Press Release: EU politicians, NGOs demand probe into ethical wood label’s certification of Belarusian penal colonies



  • Open letter signed by MEPs from 9 EU member states, Belarusian politicians, and dozens of civil society groups demands an independent investigation by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) into its past certification of forests and a timber trade connected to torture, repression, and destruction of nature in Belarus
  • Political prisoners who had been imprisoned in formerly FSC-certified prisons making wood furniture as well as Belarusian rights groups denounce the trade and FSC’s role in facilitating it
  • More than 100 million Euros of wood furniture from Lukashenko’s regime, much of which was certified as ethical for EU markets until FSC’s withdrawal from Belarus in 2022, was imported by the bloc in 2023, comprising the largest unsanctioned category of exports from Belarus to the EU. Poland, Germany, The Netherlands, and Lithuania are top importers
  • The letter comes just ahead of the first Belarusian Parliamentary elections since the rigged elections of 2020, and ahead of the second anniversary of Ukraine’s invasion by Russia, in which Belarus is complicit

  • 22nd February, 2024

    Fifteen months after a damning report exposed a well-known green label for wood, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for certifying penal colonies and a torture-stained Belarusian wood-product and furniture trade to the EU, Members of the European Parliament, Belarusian political prisoners and politicians and environmental and human rights NGOs have slammed the label for failing to investigate these revelations. They denounce FSC in an open letter published today ahead of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine this weekend, to which the Belarusian regime is an accomplice, and Belarus' first parliamentary elections since the elections of 2020, which were widely regarded as rigged.

    Although other wood products have been sanctioned by the EU, the furniture trade FSC licensed for years before its March 2022 withdrawal from the country is still continuing after its departure and remains the biggest unsanctioned category of Belarusian exports to the bloc, propping up a regime complicit in war and rooted in political repression. According to European statistics service Eurostat, more than 103 million Euros of Belarusian wood furniture were imported into the EU from January to November 2023, continuing to contribute a lucrative source of income to Russia’s ally. Poland, Germany, and The Netherlands account for the largest share of Belarusian furniture imports, followed by Lithuania, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and France.

    Read the letter here.

    A November 2022 report published by UK-based NGO Earthsight revealed how for years Europe’s largest furniture retail chains, including IKEA and Austrian-headquartered group XXXLutz, the second largest furniture retailer on the continent, had made profits on the backs of political prisoners in Belarus. The profits from the sale of furniture made in prisons and with timber from some of Europe’s last primal forests, including protected areas, had enriched the country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus’ woodworking industry has close ties to his regime and has been called ‘Lukashenko’s last gold mine.’ Sections of the country’s forests are even under Lukashenko’s direct control.

    The certification continued despite years of EU sanctions against key government officials linked to the prisons and forests and targetted sectors as well as over a year into the well-documented repression that followed Belarus' stolen presidential elections of August 2020. Many protestors and political figures imprisoned during this period ended up in prisons with FSC certification. This means that FSC enabled and condoned the trade in furniture made in prisons incarcerating peaceful protestors. The report also detailed how forests under direct Presidential control and certified by FSC were being managed by Viktor Sheiman, who had been subject to EU sanctions since 2004 after being named by the EU as personally responsible for the enforced ‘disappearance’ and suspected murder of four Belarusian opposition figures.

    Ikea, FSC, and rival certification label PEFC [Progreamme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification], which also provided certification services in Belarus to a less significant degree, announced withdrawal from the country following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and related calls from civil society. XXXLutz (which owns the French retailer BUT and German POCO, also named in the report) informed Earthsight in August 2023 that it had cut ties with Belarus. When questioned several months after the scandal, FSC confirmed they have not initiated an investigation into the damning findings.

    FSC purports to be a leader in forestry certification. Its label - found on everything from toilet roll and furniture to books and clothing - is meant to ensure that the wood-derived products it certifies for conscious consumers are legal, ethical, and sustainable. But it is falling far short of standards set by legislation in the EU. New EU laws to stop greenwashing such as the EU Green Claims Directive are expected to increase scrutiny of the operation and authenticity of labels such as FSC, but to retain credibility in future FSC must first be accountable for past failures.

    Today fourteen MEPs from nine EU states (Germany, Austria, Sweden, The Netherlands, France, Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania), Belarusian opposition politicians, and 37 environmental and human rights organisations and individuals from more than fourteen countries have come together to demand that the FSC commission an independent investigation into how it came to certify the tainted Belarusian wood and furniture trade in the first place. Signatories include Libereco, Viasna, BelPol, ZMINA, Earthsight, Fern, Progressive Shopper in the US, Forests and Citizens Foundation in Poland, Belarusian diaspora organisations, and many others. Voluntary certification schemes are no substitute for the rule of law in a country. To maintain its integrity, the letter also contains a demand for FSC to assess the need for a minimum level of governance and political freedom to be present in a country before it provides forestry certification services there.

    Read the letter here.

