Rubber-stamping Repression: Key Findings


  • For years, Earthsight can reveal, Europe’s largest furniture retail chains have been profiting from the torture of political prisoners in Belarus, while their purchases have also served to personally enrich the country’s brutal dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, at the expense of some of Europe’s last primal forests. The continuing trade is helping aid Russian terror in Ukraine, in which Belarus is heavily complicit. Self-interested European governments refused for years to implement the sanctions which could end the scandalous trade, and are now even breaking their own laws in allowing it to continue.
  • Earthsight has connected the use of forced prison labour to furniture sold at almost every major furniture retail chain in Europe, including IKEA, leading French furniture retail chain BUT, and Austrian-headquartered furniture group XXXLutz, the second largest furniture retailer on the continent. IKEA furniture linked to the scandal has also been sold in the USA.
  • Belarus’s prison service, Earthsight found, is the country’s largest timber company. It uses the forced labour of 8000 inmates to harvest trees and process them into a wide range of wood products, including furniture, for export.
  • These exports are being fed in part by logging taking place within Belarus’s National Parks, which are under the direct control of the Presidential Property Management Directorate (PPMD). The PPMD is Lukashenko’s private slush fund, and was until recently being run by his right-hand man, Viktor Sheiman, who has long stood accused by the EU of arranging the ‘disappearance’ of the President’s political opponents. Earthsight uncovered documents revealing that over 1 million cubic metres of logs are being cut in these protected areas each year, and that such logging is leading to deforestation of the Belarusian portion of the world famous Bialowieza Forest, home to rare European bison, lynx and wolves.
  • Earthsight interviewed past and current political prisoners at some of the penal colonies where wood processing takes place. They testified to torture and maltreatment of political prisoners, to the compulsory nature of the work in the woodshops, and the terrible working conditions.
  • Prisoners and multiple sources inside government told Earthsight that the prisons are closely connected to two large state-owned timber mills, providing them with semi-processed wood, raw materials and with cheap forced labour. Both our sources and other documentation we uncovered show that these state-owned timber mills, in turn, supply the big European furniture retailers, either directly or indirectly.
  • Despite plentiful red flags, the world’s largest green wood labels, the Forest Stewardship Council and PEFC, gave their stamp to both the PPMD forests and the prisons. Some of the prisons had their certificates issued in late 2020 despite the widespread imprisonment and torture of pro-democracy protestors in Belarus having made worldwide headlines shortly beforehand. Torture and maltreatment of two of Belarus’s most prominent human rights activists and political dissidents at one prison had been well publicised before it nevertheless received an FSC certificate. One of these prisoners was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • After Belarus’s complicity in the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to its being isolated internationally, IKEA voluntarily halted all purchases from Belarus or use of Belarusian timber in March 2022. The EU also banned imports of timber from Belarus, and FSC and PEFC pulled all their certificates. Were it not for the war, however, none of this would have happened. Despite these actions, imports of furniture are still allowed into the EU, and timber also is still free to enter the UK and US. European companies continue to import millions of euros a week of Belarusian wood furniture and furniture parts. Earthsight has linked these continued imports, including products connected to the prisons, to all of IKEA’s biggest European competitors.
  • An EU law, the EU Timber Regulation, demands importers conduct due diligence to ensure their wood product purchases were legally sourced. In April, the European Commission announced that compliance with this law with regard to Belarus was now ‘impossible’, and said that EU firms must halt imports, regardless of whether they were covered by sanctions. Yet 20 different EU member states, Earthsight found, have continued to register imports of Belarusian wood furniture since, with the largest volumes destined for Poland, Lithuania, Germany and France.
  • The scandal is also potentially in breach of an ethical supply chain law in force in France, and a similar law due to take effect in Germany next year. EU-wide supply chain due diligence legislation is currently being debated in Brussels.
  • Earthsight is calling on the EU, UK and US governments to act urgently to address this scandal, and prevent others like it, including by expanding existing sanctions on Belarus, improving enforcement of existing laws banning imports of wood sourced illegally, and passing additional legislation forcing companies to conduct due diligence to prevent human rights and environmental abuses throughout their supply chains. Earthsight is also calling for urgent reform of the green labels FSC and PEFC, whose failings contributed to the scandal.

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