On May 28, 2021, the Biden Administration issued a press release (“Press Release”) confirming the re-imposition of sanctions on certain Belarusian state-owned enterprises (“SOEs”) (presaged by the issuance of wind down Belarus General License 2H on April 19, 2021) and suspending the application of the 2019 US-Belarus Air Services Agreement (“2019 USB Agreement”) in response to the Belarusian government’s apparent forced diversion of a commercial flight to Minsk on May 23. The Press Release also indicates additional sanctions targeting Belarusian government officials are under development and calls for international bodies to investigate and take action regarding the events of May 23. These developments mark a significant escalation of US sanctions against the Belarusian government and effectively suspend flights connecting the two countries.
Sanctions on Belarusian SOEs and Additional Sanctions Authority
The Press Release states that the blocking sanctions against nine Belarusian SOEs would be re-imposed effective June 3, 2021 (“Belarusian SOE SDNs”). The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) previously authorized US Persons’ participation in transactions involving the Belarusian SOE SDNs under Belarus General License 2 (most recently Belarus General License 2G). OFAC revoked Belarus General License 2G on April 19, 2021, and concurrently issued Belarus General License 2H, which authorized certain wind down transactions with the Belarusian SOE SDNs through June 3, 2021. Our blog post on General License 2H is available here. Now that General License 2H has expired, US Persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions or dealings with the Belarusian SOE SDNs, their property, or their interests in property, including any entities in which they own a 50 percent or greater interest.
The Press Release also suggests that additional sanctions targeting members of the Belarusian government are forthcoming. The Press Release states that the United States is coordinating with the European Union and other US partners to develop a list of targeted sanctions against Belarusian government officials “associated with ongoing abuses, the falsification of the 2020 election, and the events of May 23.” In parallel, the US Department of the Treasury is also creating a new executive order providing authority to impose additional sanctions on the Belarusian government.
Suspension of the 2019 USB Agreement and Broader International Aviation Implications
The Press Release confirms that the United States will suspend the 2019 USB Agreement, which will significantly impact the Belarusian aviation industry. The 2019 USB Agreement removed all restrictions on the number of flights and routings between the US and Belarus and allowed US and Belarusian carriers to operate flights in the other country’s airspace. The suspension of the 2019 USB Agreement will effectively end flights between the United States and Belarus.
The Press Release expresses the Biden Administration’s intent to advocate for action against the Belarusian government at international bodies in public condemnation of the events of May 23. This follows the International Civil Aviation Organization (“ICAO”) Council’s May 27 call for a fact-finding investigation into the incident to determine whether any ICAO member state had breached international aviation law, including the Convention on International Civil Aviation Law, also known as the Chicago Convention. The Chicago Convention was established in the 1940s and established the framework that allows for international aviation as we know it today. The United Nations established ICAO in 1944 as a specialized agency to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world.
Relevant to the recent events in Belarus, the Chicago Convention mandates that contracting States may not use civil aviation for any purpose contrary to the Convention and requires States to refrain from the use of weapons against civil aircraft in fight and endangering persons on board the aircraft in the case of interception. While ICAO does not have the authority to directly enforce measures in response, under the Chicago Convention, the larger ICAO Assembly could suspend Belarus’s voting rights in the event of non-conformity with the requirements of the Chicago Convention.
Belarusian Counter Sanctions
In turn, the Belarusian government announced counter-measures mostly focusing on restrictions on diplomatic relations with the United States. Such measures include the reduction of personnel of the US diplomatic mission, tightening visa requirements and restricting the work of US specialists in Belarus. The Belarusian government also rescinded the authorization for the United States Agency for International Development to work in Belarus.