Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Amnesty International Annual Report 2014
I welcome Mr. Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland. We met him informally yesterday, so we have had a busy few days with him. Ms Ashling Seely, who is the Stop Torture campaign officer, is also very welcome. The format is that we will have an opening statement from Mr. O'Gorman, following which we will take questions from the members of the committee.
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as even on silent mode they cause interference with the recording equipment. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
We are grateful to the Cathaoirleach and the committee members for their invitation to come before them today to discuss Amnesty International’s global report on the state of the world’s human rights in 2014. As the Chairman mentioned, I am joined by my colleague, Ashling Seely, who is our Stop Torture campaigns officer.
Last year, 2014, was a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments across the world pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians and yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change.
International humanitarian law could not be clearer. Attacks must never be directed against civilians. The principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants is a fundamental safeguard for people caught up in the horrors of war and yet, time and again, civilians bear the brunt in conflict. In the year marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, politicians repeatedly trampled on the rules protecting civilians or looked away from the deadly violations of these rules committed by others. Last year, 2014, was a year of international failures.
The UN Security Council had repeatedly failed to address the crisis in Syria in earlier years, when countless lives could still have been saved. That failure continued in 2014, and now into 2015. In the past four years, more than 200,000 people have died - overwhelmingly civilians - and mostly in attacks by government forces. Approximately 4 million people from Syria are now refugees in other countries, and more than 7.6 million are displaced inside Syria.
The Syrian crisis is intertwined with that of its neighbour, Iraq. The armed group calling itself Islamic State, which has been responsible for war crimes in Syria, has carried out abductions, execution-style killings and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale in north Iraq. In parallel, Iraq's Shia militias abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians, with the tacit support of the Iraqi government.
The July assault on Gaza by Israeli forces caused the loss of 2,000 Palestinian lives. Yet again, the vast majority of those - at least 1,500 - were civilians. The policy was, as Amnesty International argued in a detailed analysis, marked by callous indifference and involved war crimes. Hamas also committed war crimes by firing indiscriminate rockets into Israel causing six deaths.
The report of the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict issued on 22 June this year marks an important step towards accountability for all the victims and their families. It is a welcome, independent validation of Amnesty International’s extensive research into last year’s conflict, which found that both sides carried out a litany of appalling violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The evidence is overwhelming, and now the members and observer states of the UN Human Rights Council must give the commission’s findings and recommendations serious consideration, refrain from politicising the commission or its report, and ensure the council takes all appropriate measures necessary to ensure accountability.
In Nigeria, the conflict in the north between government forces and the armed group Boko Haram burst onto the world's front pages with the abduction, by Boko Haram, of 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, one of countless crimes committed by the group. The committee members will be aware of other atrocities that followed late last year and early this year. Less noticed were horrific crimes committed by Nigerian security forces and those working with them against people believed to be members or supporters of Boko Haram, some of which were recorded on video, revealed by Amnesty International in August 2014. Bodies of the murdered victims were tossed into a mass grave.
There are serious concerns about the increasing use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment against suspected Boko Haram members and supporters. Recent Amnesty research indicates that police and military personnel routinely use torture and other ill-treatment to extract information and so-called confessions, and to punish and exhaust detainees. In contravention of national and international law, information extracted by torture and ill-treatment is routinely accepted as evidence in court. The Nigerian authorities display an apparent lack of political will to adhere to their international human rights obligations. The committee members will have received a copy of our report on torture in Nigeria in recent months.
In the Central African Republic, more than 5,000 people died in sectarian violence despite the presence of international forces. The torture, rape and mass murder barely made a showing on the world's front pages. Yet again, the majority of those who died were civilians.
In South Sudan, the world's newest state, tens of thousands of civilians were killed and 2 million fled their homes in the armed conflict between government and opposition forces. War crimes and crimes against humanity were committed on both sides.
The list I have outlined, as our 2014 annual report on the state of human rights in 160 countries clearly shows, barely begins to scratch the surface. Some might argue that nothing can be done, that war has always been at the expense of the civilian population, and that nothing can ever change, but that is wrong. It is essential to confront violations against civilians, and to bring to justice those responsible. One obvious and practical step is waiting to be taken. Amnesty International has welcomed the proposal, now backed by more than 40 governments, for the UN Security Council to adopt a code of conduct agreeing voluntarily to refrain from using the veto in a way which would block Security Council action in situations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. That would be an important first step and could save many lives.
The failures, however, have not just been in terms of preventing mass atrocities. Direct assistance has also been denied to the millions who have fled the violence that has engulfed their villages and towns. Those governments which have been the most eager to speak out loudly on the failures of other governments have shown themselves reluctant to step forward and provide the essential assistance those refugees require, both in terms of financial assistance and providing resettlement. Approximately 2% of refugees from Syria had been resettled by the end of 2014, a figure which must at least triple in 2015.
Meanwhile, large numbers of refugees and migrants are losing their lives in the Mediterranean Sea as they try desperately to reach European shores. A lack of support by some EU member states for search and rescue missions has contributed to the shocking loss of life. The death toll this year, from 1 January to 31 May 2015, stands at 1,865. This number will rise as more people attempt the journey in the finer weather. It is vital that safe and legal access routes to Europe be made available to those seeking protection. The ongoing failure to do so has placed desperate migrants at the mercy of people traffickers and forced hundreds of thousands to take to unsafe and unsuitable vessels in a desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean with often lethal consequences.
More must also be done to address the reasons so many are fleeing conflict. On Syria, Amnesty International continues to urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian Government and targeted sanctions against individuals on all sides responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. One further step that could be taken to protect civilians in conflict would be to further restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This would have saved many lives in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists, despite unconvincing denials by Moscow of its involvement, and pro-Kiev forces targeted civilian neighbourhoods.
The importance of the rules on protection of civilians means there must be true accountability and justice when these rules are violated.
Other areas of human rights continue to require improvement. In Mexico, the enforced disappearance of 43 students in September 2014 was a recent tragic addition to the more than 22,000 people who have disappeared or gone missing in Mexico since 2006. Most are believed to have been abducted by criminal gangs but many are reported to have been subjected to enforced disappearance by police and military, sometimes acting in collusion with those gangs. The few victims whose remains have been found show signs of torture and other ill-treatment. The federal and state authorities have failed to investigate these crimes to establish the possible involvement of state agents and to ensure effective legal recourse for the victims, including their relatives. In addition to the lack of response, the government has attempted to cover up the human rights crisis and there have been high levels of impunity, corruption and further militarisation. Again, Amnesty has sent to the joint committee our Stop Torture report on Mexico.
