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15 December 2021, Wednesday | NIAS Europe Daily Brief #73
By Harini Madhusudan
Protests against lithium mining projects in Serbia
On 11 December, environmental groups and protesters in Serbia blocked the roads and highways for a third consecutive weekend in opposition to the plan of lithium mining. The crowds halted the movement across Belgrade, other cities and towns in the cold and raining weather. The protests began when the government adopted two new laws that would lower Serbia’s referendum threshold and allow the state to acquire more private property through expropriation. As a response, Serbia is witnessing some of the largest anti-government protests, standing as a challenge to Aleksandr Vučić's government ahead of the Presidential elections in April 2022. A mining project was announced following the change in the laws. An Anglo-Australian company called Rio Tinto planned to start a new lithium mine in Western Serbia called the Jadar lithium project.
During the week before 11 December, Vučić agreed to withdraw and amend the controversial laws. In an address to the nation, he said: “We have to see if we want that mine or not, and there should be a public debate about it… I want to calm people down and tell them that we are on your side and we will not make any decisions without you.” Civilian groups and environmental groups are seen working together during the protests. For example, an activist Savo Manojlović tweeted in support of Eko Straža and tweeted: "Protests for all. Leftists bothered by right-wingers can put up a blockade at a different location. ... Divide yourselves later.”
Though the country is not new to protests, the latest wave of demonstrations has united a wide spectrum of citizen groups and strong opposition, which threatens the regime. The protesters want the government to remove all possibility of companies attempting to initiate mining projects in the region and argued that the extraction process of lithium causes huge damage to the mined areas. Serbia’s populist government has tried to defuse the demonstrations by announcing their agreement to the key demands of the protesters.
There is a scramble by governments and companies to tap into the lithium market worldwide; which is also called the ‘White Gold Rush.’ Lithium is a crucial component in the technology market around the world. It is essential for energy storage in renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles. In recent years, lithium projects have multiplied across Europe, Australia, the US and Latin America. All the communities that live closer to these proposed mining zones remain their primary opponents. Australia is the main producer of lithium and it is mined from a type of hard rock called ‘spodumene.’ South America has the largest deposits of the same, and lithium is extracted from brines underneath salt flats. And despite the fact that these mines are relatively new operations, complex and adverse environmental and social impacts have already been observed.
Taking an example of Chile, where lithium has been mined since the 1980s, one can observe significant alterations in the traditional livelihoods. The mining has interfered with the local economy and labour practices, cultural practices, and the overall lives of the local indigenous communities. In the case of Serbia, the Jadar lithium project has been planned for 387 hectares, and despite its promise of a one percent contribution to the Serbian GDP, the environmental costs are very high. An environment impact study, which was commissioned by Rio Tinto, concluded that the project would cause irreversible damage and recommended it should not go ahead. Additionally, the communities surrounding the region of the proposed mine have expressed strong opposition.
Collaterals for clean energy
A spokesperson from Rio Tinto in September 2021, announced that it has been working through the project requirements for upto 20 years with a team of 100 domestic experts studying the cumulative impacts in-accordance to the Serbian law. Very often, corporations also engage in a consultation period where they allow for concerns to be raised against their projects. In the case of Serbia, the government seems to have backtracked on their promises of holding a referendum and made legislative changes. With the region in a rush for decarbonization with fast timelines, these situations would simply add to the delay in approvals causing regulatory governance instability. The Serbian government seems to be in the middle of this, and will have to make a choice between the project (which is expected to begin in 2022) or the voices of their citizens (who are relatively important too, because of the upcoming elections).
Associated Press, “Serbia Roads Blocked for 3rd Weekend of Lithium Mine protests,” VOA News, 12 December 2021.
Ana, Gillian, and Gregory, “We need lithium for clean energy but Rio Tinto's planned Serbian mine reminds us it shouldn’t come at any cost,” The Conversation, 22 September 2021.
