomacy, Economy and Law: Countering the State Terror of Europe’s Last Dictator
“Hijacking a civilian plane is an unprecedented act of
state terrorism that cannot go unpunished”
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki1 (May 26 2021)
On 23 May, at the command of President Lukashenko,2 Belarusian authorities diverted a civilian plane and forced it to make an emergency landing in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. On board, Belarus security operatives “initiated a fight with the Ryanair crew” under the guise of a bomb threat and forced the crew to send a distress signal.3 After landing the authorities arrested Belarussian blogger Raman Protasevich and his companion; only then did they allow the plane to continue towards its original destination in neighbouring Lithuania.
Defining the terms. The Lithuanian President described Belarus’ actions as “state terrorism.”4 The International and European Federation of Journalists (IFJ/EFJ) called it “an act of air piracy and state terrorism.”5 The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) defined it as a “reckless and abhorrent act of state terrorism”.6
Broadly speaking, such actions might fall under the definition of terrorism as an an unlawful and coercive instrument intended to communicate to target individuals, groups or governments the cost of noncompliance with their political or social demands (cf. Abrahms, 2006; Kydd & Walter, 2006).7 In fact, while boarding the plane in Athens, Protasevich noticed with fear if not terror that he was being photographed by “dodgy-looking people,”8 while co-passengers described him as “super scared.”9
Late last year the dissident journalist was ruled “extremist” by a Belarusian court and was added to Belarus’s list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity.” Pratasevich is accused of “gross violation of public order” and “inciting mass riots” and “social hatred” against law enforcement, for which he could face a lengthy prison term or the death penalty.10 After Pratasevich’ arrest this week, Belarus’ President had additional warnings for the many opposition activists who have sought refuge abroad: “We know all of you. Bringing you to justice is a matter of time.”11 In short, while the recent actions of the Belarusian authorities may count as (state) terrorism, labelling the critics of its regime as terrorists is hardly right and accurate. More importantly, while Belarus’ detained journalists need to be immediately freed, its state terrorism needs to be countered through diplomatic, economic and legal enforcement.
Diplomacy, Economy and Law as Countermeasures. A diplomatic response to Belarus’ state terrorism would rely on persuading its government to free political prisoners through a number of multi-lateral meetings. Diplomatic responses and threats may not yield results by negotiating behind closed doors, particularly without Russia’s backing. On May 28, President Putin reaffirmed political and economic support for Belarus. Yet, Russia’s endorsement may be unsustainable in the long run since much of Belarus’ economy depends on the EU and beyond.
For that reason, more far-reaching economic instruments could be deployed to exert pressure against Belarus and its Russian sponsor. In this way, the European Council called to adopt “further targeted economic sanctions” and invited “the High Representative and the Commission to submit proposals without delay to this end.”12 Germany warned Lukashenko that his regime would face a barrage of additional sanctions.13 At the same time, the German foreign minister recognised a delicate balance: “we want to bring Belarus closer to us, not push it away … into Russia’s arms”14 For this reason, law enforcement could be used as yet another counter-terrorism instrument. Belarus’ actions violated international law with regards to civil aviation: “in contriving an emergency landing of Flight FR4978 off the back of a fake bomb threat, Belarus committed an outrageous breach of the Montreal Convention.”15 As a consequence, Belarus must remedy the situation by providing full reparation to Poland as the flag state of the aircraft. Also, it has to release Protasevich from Belarusian custody and allow him to continue to Vilnius.
In conclusion. There are doubts about Belarus’ willingness to comply with international demands as its authorities have made clear that they will not bow to pressure. However, Belarus is not a lone island and might not defy the international community for too long. Moreover, shying away from using a number of counter-terrorism measures with determination and in conjunction may send a signal to other predatory states that such behaviour will be tolerated without consequences.
Peter Rožič SJ
2 Simon Van Dorpe (2021-05-23) “EU blasts Belarus for ‘hijack’ of airliner and arrest of activist” POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/belarus-journalist-arrest-roman-protasevich-diverted-flight-minsk/
3 Simon Van Dorpe (2021-05-23) “EU blasts Belarus for ‘hijack’ of airliner and arrest of activist” POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/belarus-journalist-arrest-roman-protasevich-diverted-flight-minsk/
4 CNBC (2021-05-25), “The EU sanctions Belarus after ‘state terrorism’ — but experts aren’t convinced they’ll work” https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/25/belarus-eu-sanctions-but-experts-arent-convinced-they-will-work.html
5 IFJ (2021-05-25) “Belarus: an act of state terrorism to arrest a journalist” https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/article/belarus-an-act-of-state-terrorism-to-arrest-a-journalist.html
6 Scottish Legal (2021-05-27) “Human rights lawyers condemn Belarus plane hijacking as ‘state terrorism’” https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/human-rights-lawyers-condemn-belarus-plane-hijacking-as-state-terrorism
7 This definition is inspired on by Abrahms, M. (2006). Why Terrorism Does Not Work. International Security, 31(2), 42-78 and by Kydd, A. H., & Walter, B. F. (2006). The strategies of terrorism. International Security, 31(1).
8 Simon Van Dorpe (2021-05-23) “EU blasts Belarus for ‘hijack’ of airliner and arrest of activist” POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/belarus-journalist-arrest-roman-protasevich-diverted-flight-minsk/
9 BBC (2021-05-24) “Belarus ‘diverts Ryanair flight to arrest journalist’, opposition says” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57219860
10 Scottish Legal (2021-05-27) “Human rights lawyers condemn Belarus plane hijacking as ‘state terrorism’” https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/human-rights-lawyers-condemn-belarus-plane-hijacking-as-state-terrorism
11 Mari Eccles (2021-05-26) “Lukashenko defends Ryanair grounding that upends European air traffic rules” POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/belarus-plane-hijacking-alexander-lukashenko-defends/
12 Council of the European Union (24 May 2021) “European Council conclusions on Belarus” https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/05/24/european-council-conclusions-on-belarus-24-may-2021/
13 Hans von der Burchard (2021-05-27) “Germany threatens sanctions ‘spiral’ unless Belarus frees prisoners”
15 Cameron Miles (2021-05-24) “Belarus and the Hijacking of Ryanair Flight FR4978: A Preliminary International Law Analysis” https://www.lawfareblog.com/belarus-and-hijacking-ryanair-flight-fr4978-preliminary-international-law-analysis