In 2014, governments in many parts of the world continued to crack down on NGOs and civil society, which is in part a perverse compliment to the importance of civil society's role. Russia increased its stranglehold with the chilling "foreign agents law", with language resonant of the Cold War. In Egypt, NGOs saw a severe crackdown, with the use of a Mubarak-era law on associations to send a strong message that the government will not tolerate any dissent. Leading human rights organisations had to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council's universal periodic review of Egypt's human rights record because of fear of reprisals against them. It now is known that approximately 41,000 people have been detained in Egypt following the 2013 protests and unrest. I note that Amnesty met the committee yesterday to discuss in particular the case of the Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, and we may wish to discuss that again once we have finished here.
As has happened on many previous occasions, protesters showed courage despite threats and violence directed against them. In Hong Kong, tens of thousands defied official threats and faced down excessive and arbitrary use of force by police, in what became known as the "umbrella movement", exercising their basic rights to freedoms of expression and assembly. Human rights organisations are sometimes accused of being too ambitious in our dreams of creating change but we must remember that extraordinary things are achievable. On 24 December 2014, the international Arms Trade Treaty came into force after the threshold of 50 ratifications was crossed three months earlier. Amnesty International and others had campaigned for the treaty for 20 years. We were repeatedly told that such a treaty was unachievable. The treaty now exists and will prohibit the sale of weapons to those who may use them to commit atrocities. Obviously, implementation on that will be key and it will be crucial that Amnesty continues, as it intends, to play a role in the years to come.
The year 2014 marked 30 years since the adoption of the UN Convention against Torture, again a convention for which Amnesty International campaigned for many years. This anniversary was in one respect a moment to celebrate but also a moment to note that torture remains rife around the world, a reason Amnesty International launched its global Stop Torture campaign this year. I refer to one particularly striking point for us last year when we carried out a survey globally about attitudes to torture. It is an indication of the success of a narrative that seeks to defend the use of torture and oppression in the name of security that approximately 36% of the people to whom we spoke globally believed that torture could be justified in certain circumstances. Our anti-torture message gained special resonance following the publication of a US Senate report in December, which demonstrated a readiness to condone torture in the years after the attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001. It was striking that some of those responsible for criminal acts of torture seemed still to believe they had nothing of which to be ashamed. From Washington to Damascus, from Abuja to Colombo, government leaders have justified horrific human rights violations by talking of the need to keep the country safe. In reality, the opposite is the case. Such violations are one important reason we live in such a dangerous world today. There can be no security without human rights.
We have repeatedly seen that even at times that seem bleak for human rights, and perhaps especially at such times, it is possible to create remarkable change. Our work on our latest Stop Torture campaign has already reaped benefits, as we saw the Philippine Senate’s decision to open an inquiry into widespread police torture based on the findings in our report on torture in that country. As the committee will be aware, that campaign has a focus on the use of torture in four countries, namely, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Morocco and Mexico. We have supplied the committee with copies of our reports on each of those counties and are happy to continue to provide updates to members on any further developments on the campaign. We also supplied a number of individual cases, separate to that of Ibrahim Halawa on which we had a detailed discussion yesterday, in which we thought the committee might wish to take an interest.
I thank Mr. O'Gorman and note we had a detailed open discussion yesterday in an informal meeting on the Ibrahim Halawa case between members and Amnesty International. I thank Mr. O'Gorman for his important contribution today on what is an important report. There now will be an opportunity for members to question Mr. O'Gorman on that report and I call Deputy Smith.
I thank the Chairman and thank Mr. O'Gorman and his colleagues for a detailed report, which paints an extremely grim picture regarding many humanitarian problems worldwide, as well as the challenges these problems bring for global society. He also referred to the refuge crises in many regions, and the fact that Syria is not in the headlines daily just shows one what other competing crises exist worldwide. The figures cited by Mr. O'Gorman regarding Syria are startling, with 200,000 people dead in the past four years, 4 million people from Syria who now are refugees in other countries and 7.6 million people who have been displaced within Syria. Taken together, that number of people constitutes a sizeable proportion of Syria's population and this is a worrying and grim picture of a country and its people which have been devastated.
I wish to refer to two other areas. Mr. O'Gorman mentioned the conflict of more than one year ago in Palestine and the Gaza region, which resulted in the loss of 2,000 lives, of whom 1,500 once again were civilians. There was also a huge loss of life among children. Peter Power of UNICEF wrote recently about the extremely difficult situation for the people in Gaza and for children in particular, who are lacking in basic necessities. Again, this is also an area about which one does not read in the newspapers every day despite the huge problems that exist there. Everyone is aware that a pledging conference took place after the Gaza conflict ended in 2014 but very little of the aid pledged actually has reached the people in need or has been received to build up and repair the infrastructure that has been damaged over the decades in that region.
Mr. O'Gorman mentioned the United Nations Human Rights Council and from his comments, I believe he is highly unconvinced of the value of the work done by it. He mentioned in particular the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict and if I read the report right, is unconvinced of the merits of the work the Human Rights Council will carry out. Everyone knows and members of the joint committee have often discussed the point that the structures of the United Nations are outdated and do not reflect the current political situation in the world. As members are aware, the structures were put in place following the Second World War and there obviously is a need for huge change in the architecture of the United Nations. Mr. O'Gorman went on to mention the UN Security Council adopting a code of conduct and agreeing to voluntarily refrain from using the veto in a way that would block Security Council action in situations of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity and noted that 40 governments have signed up to this. Do they include members of the Security Council and the people who have the right to use the veto? Are they party to that agreement to date?
I again compliment Mr. O'Gorman and Amnesty International on their work both in Ireland and internationally. Again, Mr. O'Gorman has outlined clearly today the serious difficulties, challenges and major crises that affect the international community at present, as well as issues that are not being dealt with in an adequate way, be it in respect of civil and basic human rights or with regard to the need to bring humanitarian assistance to many deprived people in many regions of the world.
Mr. O'Gorman said that "the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need". Is that all politicians - unelected politicians, elected politicians, independent politicians, those who have the audacity to form political parties or, even worse, to aspire to get into government and implement difficult programmes that try to reconcile the problem of refugees with the problems of housing at home? Is there anywhere in the world where a democratically elected government is doing the right thing, as far as Amnesty International is concerned? If this is Amnesty's audit of politicians in such absolutist terms, why would any young person want to go into politics? Why not just become a human rights activist? The latter seems to be a much safer, comfortable place to be than the place of elected members on this side of the committee who have to reconcile the balance when politicians, such as the former US President George W. Bush and the former British Prime Minister Mr. Blair, have the audacity to intervene on humanitarian grounds and completely destroy a fragile or stable dictatorship and unleash such chaos as we have seen in recent months. In Mr. O'Gorman's view, has any significant progress, on the ground as distinct from the ratification of certain treaties, been achieved by the post-Cold War settlement that points to a brighter future?