    Vital Zhuk, a Belarusian who spent 1.5 years in political imprisonment in 2021 and 2022, including in the FSC-certified penal colony 2 in Bobruysk said: "The sale of this furniture is supporting Lukashenko’s regime which continues to torture both political and ordinary prisoners. Several political prisoners have already died in Belarusian prisons, those who are alive suffer from vitamin deficiency and diseases such as scurvy. We should keep on asking questions as we live in a time when each of us must make the choice to be an accomplice to evil or to preserve our honour and soul."

    Thomas Waitz, Member of the European Parliament and Co-Chair of the European Green Party: "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."

    Pavel Latushko, Head of the National Anti-Crisis Management (NAU), Deputy Head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus: ‘’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 ($0.03-1.38 per month). One of the main activities is woodworking. The law provides preferential conditions for companies seeking cooperation with these institutions, allowing them to purchase goods produced in correctional institutions without following standard procurement procedures or without the need for a procurement procedure at all. This system of forced labor resembles the Stalinist Gulag system."

    Christie Miedema, Vice-Chair of Libereco - Partnership for Human Rights (Germany): ‘’Certifying severely underpaid and involuntary prison labour as ‘sustainable’ is inconceivable in any situation but especially in a country like Belarus, whose judicial system and conditions of imprisonment have been criticised by human rights advocates for decades. It is also inconceivable to imagine that the FSC failed to wake up to its previous misjudgement even after the mass detention, torture, and conviction of thousands of peaceful protesters and political opponents in the wake of the rigged elections of 2020. FSC must show accountability to the thousands of innocent people in Belarus’ prison camps over the past four years.’’ 

    Tara Ganesh, Team Lead: Timber. Sanctions and Northern Forests at Earthsight: ‘’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. A good start would be to take the two steps we have called for today.’’

    NGO signatories of the open letter

    Editor's notes and contacts:
  • Earthsight is a London-based investigations non-profit committed to exposing environmental and social crime and the links to global consumption. Libereco is an independent German-Swiss non-governmental organisation dedicated to the protection of human rights in Belarus and Ukraine.
  • The EU has sanctioned Belarus in some form for almost 20 years, first with sanctions on key government officials suspected to be involved in falsification of elections and the enforced disappearance of opposition figures, including individuals with ties to Belarusian forests and prisons, as well as targeted sectoral sanctions. Despite this, the world’s largest green label for wood, the Forest Stewardship Council [FSC] as well as PEFC [Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification], provided their seal of ethical approval to forests controlled by Lukashenko personally and prisons making furniture. This opened the door to lucrative trade with the EU.
  • The practice of issuing certificates to known prison camps continued late into 2020 despite the widespread imprisonment and torture of pro-democracy protestors in Belarus, including at the camps in question, having made worldwide headlines.
  • FSC withdrew from Belarus in March 2022 but cited concerns about the safety of its auditors and the disbanding of the sole remaining independent local environmental group as the reasons for its withdrawal and did not indicate its auditing systems had picked up any of the other problems documented in Earthsight’s 2022 report.
  • FSC certification is relied on by companies in the EU to comply with laws regulating the legality of timber imports such as the European Union Timber Regulation (soon to be the EU Deforestation Regulation) and similar laws in the UK and US. NGOs have warned policymakers of the dangers of relying on such schemes for compliance with these laws. FSC’s failure to recognise major human rights violations such as torture and labour of political prisoners as problematic should also be of concern to companies planning on using it and other certification services to comply with upcoming EU laws like the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.
  • After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU banned timber imports from Belarus, but left trade in Belarusian wood furniture intact. Despite FSC and PEFC’s withdrawal, this trade continues today.
  • The EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) bans the import of illegal wood to the EU and requires companies to conduct due diligence on their imports. Some types of Belarusian wood furniture are covered by this regulation while others are exempt. At a meeting of EUTR authorities following the invasion, they declared it was ‘impossible’ to legally import Russian or Belarusian wood products, whether these were sanctioned or not. Read more:
  • Link to November 2022 report, ‘Rubberstamping Repression,’ which also contains FSC, PEFC and the EU retailers’ responses to the findings at the time [available in English, German and Russian]:
  • Key findings of the 2022 report Rubberstamping Repression [English]:
  • All of XXXLutz’s purchasing occurs through a separate company, GIGA International. GIGA informed Earthsight in August 2023 that all indirect purchasing of Belarusian furniture had ceased. XXXLutz also confirmed to Earthsight that the company had now ‘cut all ties to Belarus’ and does ‘not have a single piece of furniture from there.’
  • For reliable information about the human rights violations in Belarus, in particular in the wake of the 2020 elections, consult the website of the UN special rapporteur on Belarus:, or of Belarusian human rights centre Viasna:

  • Contact:

  • To reach the organisation which documented the FSC scandal, ‘Rubberstamping Repression’, or for queries on continued Belarusian furniture imports, please contact Tara Ganesh, Timber. Sanctions and Northern Forests at Earthsight Mob/Signal/WhatsApp: +447920053988
  • For interviews with Belarusian political prisoners or human rights group Libereco, please contact: Christie Miedema, Vice-Chair of Libereco - Partnership for Human Rights (Germany), Mob: +31642060638.
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