Liberals ease trade with Belarus, leaving N. Korea as last country on restricted list

The Trudeau government is moving to normalize trade with Belarus, even though the eastern European country faces human rights criticism. A recent cabinet decision means the nation, which borders Russia, will be removed from the list that restricts trade.

Belarus, described as 'dictatorial' by former prime minister Stephen Harper, soon to be open to Canadian trade

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive at a news conference in April. Canada is easing trade restrictions on Belarus, a key ally of Russia, despite human rights groups' concerns about Lukashenko's regime. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)

The Liberal government is proceeding with a plan to ease trade restrictions imposed almost a dozen years ago on Belarus, despite scathing human rights reports about the eastern European country.

A recent cabinet decision, posted online this week, paves the way for the removal of the country from the Area Control List.

The removal of Belarus from the list means trade will be less restricted and it opens up business opportunities for Canadian companies.

It's been a year since Global Affairs Canada signalled its intention to take action. The new measure takes effect on July 12.

The easing of the trade restriction on Belarus, a close strategic ally of Russia, leaves North Korea as the only country remaining on the list.

Restrictions were imposed in December 2006 by the former prime minister Stephen Harper's government and came about because of human rights concerns following elections there.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, was accused of ordering the arrest of activists and opposition candidates.

At the time, Harper issued a scathing statement saying he was "shocked that a dictatorial and abusive regime such as this one can continue to exist in today's Europe."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government imposed the trade restrictions in 2006. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In a statement Monday, Global Affairs Canada said the country was being removed from the list because the United States and European Union had done the same.

"This revised approach reflects Canada's acknowledgment that the government of Belarus has made progress in key areas, including the release of political prisoners and conducting a peaceful presidential election in October 2015‎," the statement said.

"Canada also recognizes the constructive role played by Belarus in facilitating negotiations toward a ceasefire and peace agreement in Ukraine under the Minsk agreement."

Global Affairs spokesperson John Babcock said that as part of the re-engagement strategy Canada recently accredited an ambassador to Belarus.

Human rights groups concerned

Lukashenko remains in power and continues to be a target for groups such as Human Rights Watch, which said in its most recent report that despite the "friendly rhetoric," the country's reforms were "not supported by genuine human rights improvements" last year.

The organization noted that Belarus remains the "only European country with the death penalty" and has no plans to impose a moratorium.

"Officials continue to prosecute human rights activists and critical journalists on spurious charges," said the Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, released on Jan. 29.

Legislation was also passed recently that the organization says further restricted freedom of expression by expanding the definition of "extremism."

Amnesty International went even further, saying Belarus has continued to refuse co-operation with the UN special rapporteur on human rights and continues to spy on its citizens.

"The legal framework governing secret surveillance allowed the authorities to undertake wide-ranging surveillance with little or no justification," said Amnesty's 2016-17 country report.