What a depressing report. If 2014 was a year of international failures, we are only halfway through 2015 and it is looking as if this will surpass it.
Mr. O'Gorman mentioned the UN Convention against Torture. Torture continues. The international arms trade treaty is constantly being broken. International humanitarian law, which talks about distinguishing between civilians and combatants, is constantly being broken. There is a complete and utter disregard for any humanitarian law that has been introduced. I suppose one question is how Amnesty International keeps going in all of this. Where is the raison d'être, the reason to not give up and throw the towel in, because there is so much that is depressing?
It is difficult to see what exactly the Human Rights Council, of which Ireland is a member, is achieving because of the disregard by so many for human rights. I discussed the Baha'i with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Iran has to come back on certain issues relating to persecution of Baha'i, and I raised it to see what would happen after that.
So much of what is happening today came from a disregard for the right to peaceful protest as a basic human right. We see that in Syria and with what has happened in Egypt and Kiev. One could pick anywhere. It is that disregard for the right to peaceful protest, irrespective of the issue. We met quite a number of groups here and one was very concerned about the massive increase in the persecution of religious minorities, particularly Christians.
I have three particular questions. The first is about the death sentence and whether any progress has been made in relation to those countries that use the death sentence. The second is about Libya. Is Amnesty hearing any reports from there and can it do anything? The third one relates to our discussion of prisoners. We generally speak of prisoners abroad. I want to mention here that there are prisoners in Northern Ireland, in Maghaberry Prison, who are suffering injustice and abuses of their human rights. There are persons in prison on remand for quite a number of years. I could cite for Mr. O'Gorman individual cases of persons whose human rights are being abused. In one case a prisoner, who is not a political prisoner, cannot access legal and domestic visits because he is in a wheelchair. There are serious issues that are threatening a conflict-free environment in the prison, and that are threatening the peace process and stability there, and I wonder whether Amnesty has been contacted by anybody about those issues in Maghaberry.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
First, to clarify a couple of issues, we are not unconvinced of the work of the Human Rights Council. Our criticisms are for the Security Council, particularly the repeated use of the veto without any explanation, clarification or justification by some of the permanent members of the Security Council in situations in which there are significant concerns and in situations in which there is clear evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. That is why we have called repeatedly for a Security Council reform that would at least see members of the Security Council having to account for their use of the veto and in some way be required to justify their use of the veto. I do not know whether any of the permanent members of the Security Council has supported the proposal that has come forward. I will check and come back to Deputy Smith on it. The proposal that they should voluntarily agree not to use the veto in such circumstances is a positive one and one that we certainly support.
On the Human Rights Council, our concern is that, too often, the reports of independent commissions, such as the Goldstone report into the situation in Gaza and in Israel, become politicised within the Human Rights Council. It is the nature of the council that certain issues can be highly politicised and then the council becomes increasingly ineffective. That is why we made that call for the council to not politicise or permit the politicisation of the latest commission of inquiry report and to engage with that and make clear recommendations and input around proper accountability for the crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been identified.
On Gaza, I have now been in this role for eight years and one of the first meetings I ever had with another government was an engagement with the Israeli embassy. I can remember at that time articulating Amnesty's position that the blockade on Gaza was an effective form of collective punishment of a population of 2 million people. That has not changed. Let us remember why the UN Security Council was established. Its purpose, after all, is to guarantee peace and security. Of course, one can never ensure that there is complete peace and security, but it is a significant issue when we see the escalation of conflicts across the world and when we see entrenched conflicts, such as the situation in Gaza and in that part of world, where the failure of the Security Council, particularly its permanent members, to act objectively to discharge their mandate is undoubtedly a significant part of the reason such conflicts rattle on. Gaza, with a population of 2 million, is half the size of County Tipperary and is blockaded into a space. I remember talking to a former Israeli ambassador in 2009. He denied that there was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza but said the situation was very difficult and that that was how it needed to be so that Israel would be safe. It is a tacit acceptance of collective punishment, and yet we have not seen any accountability for that, which, in itself, is a violation of international humanitarian law.
On the refugee crisis, the UNHRC has made it clear that there are more than 1 million refugees. It is the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. There has been a failure to properly get to grips with that crisis. This is the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. If we look at what is happening in the Mediterranean, only this year finally did we see some focus on the issue and, thankfully, the reinstatement of a humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean. One must remember that, until the latest round of tragedies, some European governments were saying they did not want search and rescue missions, because if people believed they might be rescued more of them might take to the seas, and that would be a pull factor for refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean. It is extraordinary that we live in a time when it seems necessary to remind governments that people have a right to protection and that states have a responsibility to provide protection to refugees. We can look, for instance, at the disproportionate spend by the EU on border protection versus reception for refugees. We looked at push-backs in Greece, which, as a front-line country, along with others, is coming under particular pressure because of the refugee crisis. In 2013 the EU provided €220 million for border protection in Greece and less than €20 million for reception.
That, in and of itself, says something about the European Union's attitude at the time to refugees and the refugee crisis. There was a desire to keep out the refugees rather than discharge our responsibility.
We have been calling repeatedly for the search-and-rescue and humanitarian missions since Mare Nostrum was stood down. It took an incredible loss of life in the first couple of months of this year for EU member states and the Union as a whole to act and put back in place a search-and-rescue mission. It is fair to commend Ireland on its role in that regard and the conduct of the LE Eithneand its crew over recent months. The crew have saved countless lives and are to be commended for it. In reality, the solution lies in providing safe and legal access routes for people seeking protection in Europe. That includes engaging in countries of departure.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I will deal quickly with Deputy Quinn's point. I regard many politicians, including a number in this room, as having great stature and as having been human rights activists over many years in their work. When we talk about politicians in the manner under discussion, we are obviously talking about politicians who are in positions of responsibility in which they have the power to make a decision that would make a difference in particular circumstances but who do not make it. Obviously, we are not talking about every politician, either in this country or any other around the world. I am very sensitive to the fact that politics and, therefore, politicians have in many ways been gravely and unfairly undermined in recent years.
I disagree with what Mr. O'Gorman has just said. The very tone of Mr. O'Gorman's entire reference to politicians is denigratory and makes no distinction between elected politicians in a democratic society, either in opposition or independent, and those who are self-appointed. I believe Mr. O'Gorman has a problem with his language.
