Prisoners preparing logs for sawing at IK-22 in Belarus, 2017 (Source: Intex Press)

In an open letter initiated by Libereco Earthsight, MEPs and environmental and human rights NGOs call for an investigation into the certification of Belarusian penal colonies by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The prison camps received labels for ethical furniture production even though political prisoners are tortured there.

An open letter – signed, among others, by 14 MEPs from 9 EU member states and 33 international NGOs from 14 countries – calls for an independent investigation of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) regarding its certification of forests and timber and furniture trade linked to torture, repression and destruction of nature in Belarus. The open letter was initiated by British NGO Earthsight and the German-Swiss human rights organisation Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights.

At the end of 2022, Earthsight uncovered that the well-known international non-profit organisation FSC, based in Bonn (Germany), was certifying Belarusian penal colonies and wood products and furniture made by political prisoners with its green label. Until early 2022 this furniture from Belarus was sold by Ikea and XXXLutz, and while Ikea withdrew from Belarus, many well known stores continue to sell furniture made in Belarusian prison camps. Members of the European Parliament as well as environmental and human rights NGOs are now accusing the FSC of failing to investigate the events after its eventual withdrawal from Belarus in the wake of the full scale invasion of Ukraine.

Read the open letter:

FSC must take responsibility for failures

When questioned several months after the scandal, the FSC confirmed they did not initiate an investigation into the damning findings. FSC claims to be a leader in forestry certification. The FSC label, which covers everything from toilet paper and furniture to books and clothing, is intended to ensure that products made from wood are legal, ethical and sustainable. However, the label is falling far short of standards set by legislation in the EU.

In order to remain credible, the FSC must take responsibility for the mistakes of the past, the signatories of the open letter demand. They are calling on the FSC to conduct an independent investigation into how the Belarusian timber and furniture trade came to be certified in the first place, as well as general checks on whether a country has a minimum level of democratic governance and political freedom before certification services are offered there.

Prisons with FSC certification

Former political prisoner Vital Zhuk also denounces the trade and the role of the FSC and its labeling. Zhuk himself was imprisoned in a former FSC-certified penal colony in Bobruisk, where he produced wooden furniture. He emphasises: “The sale of this furniture supports Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, which continues to torture political and ordinary prisoners.” Five political prisoners have already died in Belarusian prisons, most recently the social democratic opposition politician Ihar Lednik, whose death was announced on Tuesday.

“Those who are still alive suffer from vitamin deficiency and diseases such as scurvy. We should continue to ask questions, because we live in a time when each of us must make the choice between becoming an accomplice to evil or preserving our dignity and soul,” explains Zhuk. He spent a year and a half in political imprisonment in 2021 and 2022.

“This system of forced labor resembles the Stalinist Gulag system,” says Pavel Latushko, Head of the Belarusian National Anti-Crisis Management (NAU) and Deputy Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus. He explains: “Political prisoners are unlawfully held in various institutions under the Department for the Execution of Punishment of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus. In these facilities, they not only endure torture and experience endless days in a solitary confinement, but are also subjected to forced labor. Political prisoners receive almost no reward for their hard work, only 0.03 to 1.38 US dollars per month!”

Furniture from Belarus continues to be sold in Germany

The FSC only withdrew from Belarus in March 2022. Until then, it had certified furniture produced in Belarusian prisons as ethically sound. It justified its decision to withdraw in the wake of  the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which Belarus was complicit, as a decision preceding the invasion to ensure the safety of its auditors . In addition to the FSC, Ikea and the competing certification seal PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) also withdrew from Belarus at the time.

Even after the withdrawal of the industry giants and without the labels, the furniture trade from Belarus continues unabated. This is the largest area of Belarusian exports that is not affected by EU sanctions. It is therefore a lucrative source of income for the authoritarian Lukashenko regime, which is involved in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and where massive repression is part of everyday life.

According to the European statistics service Eurostat, wooden furniture worth more than 103 million euros was exported from Belarus to the EU between January and November 2023. Poland, Germany and the Netherlands were the largest buyers, followed by Lithuania, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and France.

Wooden furniture from Belarus is “Lukashenko’s last gold mine”

The report published by Earthsight in November 2022 revealed how Europe’s largest furniture retail chains, including Ikea and XXXLutz, had been making profits at the expense of political prisoners in Belarus for years. The furniture was not only produced in Belarusian prisons, but also with wood from some of Europe’s last primeval forests, including protected areas.

At the same time, money from the export business flowed into the coffers of dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. The timber processing industry in Belarus is closely intertwined with the power apparatus and is regarded as “Lukashenko’s last gold mine”. Parts of the country’s forests are even under his direct control.

The FSC had not changed its certification practices in Belarus despite years of EU sanctions against key players in the prison administration and the timber processing industry as well as ongoing repression against political opponents in Belarus. Numerous political prisoners ended up in FSC-labelled prisons, including people who had taken part in the peaceful protests following the fraudulent elections in 2020.

In doing so, FSC enabled and condoned the trade in furniture made in prisons where inmates are abused and tortured. According to the Earthsight report, the forests under Lukashenko’s direct control and certified by the FSC are managed by Viktor Sheiman. The EU imposed sanctions on the 65-year-old Head of the Presidential Administration in 2004 because it holds him personally responsible for the enforced disappearance and suspected murder of four Belarusian opposition members.

“Tough sanctions system” needed for timber products from Belarus

Thomas Waitz, Member of the European Parliament and Co-Chair of the European Green Party, therefore warns: “We as the EU need to establish a strong and airtight sanctions system on wood and all wood products from Belarus. This is our political responsibility. But European and Austrian companies must also step up to their responsibility and withdraw completely from Belarus. The same goes for FSC: Stop certifying state- or regime-owned forests in autocracies! Any activity in the wood sector in these countries fuels the oppression and violence against the democratic opposition, human rights and democracy.”

Christie Miedema, Vice-Chair of Libereco, said: “To label massively underpaid and coercive prison labour as ‘sustainable’ is unthinkable in any situation, but especially in a country like Belarus, whose justice system and prison conditions have not followed any rule of law principles for decades. I cannot understand why the FSC has not learnt from its earlier misjudgement, even after mass arrests, hundreds of cases of torture and the conviction of thousands of peaceful protesters in the course of the rigged 2020 elections became known. The FSC must be held accountable for its certification of detention centres.”

Tara Ganesh, Team Lead  “Timber. Sanctions and Northern Forests” at Earthsight, says: “FSC’s auditing systems are riddled with conflicts of interest that FSC has failed to fix. This scandal makes it clear that people and nature have long since become secondary to profit at FSC and that it needs to develop a conscience – fast!”