US Representative Chris Smith, a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and leading congressional critic against Alyaksandr Lukashenka, told RFE / RL that “it is time to think of a tribunal” to bring Belarus to the power for a long time. Strongman and his associates are held to account.
Smith, a New Jersey state Republican and lead author of four successive versions of the Belarusian Democracy Act, legislation that aims to support civil society and independent media in Belarus while punishing its leaders, said the Sanctions imposed by Trump and Biden administrations were “just not enough.”
“It must be a full-fledged press,” Smith said in an interview on May 23, hours after a passenger plane was forced to land in Belarus and journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested . “And the seriousness must be unmistakable, for Lukashenka to receive the message: ‘You are done.'”
RFE / RL: What kind of action should be taken against Belarus to send a message that such an act is unacceptable?
Chris Smith: Well, I think first of all that the sanctions have to be very, very widely applied. We know a lot of people who do these horrible things every day. The sanctions list must therefore be quadrupled, even more. It is not enough to know how many people have been put on the sanctions list. And I think it needs to be brought to all places possible, including the United Nations.
I mean, if they can send a MiG and shoot down a plane – a forced landing – because there just happens to be a pro-democracy activist or activists inside that plane, no one is safe. It really is a violation of airspace and aviation rules.
Frankly, I think it’s time to think about a tribunal. We must hold Lukashenka and his cronies to account in a hybrid court like this [that heard the war crimes case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor]. You know, [former Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic never thought he would be held to account. This is the kind of thing that needs to be taken to court and as soon as possible.
RFE / RL: Would holding a tribunal have a real impact if it continues to retain power in Belarus?
Black-smith: Well, it can be, because then, if he travels anywhere, there is extradition. The International Criminal Court (ICC) must go wherever atrocities occur, whether or not there is an agreement from Russia or China to allow them. It can be done, but there has to be a will.
No one thought that the International [Criminal] The Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia would be created because Serbia was so close to Russia, and they were just thinking of stopping it. Well, this tribunal has taken place. A lot of terrible people who did terrible things had to be held to account. And there have been a lot of lessons learned since then, both in Rwanda and in the court in Sierra Leone. And I think it’s time we went to court. Whether through the ICC or a hybrid court, as we did with Yugoslavia.
RFE / RL: How do you think this event will impact the aviation industry in the future?
Black-smith: I think this is warning that any of your passengers who happen to be a human rights defender – you might find this plane [and] force him to make an emergency landing. It is a precedent that if not aggressively challenged airlines and all flights will be in a very precarious position in the future because planes regularly fly over places that are dictatorships. And it is the dictatorships who have the will to orchestrate something like this has happened here. They can stop and now in this case, very seriously injured, I believe, this journalist.
RFE / RL: Belarus is said to have close ties, particularly financial, with the Middle East. Is the United States putting pressure on the region?
Black-smith: No matter how much pressure it is done on the fly and it has not been effective. Lukashenka, as he has done in the past, believes that he can wait for the initial storm of revulsion from the international community, including the United States, and then do what he just did, go and arrest Mr. Pratasevich. , which was flying over Belarusian airspace. So we need to put more pressure on our allies, our friends and those we have a relationship with, but it might not be as warm and friendly, just to make sure he doesn’t have a place to turn or hide.
RFE / RL: What did you think of the Biden administration’s update on Belarus and its reaction to the events that were recently presented to Congress there?
Black-smith: It’s not enough. They [Biden administration] have sanctioned some people, just like Donald Trump, so Biden and Trump have sanctioned a number of people, but that’s just not enough. It must be a full-fledged press. And the seriousness must be unmistakable, so that Lukashenka receives the message: âYou are finished. You better take refuge somewhere like so many dictators do. He will probably go to Russia if he is forced to leave. But there is not enough pressure and that is the problem.
RFE / RL: Your invoices gave administrations the power to impose sanctions on the country. Can the sanctions regime be effectively monitored? Can Belarus get around them?
Black-smith: If there is something going through those cracks, we have to make sure that doesn’t happen either. If you remember, during Milosevic’s horrific war with Bosnia and Croatia, where much of his ammunition and military equipment came from? Belarus. They were united at the hip in solidarity.
Crisis in Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader after an August 9 election deemed fraudulent.
But [sanctions avoidance] must also be looked at very aggressively. I think this  act should be the final straw for Lukashenka. I remember when we passed the 2004 law and the 2006 law, there were a lot of people saying, ‘Well let’s just turn the page, you know we’ve done enough’, and I said: “[Lukashenka] has not changed its stripes. You know he’s a consummate dictator, who is so cruel, like [are] its police officers who rape and kill every day of the week. And now they’re doing it with steroids.
RFE / RL: Should the United States recall its ambassador to protest against the forced fall of the civilian plane and the arrest of Pratasevich?
Black-smith: I am one of those who believe that a presence is important. But it must be extraordinarily robust, otherwise it will not become effective. We have already expelled ambassadors from there and elsewhere. And it’s still an open question, if this really has an impact. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that our Ambassador, as well as the mission, which is greatly reduced, is an oasis of freedom and democracy and it only underscores what Lukashenka is doing.
RFE / RL: Europe and the United States have put on the sanctions list certain officials and magnates close to Lukashenka following the brutal repression of the demonstrators. At a hearing in March, you named a few other tycoons that you would like to see sanctioned by the United States, including the Karic brothers from Serbia and Russian businessman Mikhail Gutseriyev. Do you call to expand this list?
Black-smith: My point today, especially after this very brazen incident, is that we just need to obviously increase the number of people on this. [sanctions] list, and there are many that qualify, so it’s not hard to do that. Many people must feel the economic harm. Much of the money that is earned, as in any dictatorship, comes from those who commit misdeeds and cruelty to people. They run businesses and in many cases they certainly make a lot of money out of it. When Europe and the United States prevent them from doing anything, where is their market? Where are they going to sell?