We have to bear in mind there may be votes throughout the next couple of hours. I will hand back to Mr. O'Gorman. Perhaps he wants to clarify the issue concerning politicians, just to clear the air as to what he intended to say.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I can understand how the use of the word "politicians" twice in the document could give rise to some questions. We actually refer to states, governments and member states on a further six occasions. Hopefully, that clarifies that when we talk about politicians in that regard, we mean politicians in situations of particular responsibility. I am happy, however, to amend the document and resubmit it with the word "governments" instead of "politicians", if that is agreeable to the committee. That is certainly what we intended. I regret if that has caused any offence, but perhaps we might focus on the issues the submission seeks to deal with and get past-----
Why not have a bit of positivity? This country is immeasurably better for a bit of political action in the last year in relation to one thing. Why not put it in a positive context; all politicians and all governments must do more to achieve the objectives of Amnesty International?
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
To clarify the issue for the Deputy, I cannot unilaterally change a position paper adopted by our global movement. We were asked to present an overview of the world's human rights in 2014 and our assessment was that it was a pretty dark and miserable year. It was characterised by pretty gross failures at the political level - at the level of political leadership, particularly at the level of the UN Security Council and by many world governments - in terms of intervening appropriately on a range of issues. Deputy Quinn asked whether politicians and governments had done anything useful or helpful in 2014 or 2015. I am happy to record Amnesty's appreciation and support of some of the things the Government has done on human rights in the last number of years. I was just talking about the role the LE Eithnehas played in the search and rescue missions that recently started in the Mediterranean. On the Irish level, we are repeatedly on the record as being very supportive of the introduction of gender recognition legislation, the bringing forward of the marriage equality referendum and a whole range of things that Ireland has done. Indeed, when we talk about Ireland, particularly its role internationally, we talk about it as a champion for human rights. As such, I hope that when I come before the committee, it would be aware of the repeated comments Amnesty makes about the role Ireland has traditionally played and continues to play as a champion of human rights at the global level. I take that as given, frankly, but it may be that we need to articulate it more clearly in a situation like this. However, this was a moment when we were asked to present on our view of the world's human rights and I am afraid it is a bleak picture.
The Deputy asks Amnesty to talk about something a bit more positive. I was just talking about the role of the LE Eithneand the reinstatement of humanitarian search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. That is a very positive development. In the period between 1 January and 26 April 2015, 27,722 people that we know of attempted to cross the Mediterranean, of whom 1,721 drowned or disappeared at sea. That is approximately one in 16 or 6.2% of all people who undertook the crossing. I take as the turning point 27 April, the date the first additional ship was added to Operation Triton, and before the expanded search and rescue mission. Matters have improved significantly since then in terms of ship numbers. Between 27 April and 15 June 2015, 31,418 people attempted the crossing, of whom 95 died. That is one in 330 or 0.3%. It is a hugely dramatic improvement in the situation. Interestingly, it also compares very favourably with the period when Operation Mare Nostrum, the Italian-led mission, was in place. Between 27 April and 15 June, 2014, 31,173 people attempted the crossing, of whom 363 died, or 1.16%. The humanitarian search and rescue mission has obviously had a dramatic effect on the number of people who are dying in the Mediterranean. As I said earlier, we think it is tragic that certain European leaders could only be stirred into action after two dramatic shipwrecks in a week that claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people. The committee will be aware of those because I know it was an issue of concern to members.
There are a number of European countries which have really led on this and we applaud the role they have played. We have consistently talked about Ireland's response to the Syrian refugee crisis in particular and the need to see that response in the round and in its fullest possible sense. Ireland has had a real focus on providing humanitarian assistance to the countries surrounding Syria. Irish Aid support to refugees in Lebanon and other countries has been particularly significant. It is an approach Ireland has taken. We understand Ireland was very positive on proposals for resettlement and redistribution and we welcome that even though we would have liked to see it go further at EU level. While we welcome all of that, if the level of naval and aerial assets is reduced at all, we are concerned we will see an increase in deaths in the Mediterranean. It is very important to keep that in place for as long as necessary. As I said earlier, the key issue to address what is happening in the Mediterranean is to address the systemic issues that are pushing refugees and migrants to take to the seas in the first place and to open more safe and legal routes to access Europe. Why are people washing up on Greek shores? It is because land borders are almost completely closed to people seeking protection in Europe. People are being forced into the Mediterranean.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I want to be very clear. I do not believe that not including in a written submission to the committee that asked us to give an overview of the world's human rights detailed comments on Ireland's role, which I had already started to do and would have done as we went through the hearing, is an issue. I hope committee members are aware that we have repeatedly been supportive of and commended the role Ireland has played.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan made a very critical point that as long as the rule of international humanitarian law and human rights law is disregarded by states, we will continue to see many ignoring the rule of law completely. It is interesting for Amnesty. I understand completely that tone is important, but when we talk about international human rights law, it is important for us to remind the public and, at times, some governments that Amnesty and human rights organisations or activists did not write international human rights law. It was written by states and voluntarily adopted by them. When we campaign for states to live up to the obligations they voluntarily accepted in international rights law, we often have to remind people that we are talking about minimum standards. The two major covenants - the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - set out minimum standards that were adopted as international law in the 1960s. As members of the committee and parliamentarians will be aware, it is not a code of law that is generally enforceable through courts. The only international court is the International Criminal Court and it deals only with very specific grave crimes under international law. Because that is the system that states have designed, we are dependent upon states voluntarily respecting and fulfilling the obligations they signed up to.
Obviously, the grave concern post-9/11 was of states undermining that. Up until that period, Amnesty had started to recognise that we needed to talk much more about the indivisibility of rights. The movement was gearing up very much to focus on indivisibility and the violation of economic, social and cultural rights that were intrinsically linked to violations of civil and political rights, especially in the global south where violations are linked to poverty. A lot of the arguments internationally about civil and political rights were well advanced but post-911 we have seen states that were traditional champions of civil and political rights become some of the most egregious violators of those rights. It is in everything we have seen since and I think the presentation we gave references a number of occasions in particular. In consequence, we have seen an increase in the use of torture, particularly in states where there were already concerns about human rights violations. We have seen the justification of grave and systemic abuse of civil and political and other rights on the basis of state security or guaranteeing peace and security. For example, a young Irish citizen has spent almost two years in prison for simply and peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly. I refer to the case of Ibrahim Halawa. There are 41,000 people in prison in Egypt who took part in or were judged in some way to have taken part in protest. The adoption of the protest law in Egypt was set out in a briefing document we sent to the committee a number of days ago. The consequences of the application of that particular law are a huge issue. This is why we have such a strong focus at all times on accountability and urging governments to strengthen accountability measures and mechanisms at international level.
