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


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.

Export increase
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.

In the next decade, 90 per cent of global economic growth will occur outside Europe so if we are to be successful with our plan to rebuild the economy and create jobs we must increasingly focus on opportunities in emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, Russia and the Middle East. Pioneering companies such as those who travelled to the Gulf are fighting for new markets in these economies, and if we are to deliver the export-led growth that will support our jobs recovery, Government must stand behind them with the supports they need.

The presence of the Taoiseach or Ministers opens doors that would not otherwise be open to our agencies and our companies. Major deals, which lead to tangible increases in exports and jobs in Ireland, are very often commenced or concluded on these missions across the boardroom table or in government offices. This was the case on the recent mission to the Gulf.

We are in the business of improving and intensifying these supports for multinationals and exporting companies, not undermining them.

As part of the Action Plan for Jobs process that we put in place to address the staggering unemployment levels we inherited, we have doubled the number of trade missions since taking office. I have been on 18 trade and investment missions since taking office in March 2011 – 10 to North America, three to Europe and five to the Middle East and Asia.

These missions have played no small part in maintaining the jobs we have and delivering an overall increase of 58,000 jobs across Ireland in the past year.

Important issue
Few people disagree that job creation is the most important issue currently facing our country. But some start to complain when the Government takes determined and reasonable action to deal with it, by calling for the Government to make human rights a central part of discussions with political leaders on trade missions.

These people need to get real. To do as they suggest would seriously undermine our basic objective on these missions. Either we are serious about delivering the exports and investment we need to provide employment for our people or we are not.

Furthermore, some of the people making arguments in this area appear to lack either interest in or understanding of how actual tangible improvements in the human rights area can be delivered. To have marched into trade-focused meetings and made arguments on this issue may have ticked a PR box but it would have had no possibility of actually delivering any improvements in the human rights area.

You don’t win new trade opportunities at the UN Human Rights Council and you don’t achieve changes in human rights practices on trade missions. And I make no apologies for single-mindedly doing my job and pursuing jobs for people in Ireland.

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