Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 13 July 2017
Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Framework Agreement between European Union and Republic of the Philippines: Motion
I thank all the members for their kind words about my appointment as Minister of State. I am looking forward immensely to the role and to performing to the best standard.
Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Seán Crowe raised the issue of the delay. I agree with them that there has been a significant and regrettable delay in terms of our ratification of this agreement. The agreement was first signed on 11 July 2012, following which an issue arose within the EU. The conclusion of the agreement was held up by a challenge by the Commission to the choice of a legal basis for the relevant Council Decision. This continued until June 2014. Since then, in Ireland, for a number of reasons, including resources, the reallocation of responsibilities between the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach and the time taken to form a Government and appoint committees in 2016, the matter was, unfortunately, not progressed until late March 2017. The delay is regrettable, but it is now important that we make the necessary arrangements for the approval and ratification of the agreement as quickly as possible. As I said earlier, this will not enter into force until the first day of the month following the date on which the last party has notified the others of the completion of the legal procedures. I would not like Ireland to be the last group standing in terms of final ratification because we would, in essence, be the final impediment to the agreement entering into force. It has been ratified by all countries, with the exception of Ireland and Greece. We should move with as much haste as possible to approve and ratify it.
All Deputies raised the issue of the ongoing and significant human rights issues within the Philippines. While the focus of my earlier contribution may have been on the significant trade opportunities arising from this particular agreement, the agreement is about much more than that. Concerns had been expressed by the EU, including Ireland, about the deterioration of human rights in the Philippines since 2016. Many Deputies referred to the large number of extrajudicial killings. We have continually raised our concerns at a bilateral level and in our contacts with the authorities in the Philippines in regard to the death penalty. At the most recent 35th session of the Human Rights Council in June last, we delivered a statement in which we raised our concerns about the proposed reintroduction of the death penalty and the number of extrajudicial killings which have taken place in the past year. We also supported a joint statement delivered by Iceland on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which raised concerns about impunity for violence and killings in the country.
I reiterate that the purpose of the agreement is to provide a framework for strengthening a bilateral relationship between the European Union and the Republic of the Philippines. It is based on a commitment to promoting respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights. It will provide for a comprehensive ongoing and wide-ranging dialogue between the EU and the Philippines, including co-operation in many areas such as trade, as mentioned earlier, and in the areas of health, civil society, development co-operation, disaster risk management, the environment, climate change, energy, science and technology. It is a wide-ranging agreement. I have always argued that in one's attempts to engage with a country that has a very poor human rights track record, one should create that engagement around an ongoing building of trust and a relationship between two entities. One cannot stand on the sidelines and criticise, and legitimately so. If one is seeking to engage with a country or any entity and to work with it in changing practices which have been ongoing for decades and are deeply imbedded in its culture, it is essential that one engages with that country or entity at every level and builds relationships that will hopefully allow the parties concerned to address the issues arising, currently, and into the future.
This agreement is an incredibly important tool in our arsenal not alone in Ireland, but across the European Union, to address the issues raised. Without it in place and without the ongoing relationship building, the type of issues about which we are deeply concerned will never be addressed. That is my view on it. I agree with what Deputy Crowe said. If time had permitted, this should have been debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas. We are now at the point where, perhaps, that time is not available to us. As I said, I do not want us to arrive at the point whereby Ireland is the final country to ratify this agreement. In an ideal situation, and if the delays to which I referred earlier had not occurred, the most desirable outcome would have been to have it debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan raised the issue of child slavery and online abuse of children and the incredible work of Shay Cullen in the Philippines through the Preda Foundation. The rights of children globally remain a priority for my Department and for Ireland. We have engaged in the protection of children's rights and the elimination of violence against children through our work to address the route cause of gender inequality, to prevent gender-based violence, to strengthen child protection systems and to combat child labour. We have also provided funding for a number of organisations working on the rights of the child, including UNICEF, the UNFPA and UN Women. Between 2012 and 2015, we provided funding to Anti-Slavery International of more than €500,000. Our longstanding commitment to eliminating child slavery is at the core of the work we do.
The Deputy also referred to the horrendous exploitation of children that technology allows and is taking place globally. This is a very difficult area. If we were to pass a law in this jurisdiction seeking to eliminate such activity, it would have little impact in the Philippines or anywhere else. The global borderless nature of the Internet allows such exploitation to occur. Many people are, unfortunately, exploiting this and engaging in the horrendous things mentioned by the Deputy. All we can do is continue supporting NGOs in particular who work in these regions to eliminate child slavery. Last week, I had an engagement with one NGO that is working with a number of NGOs in India where child slavery is also an issue. I was surprised to learn that there are 50,000 charities in India alone working on child slavery, which is extraordinary, and shows just how pressing an issue this is there.
Deputy Crowe raised the issue of Mr. Eanna Ó Cochláin's ongoing consular case. Again, the Department is conscious of the interest of a number of Deputies in this particular case. I assure the committee that the Department continues to work on behalf of this citizen and that this case is a top priority for the Government. Based on my knowledge of the case, it is a difficult, complex and challenging one. The citizen has been on bail since his conviction and sentencing in 2013 and he remains on bail. His lawyer has filed an appeal with the Philippines Supreme Court and we made a representation asking that the appeal process be expedited on humanitarian grounds. I am pleased to note that the appeal is now proceeding on foot of that request. At a political level, and through our embassy in Singapore, we have raised our concerns about the case and made a request to the authorities in Manila on a number of occasions that the appeal would proceed as quickly as possible. The former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, raised the issue with his Philippine counterpart in New York last September and our ambassador in Singapore, who is accredited to the Philippines, followed up, including with a direct letter to the administrator of the Supreme Court, which I understand is highly unusual but we deemed it a necessary step to take. I am very much aware of the gentleman's ongoing issues and we are working to support him in every way possible.