This is why we are always looking to encourage states to sign up to optional protocols to the convention, so we can strengthen accountability mechanisms. If states are allowed to simply and routinely ignore their obligations under international rights and humanitarian law, then that gives licence to the most egregious violations to continue and to do so with impunity. Impunity is our biggest problem.
The persecution of religious minorities has been a particular concern for Amnesty for a long time. Members referred to the Baha'i. The committee will be aware of the case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan who is facing the death penalty for blasphemy. It is difficult to imagine a better example of a human rights violation than sentencing somebody to death, or imposing any other sentence for that matter, for expressing a belief, even if that opinion is offensive or someone else's beliefs.
We know that Islamic State, in particular, persecutes religious minorities. One of my colleagues, Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty senior researcher, has spent much time on the ground in northern Iraq documenting human rights violations that Islamic State has carried out against populations there, many of which are religious minorities. This remains a grave concern.
The breakdown in the rule of law is the big issue in Libya. It is now so lawless it has become a major push-off point for human traffickers, who herd people into vessels in appalling condition and pushing them out into the Mediterranean. The rule of law again is a significant issue from our perspective.
We are regularly contacted about individual cases in Maghaberry Prison. However, as was rightly pointed out, the prison is in Northern Ireland and we have to communicate these issues to our international office. We do this regularly and will communicate the Deputy’s concerns too.
I welcome Amnesty International to the committee. Several issues are going under the radar due to increased difficulties around the world. One of these is the treatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, LGBT, community, particularly in some Third World and even First World countries. Uganda, for example, has the death penalty for LGBT activists and even for those in LGBT relationships. Very little change has occurred in this. If anything, there has been some deterioration and discrimination.
The committee has heard from representatives of Christian communities whose members have been murdered in parts of the world where they are a minority. There seems to be very little international outrage about the persecution of minorities, including Christian communities, especially in places like Afghanistan and by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The death penalty is a serious issue in the United States. Does it not constitute torture to keep somebody on death row for 30 years or, as Deputy Quinn said, in solitary confinement for 40 years? Are we reluctant to identify it as this because everybody in the West is anxious to be friends with the United States? The death penalty is outrageous in itself, not to mention having someone in solitary confinement for 40 years. While we abhor this, do we strongly condemn having somebody waiting to be taken out of his or her cell to be executed?
An interesting document entitled "How the State Should Approach the Issue of Torture" came from a civil servant in the then Department of Foreign Affairs in 1974, in which he suggested it should be to support proposals on humanitarian grounds where they do not create serious problems or are not impractical. In some instances, such as the case of Ibrahim Halawa, some NGOs have been asked not to issue statements.
I am surprised that in Amnesty International's 2014 report it never referred to the case of the Hooded Men, which has been used by countries such as Britain and the United States to justify the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, or what Amnesty would call torture. Doughty Chambers, along with Amal Clooney, is involved in the case of the Hooded Men. The Irish Government has taken the case up again and is bringing it back to Europe. If that ruling is overturned, the use of torture in Abu Ghraib and other instances in Iraq and Afghanistan will be deemed to have been torture. Will Ms Ashling Seely explain why this issue has not been addressed by Amnesty? It is our duty to overturn that case because then western countries cannot use enhanced interrogation techniques as they would call it, or torture.
This issue of torture is important in the case of Ibrahim Halawa. On 21 April, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement claiming there were inaccurate reports some weeks ago that Ibrahim Halawa was tortured. Amnesty International has said he was at risk of torture. Will Amnesty clarify this? Doughty Chambers has a 62-page report on it and believes he was tortured. Reprieve, an NGO, has said he has been subject to torture. A lawyer for Reprieve stated the torture, degradation and mistreatment he has suffered at the hands of prison officials includes multiple physical beatings, use of blindfolds, the application of electric shock, denial of medical treatment for a gunshot wound sustained during the address, psychological torture from the prison guards who told him he would face the death penalty and be executed, taunting about his Irish nationality, being subject to sexual humiliation, being placed in highly overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, being placed in solitary confinement in a cell of 0.5 sq. m., unable to lie down, no provision of adequate food, denial of access to paper and telephone and being held under the threat of potential death sentence.
That is the legal opinion of Reprieve, an NGO like Amnesty.
Reprieve's legal team has put that forward. I suggest for the benefit of everyone that Amnesty International get together with it, write back to the committee and someone come up with a definition because either Amnesty International and the Department are correct that he has not been tortured or Reprieve is correct. According to Reprieve, in respect of the very substantive issues of the charges, according to his legal team's opinion, his lawyer has yet to receive any formal confirmation of the fact the charges have been amended. The Taoiseach said in the Dáil that he is now facing lesser charges. This is very important because if he is facing lesser charges, according to the Egyptian code of criminal procedure, he should have been released last February because, under its code, he should only be detained for 18 months while facing the lesser charges. If he is facing the more serious charges, if he is not sentenced on 2 August, he should be released on 17 August. I will not say that the Taoiseach should intervene and ask for special favours or treatment for Ibrahim Halawa but should he pick up the phone to ask that he be treated the same as anyone else and that the law in Egypt, not any other law, be applied? Will Mr. O'Gorman tell us whether he thinks the Taoiseach should ask the President of Egypt to get involved?
I took issue with Mr. O'Gorman's point that the world's politicians have failed miserably and his comment that politicians who are in a position to make a difference should do so. We all know what the Canadian Prime Minister did about the Canadian citizen in Egypt and what the Australian Prime Minister did. In The Sunday Business Post, Mr. O'Gorman said the Irish Government must do everything in its power to bring Ibrahim Halawa home. I presume he would agree that the Taoiseach should pick up the phone but-----
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has said he was not tortured, Amnesty International has said he was not tortured and we are discussing torture. In 1974, the same Department said it would intervene where practicable.
I would appreciate it if Mr. O'Gorman would answer my question. An article in The Irish Timeson 23 June 2015 stated the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission backed down from making a statement on the case of Ibrahim Halawa after being told to do so by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. At any stage, did the Department ask Amnesty International not to make a statement or back down from making a statement? Was it implied that it would be counterproductive, to use the word from the official? This happened in respect of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in April this year. Did it also happen in respect of Amnesty International?
