Trade missions are not the place to raise human rights
Opinion: raising human rights issues during a trade mission would represent a token gesture while achieving nothing
“Major deals, which lead to tangible increases in exports and jobs in Ireland, are very often commenced or concluded on these missions.” Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton meets Dr Faleh Mohamed Hussain Ali, assistant secretary general for policy affairs at Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health. Photograph: Lydia Shaw
Ireland has a proud history of supporting the cause of human rights around the world. Unfortunately, our record of providing jobs for our people is far less glowing.
I believe that we must continue and build on our strong record on human rights. It is the right thing to do and it reflects our values and principles as a nation – values and principles like those contained in the Just Society platform that was part of my own personal motivation to first run for election in Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael.
Over the decades since independence the support and advocacy of the Irish government at the United Nations has been instrumental in delivering tangible improvements for the rights of people living in places such as South Africa, Namibia, Congo and Timor-Leste.
Under the current Government and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore we secured election to the UN Human Rights Council and are using this position, for example, to combat gender-based violence around the world. We also use our UN peacekeeping activities as well as our spend on international development aid to support tangible improvements in human rights.
Within the areas that I have responsibility for as Jobs and Enterprise Minister, Ireland pushes for the inclusion of human rights clauses in trade deals between the European Union and other countries – requiring improvements in human rights in return for opening up trade and investment opportunities.
Improving trade opportunities and pressure from international institutions such as the EU can be powerful forces in bringing about improvements in citizens’ rights and progressive social change in countries across the world, as Ireland knows better than most.
These are tangible methods of actually delivering improvements. A feature of Ireland’s successful campaigning on these issues over the years has been a focus on results and delivery, and avoiding empty posturing.
In recent weeks there have been calls for the Government to more forcibly raise human rights issues on trade and investment missions. This would represent precisely the kind of token gesture that Irish governments have avoided over the years – undermining the missions’ crucial objective of delivering trade and jobs for Ireland, while achieving nothing on human rights. Trade missions are not the place to effectively raise human rights issues.
The trade mission to the Gulf region which Taoiseach Enda Kenny and I led earlier this month, accompanied by 87 Irish companies, is part of a strategy targeting an increase of €600 million in our annual exports to this region in the medium term. This would deliver more than 4,000 additional jobs for Ireland.
During an intensive and ultimately successful trade mission we met prime ministers and other senior political leaders as well as major corporations in three of the fastest-growing economies in the world. A lot of very serious business was done, which will help us deliver much-needed jobs for Ireland.