Ireland’s human rights policy cannot be outsourced

Opinion: State cannot, in the name of trade, simply hand over its duty to highlight human rights abuses to EU and UN

Migrant labourers working in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/Getty Images

Migrant labourers working in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/Getty Images

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 00:01

It was a busy start to 2014 for the Taoiseach and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton. They were on a trade mission to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, travelling with Irish companies seeking trade and investment opportunities, and working to secure jobs and growth here.

It was important work. Trade missions are vital to Ireland’s recovery and the rebuilding of our economy.

What was remarkable about this one though, was what the Taoiseach and Minister said about the human rights situation in those countries, the essence of which is that not only did they refuse to raise human rights concerns about those countries but Bruton later argued that trade missions are not the place to raise the subject.

Political relationships
Such missions are, by definition, about trade. But they are also about developing closer political relationships between states, relationships crucial in advancing Ireland’s other foreign affairs priorities, including the promotion of human rights. Contrary to what has been suggested by both men, raising human rights issues on the fringe of trade missions does not imperil the trade deals being done. Diplomats’ skins are less thin than the Government seems to fear. And raising such issues during trade missions can make a difference.

Ireland has generally shown leadership on human rights in its international diplomacy. In his address to the 13th Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s NGO Human Rights Forum last November, the Tánaiste said: “Human rights have been a central concern of our foreign policy since independence . . . There is no finer manifesto available to us for the conduct of international affairs than the international treaties on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

And yet this crucial aspect of Irish foreign policy appears to have been totally sidelined during this mission to the Gulf states, where there are very serious human rights concerns.

Mr Bruton went so far as to say the appropriate route for Ireland to raise such human rights concerns is via the EU and the UN. This effectively suggests Ireland no longer sees its bilateral relationships as an appropriate channel to do so.

Worrying development
If this is indeed the new approach to trade, it is a significant and worrying development. Human rights discourse has always been a feature of Ireland’s bilateral relationships with other states, including those with whom it seeks to establish closer trading ties.

When now Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Ireland in February 2012, the Government did at least raise the need for ongoing human rights dialogue with China. We were also told that Ireland regularly raises human rights concerns with China as part of its normal bilateral trade engagements in Dublin and Beijing.

This responsibility cannot be left to EU foreign policy. That would be at odds with the EU’s Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which commits the EU to “promot[ing] human rights in all areas of its external action without exception”, particularly in trade and investment. Member states cannot simply abdicate to the EU their duty to raise human rights in bilateral engagements – including on trade, since the plan states: “Outside [the EU’s] frontiers, promoting and speaking out on human rights and democracy is a joint responsibility of the EU and its member states.”

Equally strange is the assertion that Ireland can outsource its human rights diplomacy to the UN. In that November address, the Tánaiste observed how Ireland’s promotion of human rights in its foreign policy was of critical influence in its being elected to the UN Human Rights Council.

He noted: “This was a major endorsement of Ireland’s international standing, and in particular, of our advocacy of human rights across the globe.”

Ireland’s role
Surely Ireland’s place on the Human Rights Council requires us to show greater bilateral leadership on human rights – not less.

There were other things happening in the Gulf States during the Taoiseach and Minister’s visit.

In Qatar, the Taoiseach was asked about conditions for migrant workers working on projects for the 2022 World Cup. In response he was reported as saying: “My assumption is that those who work internationally on such projects would have proper working conditions and proper facilities and I expect that to be the way.”

In fact, scores were, at that very time, living in squalid conditions, many without pay for up to a year. Facing mounting debts and unable to support their families back home, many have suffered severe psychological distress, with some driven to suicide.

Torture and death penalty
There are wider grave human rights concerns in Qatar, including the use of torture, the death penalty, and discrimination against women.

In the United Arab Emirates, as Ireland’s representatives stayed silent about human rights, Ravindra Krishna Pillai, a Sri Lankan national, sat in Sharjah Central prison. He had been convicted of murder.

When, aged 19, he was working as a domestic helper, Ravindra says his employer’s friend tried to sexually assault him. Ravindra tried to escape by driving away in the man’s car and ran him over. He insists the man’s death was accidental. He was convicted of intentional murder after an unfair trial during which he had no access to his government-appointed lawyer.

The Taoiseach returned from his trip on January 10th. Ravinda was executed by firing squad on January 21st.

His sister and priest were not allowed into the prison to say goodbye. They were later allowed in to see his body.

As Ireland returned to business as usual, Ravinda’s sister was trying to raise funds to have her brother’s body flown back to Sri Lanka, where he wanted to be buried.

Colm O’Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland

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