By Joeana Cera Mathews and Padmashree Anandhan
Lukashenko dissident Siarhei Tsikhanouski sentenced to 18 years in prison
On 14 December, the video blogger turned Lukashenko challenger Siarhei Tsikhanouski was sentenced for 18 years in prison by a Belarusian court. He has been charged on counts of organizing mass unrest and inciting social hatred. Siarhei, who is the husband of self-exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was arrested in 2020 for his election campaign against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Following the verdict, Tsikhanouskaya tweeted on the trial conducted behind closed doors; she said: “The dictator publicly takes revenge on his strongest opponents. While hiding the political prisoners in closed trials, he hopes to continue repressions in silence. But the whole world watches. We won't stop.” Five others went to trial with Tsikhanouski and were given sentences between 14 and 16 years. The US and Germany have, however, ‘denounced’ the verdicts calling them “scandalous” and “part of the ongoing brutal and systemic repression”. (Andrew Roth, “Belarus jails opposition leader's husband for 18 years,” The Guardian, 14 December 2021; “Belarus jails Lukashenko opponent Siarhei Tsikhanouski,” Deutsche Welle, 14 December 2021; “Belarus opposition leader Tikhanovsky jailed for 18 years,” France24, 14 December 2021)
THE UNITED KINGDOM
Amendment to the Nationality and Border Bill stirs outrage in the UK
On 14 December, Rob Mudge in an opinion in Deutsche Welle analyzed the furore over the recent amendment introduced by the UK in the Nationality and Border Bill. Termed Clause 9, the amendment has evoked outrage especially amongst the ethnic minority Britons as it gives leverage to the government to take away British citizenship without notice. According to the statement released by the UK's Home Office: “British citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Deprivation of citizenship on conducive grounds is rightly reserved for those who pose a threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm. The nationality and borders bill will amend the law so citizenship can be deprived where it is not practicable to give notice, for example if there is no way of communicating with the person.” Apart from the public, the bill contradicts human rights groups, the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. The bill is expected to be debated by the upper house in the parliament on 05 January to look into its effects on the refugees. (Rob Mudge, “UK's nationality bill could strip millions of Britons of their citizenship,” Deutsche Welle, 14 December 2021)
The UK government reveals proposal to reform the Human Rights Act
On 14 December, the UK government proposed a new legislation to attain a balance between the individual rights, personality responsibility and larger public interest. The rule aims to restore confidence in the legal system of the European convention, which means parliament's role as a decision maker is definitive. According to Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab: “Our plans for a Bill of Rights will strengthen typically British rights like freedom of speech and trial by jury, while preventing abuses of the system and adding a healthy dose of common sense.” The critics have warned that the final measure to the Human Rights Act might be confused. (Dominic Raab, “Plan to reform Human Rights Act,” Ministry of Justice, 14 December 2021; “Human Rights Act: UK government unveils reform proposals,” BBC, 14 December 2021)
Hungary: Venice Commission states anti-LGBTQ law creates “threatening environment”
On 14 December, the Venice Commission which is an expert panel of the human rights body of the Council of Europe stated the Hungarian anti-LGBTQ law was in violation of international human rights standards. The law, passed in June 2021, has received widespread condemnation due to its ban on the use of materials encouraging homosexuality and gender change. The panel stated: “... the amendments contribute to creating a “threatening environment”, where LGBTQI children can be subject to health-related risks, bullying and harassment… The amendments leave space only for one-sided and biased teaching, opening doors to stigmatisation and discrimination of LGBTQI people.” (“Hungary's anti-LGBTQ law breaches international rights standards - European rights body,” Reuters, 14 December 2021)
More victims identified from the English Channel drowning disaster
On 14 December, the French authorities identified close to 27 bodies which were recuperated from the English Channel drowning. Of the identified victims, 16 belonged to Iraq and four to Afghanistan. According to the BBC report, the families were not aware about the state of their relatives since the disaster. They said that the members had paid smugglers thousands of dollars to help reach the UK. Apart from the Iraqis and Afghans several others from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Egypt were also identified. (“Channel tragedy: French authorities identify 26 victims,” BBC, 14 December 2021)