I thank Amnesty International for its presentation and report and commend it on the hugely valuable and influential work it undertakes here and in other countries. Its commitment to addressing and highlighting human rights abuses has been second to none. There are three key points I wish to raise, one of which relates to the case of Ibrahim Halawa. Amnesty International's designation of Ibrahim Halawa as a prisoner of conscience along with other prisoners of conscience helped raise his profile because of the way Amnesty International is recognised around the world. My key question is what more we can do as politicians and as a Government in respect of the case of Ibrahim Halawa and other individuals who have been illegally detained by the Egyptian Government? Are there specific steps we can take? What work is Amnesty International undertaking in respect of the forthcoming trial? I know it had a meeting yesterday, which I was unable to attend. Deputy Crowe, who is a member of the committee, is still out sick. I apologise if I am repeating what was said yesterday. If the witnesses do not wish to answer it, that is fine. Ibrahim Halawa is an Irish citizen and one immediately gravitates to people one knows, people who are citizens, and then one often looks abroad. Our job as the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade is to ensure citizens from other countries are also looked after and enjoy the rights we would expect Irish citizens to enjoy.
The issue of Sri Lanka has not been mentioned. An internal investigation into war crimes is taking place. It involves military war crimes and crimes against humanity - a plethora of abuse that occurred during a very vicious war on that island. It has been suggested that this domestic investigation cannot be transparent because it is open to interference, particularly since some of those accused of being central to the military abuses have been promoted within Sri Lanka and that there should be an international investigation by a reputable source, as happened in other areas after wars when an international team of inquiry was brought in to investigate and make findings. Would it be appropriate for Ireland to seek support within the UN for this type of activity?
The witnesses also mentioned Gaza. The situation in Palestine in general has been at the forefront of this committee's work over the years, as well as the work of Amnesty International. It seems that the more reports are produced by the UN to document Israeli war crimes, the more entrenched they get. They continue their colonial settlements, to have an illegal wall in Palestine and to intern thousands of Palestinians illegally. The witnesses mentioned the collective punishment of Gaza, which continues. What more can governments such as that of Ireland do? Would the recognition of the state of Palestine be enough? How can we use the mechanisms of the UN to go beyond just another report? How do we address the situation in Gaza?
I left Gaza by sea in 2008. I was on the last boat in and the last boat out. The situation has got far worse since then. I have seen the reports. I would love to go back but even politicians such as MEPs are being prevented from entering to see the humanitarian state of play. This is partly because of the situation in Egypt but it is mainly due to the blockade by Israel. The humanitarian situation was bad in 2008 when I was there so I can only guess what it is like now.
I commend Amnesty International on its work over the years and wish it well in the future.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
On LGBTI rights, Deputy Neville referred to Uganda. In 2013 we hosted Kasha Nabagesera, one of the leading LGBTI activists there who came to address our annual conference. It was the same weekend that the Constitutional Convention met to discuss same-sex marriage. She was buoyed up and inspired by the idea that a country like Ireland might consider such a question. I have sent her an e-mail to get her reaction to the recent referendum. It is safe to say that when countries like Ireland speak out on the discrimination against, and persecution of, LGBTI people it makes a difference. The message we sent out on 22 May to the world about LGBTI rights has huge significance and sends important messages to governments. Ireland’s foreign affairs policy has consistently highlighted issues in respect of LGBTI rights and we commend the Government for that. It is all part of our work in combatting persecution and discrimination and sits side by side with our work for religious minorities. Deputy Neville referred to the persecution of Christians. I should have mentioned the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt for many years. We research and campaign on this.
On the death penalty, in 2014, 140 countries, two thirds of all countries, had abolished the death penalty but 22 countries carried out executions, down from 41 in 2013. This year I think there has been a decline in the number of executions but an increase in the number of sentences. Much of that related to the handing down of mass death sentences following mass trials in Egypt all through 2014 and into this year. Death sentences jumped by more than 500 in 2014. That was largely accounted for by Egypt and Nigeria. At least 2,466 people were sentenced to death in 2014, up 28% on 2013, mainly in Egypt and Nigeria. These are the two countries where there is significant crack down and violations by the state in the name of state security.
China, Iran and Iraq were the top three executing countries globally, often after unfair trials. These three, as well as Pakistan, executed people accused of terrorism in 2014. The number of executions fell by 22% to at least 607 in 2014. Even though I referred to China, it executes more people than the rest of the world put together. We stopped reporting on the numbers of executions carried out in China a couple of years ago because the application of the death penalty is in many cases a state secret there. We know that it executes thousands of people every year but we do not know the true number. We have stopped reporting figures because they are not reliable. Year on year we know that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined.
Senator Daly may not be aware of the work of Amnesty International in the case of the hooded men going back several years. The original case Ireland took, which was the first ever inter-state case ever taken to the European Court, followed Amnesty International’s research that identified what had happened to the hooded men. It was very involved in advocacy to ensure that the Irish Government did decide to refer the case back to the European Court. We hosted an event last year when we had the hooded men in Dublin in the run-up to that decision. We very much welcomed the Government’s decision. Amnesty International has had an interest in that case going back 40 years and continues to have. Senator Daly is right, it is an incredibly important case because the decision has been used by governments around the world to justify their use of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, particularly by the Bush Administration in the US and its use of similar interrogation techniques or torture as part of the so-called war on terror. We are acutely aware of, and engaged with, the case and have been for four decades and will continue to be. It was not mentioned in our global annual report because it deals with human rights across 160 countries. We cannot and do not highlight individual cases, particularly in the report.
On the case of Ibrahim Halawa, I would like to correct something Senator Daly said. Amnesty International has certainly not said he has not been tortured. We will not say that. We have made it clear that we have very grave concerns that as long as he is prison in Egypt he is at ongoing risk of torture. The treatment he has received certainly could constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture. It is not a pedantic point on Amnesty International’s part to make it very clear that a finding of torture has a specific meaning in law and certain criteria have to be clearly established, including intent or the purpose for which a person has been subjected to treatment. That is part of what determines whether in law somebody has been tortured. That does not mean that for somebody to be subjected to incredibly harsh treatment is not tantamount to torture, even though it might not meet the legal threshold of torture. I would suggest that it does not serve Ibrahim’s case, and I am not suggesting that Senator Daly seeks to do this, to reduce it to creating some level of disagreement in the opinions of individual NGOs. The Reprieve submission, as I understand it, was a legal opinion prepared by a Queen’s Counsel in London on behalf of Reprieve and it sets out its view of the conditions he is experiencing. To be clear, we consider Ibrahim Halawa’s case to be incredibly important. We have been active on it for several years and we will remain active on it, nationally and globally. We designated him a prisoner of conscience because we determined he was being detained purely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. We will continue to advocate for his immediate and unconditional release.
It is incredibly important that we stay focused on who is responsible for this. Egypt needs to be the focus of our attention. It is there that the solution to this case lies. We must all continue in any way we can to exert as much pressure as possible on Egypt to secure his release and return to his family. Senator Daly is incorrect and factually wrong when he suggests that Amnesty International has said that Ibrahim Halawa has not been tortured. We have not said that. We will not say that.
