Enda Kenny’s quick-step guide to avoiding the camel in the room
You’re on a trip to the Gulf and everyone is asking awkward human-rights questions. Just think of the cash and you’ll be fine
Our man in Riyadh: Enda Kenny with Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (right), Saudi Arabia’s deputy prime minister and minister for defence
It rained a bit, and according to RTÉ’s correspondent the driving in Saudi Arabia was a bit hair-raising – women drivers, eh? – but it looked like a jolly trip to the Gulf for the Taoiseach. A few deals announced. Plenty of hands shaken. And the occasional awkward question about human rights? It was like sand off a camel’s hump.
As with similar missions to China, the media raised the issue so the Taoiseach could answer with stock responses and language that veered from bureaucratic to Rumsfeldian. What was interesting this time was that he eventually flirted with something close to bluntness, admitting that the Government’s often declared belief in the “universality of human rights” comes with a €900 million get-out clause.
Here, then, is a quick-step guide to answering those human-rights questions without answering them at all.
Get the satire in first: The stand-out quote of the Taoiseach’s trip to Saudi Arabia came when he congratulated the country on being elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and did so without an exaggerated, knowing wink at the media. Delivery that deadpan set a blackly comic standard for the trip ahead.
Besides, “election” is such an elastic term when it comes to the council. Saudi Arabia took its seat unopposed. Forty-seven countries are on it at any one time, and when Ireland was elected to the council, in 2012, it was one of only three states (from 18 newcomers) that faced a contest for its seat. It’s not that hard to get on. And you could probably turn up on the first day with a pair of bloody pliers in your back pocket and still not get kicked off.
These days the Human Rights Council features, among others, Ethiopia, China, Cuba and Russia. It’s a satirical cartoon made real as much as it is a functioning unit. Being on the United Nations Human Rights Council is not necessarily something to shout about.
Shout about being on the United Nations Human Rights Council: Ireland was doing so before it even got a seat. When the Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping, visited in 2012, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said that human rights had been raised in the context of our candidacy to the council. This week the Taoiseach said, “Ireland, obviously, will work with Saudi Arabia in terms of human rights and their participation on the council.” Thank God for being able to use that organisation as a handy cop-out. Although, when in Saudi Arabia, just be very careful how exactly you choose to be thankful to that God.
Bamboozle: In Qatar, where World Cup stadiums are being built, the Taoiseach responded to questions about the rights of migrant workers by 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.” Of course, that would be his assumption. Everyone would assume that. As for having that assumption challenged, that would require acknowledging having noticed the media investigations, the Amnesty report, criticism from Fifa, the UN high commissioner for refugees’ previous labelling of the treatment of migrant workers as “slave-like”, and the rest of the global condemnation of Qatar.
We’ve learned before that this Government is good at apparently coherent sentences that make no sense when you think about them. After the vice-president’s visit, Gilmore said: “What we did do was we discussed the human-rights issue as an issue that we have to have discussions bilaterally with China in the period ahead.” You could jail a few dissidents in the time it takes to figure out what that means.
Stop pretending it even matters: In the Dáil in October 2012 the Tánaiste replied to questions about trade with Saudi Arabia by mentioning three times the €900 million trade between our countries, while watering down his words about Ireland’s expectations on human rights. It followed a fuller critique of human-rights issues in Colombia, but Colombia doesn’t do €900 million worth of business with us, so who cares about those guys?
This week, once the Taoiseach had left Saudi Arabia, he admitted it was all about the money. It had been, he said, a trade mission, so he wasn’t going to bring up human-rights issues. “It is important to endorse their credibility and their integrity,” he said before apparently remembering that he needed to give even the slightest impression of giving a damn about Saudi Arabia’s appalling record: “I think they now understand the responsibilities that they have to live up to in fostering partnerships that will create jobs both at home and benefit the economies of both our countries.”
You can be sure Saudi Arabia understands very well indeed. However opaque the language, that message was very clear.