He has put a point to me and I am responding to that point. It is simple; Amnesty International has stated that he is at risk of torture. This is not a pedantic point. This is a central point. If an Irish citizen abroad is being tortured everybody should get involved.
Just to be of help to everyone, at the end of my questions on torture, I asked if Amnesty International could work with the other NGOs - I am delighted Ms Seely is here - in order that they might pool their information and return with a different-----
It would be helpful if we worked on the basis of the rules which govern this committee. Senator Daly did not come down with the last shower of rain. He knows exactly what those rules are.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
Our only concern is the well-being of Ibrahim Halawa. I just want to make that very clear. I do not think it serves our efforts or those of anyone else in respect of this matter to seek to suggest that there is a conflict or to create one between the NGOs that are working to secure his release. As director of Amnesty International Ireland, all I can do when the committee asks us to give our view of the case is to do just that and also to provide our legal analysis and opinion on it. We are not a court. We cannot make a ruling that someone has been subjected to torture.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
We can absolutely state that the treatment to which it has been reported Ibrahim has been subjected could constitute cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and-or torture. There is no issue in saying that. Just to be clear, our concern for Ibrahim would not be elevated any further by changing a full stop or a comma or using the words "could" or "does". We are gravely concerned for the well-being of Ibrahim Halawa. We are gravely concerned about the fact that a 19 year old Irish kid was arrested when he was 17, that he was shot in the hand at the time of his arrest, that he was given no medical treatment and that he has been detained in an Egyptian prison for two years in contravention not just of international human rights law but also of Egyptian national law in terms of the conditions of his detention. Ibrahim has been subjected to appalling treatment during his time in prison. He should be home here with his family and continuing with his studies. What that young man has been subjected to is appalling. Our focus will remain on putting every possible pressure we can on the Government of Egypt to secure Ibrahim's release. I hope that all members of this committee and the Irish State will do everything in their power to secure his immediate release.
Senator Daly mentioned Article 143 of the Egyptian criminal code. It would be helpful to acknowledge that this is a mechanism that could be used to try to secure Ibrahim's release. The Senator will be aware of the extent and depth of our legal analysis and work on this case and I hope he will acknowledge it. He will also be aware, from our presentation to the committee yesterday, that when examining the situation in Egypt, it is all well and good for us to point out what the law requires but the simple fact is that the Egyptian criminal justice system is not operating in any way that respects international law or, very often, national law in that country. Yes, Article 143 of the Egyptian criminal code is a really important mechanism for Ireland and Ibrahim's legal team to consider in the context of discovering whether it provides an opportunity either to secure or permit his release. We will seek to do so. However, the overarching issue is that the state of Egypt, as it is currently constituted, is not respecting international human rights law or any of the laws that govern fair trial processes or due process. It very often does not seem to have a great deal of regard for Egyptian national law either. That is the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.
As we pointed out yesterday, this matter is complicated by the fact that Egypt has asserted that Ibrahim is an Egyptian national. This is despite the fact he has only ever held an Irish passport and he was obliged to pay for a visa when he entered Egypt. Egypt continues to assert he is an Egyptian national and is determined to try him as such. That presents very particular difficulties for the Irish Government when engaging in respect of his case.
That is fine and Mr. O'Gorman will answer that question later. I do not want him to be obliged to have to return to the matter of Ibrahim Halawa's case. Deputy Ó Snodaigh also referred to the case and I want Mr. O'Gorman to deal with the Deputy's questions now. The Senator should have respect for the Chair for once.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
It is incredibly important that I should answer one particular question. It seems extraordinary even to be obliged to say this but Amnesty International has neither received, nor would it entertain, any request from any government, including that of Ireland, to refrain from making public comment in any particular way on any case. That has not happened. If it did happen, it is something we would take very seriously. We would raise it at the most senior level within Government if it ever did happen. We would also probably raise it publicly if it were to happen. We have never, ever been asked not to make any particular statement on Ibrahim Halawa's case. That is not how Amnesty International operates and it is not how we have operated at any time since the organisation was founded in 1961. I cannot ever see it being the way in which we operate.
On what else can we do, we are of the view that diplomatic pressure is incredibly important. We think that the diplomatic pressure other states could apply in this instance is also very important. We have suggested that representatives from embassies in Cairo - especially EU embassies - might be encouraged to visit Ibrahim Halawa in prison, to pay particular attention to the case and to advocate on his behalf. We would certainly like to see increased effort on the part of the External Action Service in respect of this case. We know the organisation is aware of the case and we raised it with Commissioner Mogherini when she visited Dublin a number of months ago, so she is certainly aware of it. We would encourage Ireland to continue to exert every possible pressure to secure Ibrahim's release through diplomatic channels. The State should also encourage the EU and its member states to become involved in advocating on his behalf. That would be incredibly important.
I will revert to Deputy Ó Snodaigh with a further response on Sri Lanka. It is not a country in respect of which Amnesty International Ireland has been doing particular work but I am aware that it is the focus of priority for other parts of our movement. From documents I have seen, I am aware there has been a strong emphasis on accountability mechanisms in respect of war crimes in Sri Lanka. I will revert to the Deputy separately with a more detailed report on that matter.
On Gaza, the Deputy quite rightly pointed out that Israel seems to be emboldened on every occasion this matter is raised and it simply ignores or dismisses charges or allegations, or findings made by UN-mandated commissions to the effect that it has committed war crimes. Why does Israel do so? The answer is that it is allowed to do so. This brings us back again to the question of accountability. The recent engagement of the Palestinian authority with the International Criminal Court, ICC, is a welcome development. We have been saying for some time that we would like to see the situation in Gaza and evidence of war crimes committed by any party to the conflict referred for investigation by the ICC. The court is incredibly important and we would like it to happen soon.
I thank Mr. O'Gorman. For the record, I wish to state that the committee is very concerned about Ibrahim Halawa. All members are united on that score. This young man was arrested at 17 years of age and is now 19. He has been incarcerated for the intervening period and has experienced a very difficult time. Obviously, he is frustrated and wants to continue with his education. The committee has monitored and highlighted his case, has discussed it week after week and has been in contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, from which we receive a weekly update on Ibrahim's welfare, in respect of it. Of course, his welfare is extremely important.
I have raised it at every level, including with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. My understanding is there have been 42 consular visits by staff of the Irish embassy in Cairo to Ibrahim in prison. We have requested that a committee delegation visit him. I understand the request is pending with the Egyptian authorities. I have met the Egyptian ambassador on this and we are awaiting a reply. We are concerned and we will continue to highlight this case. Does Mr. O'Gorman think this is the best way? I am sure the Egyptian authorities are well aware of the concerns of the Government, the committee, and NGOs. It will be on our agenda week after week. We will take on Mr. O'Gorman's recommendations to write to the external action committee to highlight the case and to the EU ambassador in Cairo. We will do what we can to continue to highlight this case and to be vocal on his behalf as he awaits his trial in August. Hopefully, the case can be heard in August.
I talk to the Egyptian ambassador and to the Irish embassy in Cairo on a weekly basis about Ibrahim's case and his welfare. We can request the ambassador to come in but a court case is pending and we cannot interfere in the judicial process, as Mr. O'Gorman will be aware.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
The other issue, which is not within the control of the committee or the Government, is that we have concerns about some of the public reactions, in particular to the case. I acknowledge we flagged this yesterday. I have enormous sympathy with views that the family has expressed at times that if Ibrahim perhaps was ethnically Irish there might have been a different response to his case. That is true at the level of the way in which elements of Irish society have responded to his case. Some of the dismissals and comments about Ibrahim that I have seen, particularly online - we all know online is a particular kind of environment - and specifically some of the xenophobia and Islamophobia evidenced in the comments, are of grave concern. It would be welcome if those views were challenged at every opportunity members have to talk publicly about the case. This is a young Irish kid who has been in prison in Egypt for almost two years. Some of the charges laid against him on social media and in public discourse in Ireland, never mind the charges he faces in Egypt, are particularly outrageous, and we all have a responsibility to try to uphold the integrity of this young man and his family.
I second the call to invite the ambassador in again but the issue is how the Chairman frames it. If she is asked to speak about Ibrahim, she will say, "No, there is a court case", but there is nothing to prevent us asking her to come in to talk to us about the state of play in Egypt and the problems within prisons without being specific. Ibrahim is not the only person suffering in an Egyptian prison. While we are concerned primarily about him, this might be a way of getting around it. We would, obviously, have to be careful in how we question whatever she says but there is a concern not just about the state of play in prisons, but also about what is happening in Egypt as a whole. That brings in what is happening in Gaza and in other parts of Egypt where the country's rule of law does not seem to extend. That might be a mechanism and we can give the ambassador a commitment that the specifics relating to Ibrahim's case may not be debated when she appears because of the court case. I presume she will not answer questions about the specifics of a pending court case.
I will take on board the request from the Deputy and Senator Daly. Politicians are not as perfect as the Deputy thinks and it is doubtful they will refrain from asking questions about the case. This issue will remain on the agenda and I will request an appearance by the Egyptian ambassador.
I accept the document that Mr. O'Gorman has delivered is not one of which he is the author and not one he has the authority to change in any particular way. I would, however, ask him and Amnesty International to reflect on a number of comments. Its origins were in the Cold War. I recall the article in the Sunday Observerthat precipitated it. Since that time and the collapse in Soviet communism, there has been a correlation in the minds of most people that a prosperous, functioning economy is synonymous with democracy. Many countries in the former eastern part of the Soviet Union, particularly Hungary and Poland, testify that liberation to democracy was the only way in which prosperity could be constructed. That is no longer held as a shared view. The relentless rise of the People's Republic of China shows that there can be economic growth without democratic underpinnings. We are in a different world and without democracy, no government can be held to account. Mr. O'Gorman gave evidence to that in his succinct description of why Amnesty International does not publish statistics relating to executions in the People's Republic of China. I say to his organisation and other NGOs that an understanding of the difficult circumstances in which democratically elected politicians function gives an understanding as to why progressive politics might survive, if it is survive at all, but the defeat of the left of centre government in Denmark, even though the Social Democratic Party was the largest party elected only to be supplanted by the second largest party. This party is anti-immigrant and is supporting a coalition led by the third largest party, Venstre, the liberal party, which is leading a right of centre, led by the nose government.
The other side of rescuing people in the Mediterranean is having European governments with a sufficient democratic mandate to take the actions suggested by Amnesty International. Denmark has gone from being one of the most open and liberal countries in northern Europe in the other direction because of the impact of migration on democracy. Ireland is no different from many other northern European countries. I ask for balance in Amnesty International's annual report for 2015 between the tension of maintaining freedom and democracy while recognising that the migratory pressures worldwide should be taken into account. In 35 years from now, the world's population will stabilise at approximately 9 billion. The current European population of 500 million will decline to 450 million. This Continent, the cradle of democracy and civilisation, is facing an existential challenge where, on the one hand, its population is ageing and declining and, on the other, it is being resolutely whipped up into an anti-migrant bias. That is a challenge we all face.The minority Government partner in Greece is anti-immigrant and fascist and others but in a sweeping statement, Amnesty International by bunching together all politicians in this manner, most of whom are democratically elected, does not do a service to the organisation and the ethos of its founding members. It does not encourage politicians to take courageous stands in the direction Mr. O'Gorman suggests because the one guarantee is they will not be re-elected.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I hope I have clarified aspects of what was said earlier. We will submit a revised document with the changes I suggested we would make.
We share the committee's concerns, particularly about the rise of xenophobia and extremism throughout Europe. It has been remarkable that it has not been the case in Ireland over the past seven or eight years. It is something we should look at and understand why it has not happened or what are the different situations which have arisen in Ireland which mean there has not been a phenomenon here in recent years in the way there has been in other parts of Europe. Colleagues in many of the countries mentioned are gravely concerned about a shift in political and public opinion, particularly regarding issues of migration and minority populations. It will be an increasing focus for Amnesty International over the next three to four years. As it happens, our international council, which is the decision-making body which decides strategy and direction for the our global movement, will meet in Dublin in August next year and I anticipate that coming out of these decisions will be a focus, particularly for the next three years, on issues relating to migration, conflict and attitudes towards minorities seeking protection. We will keep the committee updated on this.
If Deputy Ó Snodaigh's suggestion on a wider discussion with the Egyptian ambassador on the situation in Egypt does come about, we will be very happy to supply much background information. We published a briefing yesterday on the particular treatment of young people and youth activists, their ongoing detention and the human rights violations they are experiencing in Egypt at present. We can give much information on the systemic issues involved and information on individual cases. The case of Ibrahim Halawa features in the document. We would be very happy to provide all of this. It would be a valuable way forward.
On the question of how and at what level Ireland engages directly with Egypt, we are not a diplomatic organisation. We are a human rights organisation. It is for governments to decide how and when a particular intervention might be most useful. We absolutely support calls for Ireland to use every authority and means at its disposal to continue to pursue the immediate and unconditional release of Ibrahim Halawa and his return to Ireland to his family to continue with his life.