Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Foreign Affairs Council: Minister for Foreign Affairs

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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This morning's meeting is with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. I am pleased to welcome him to initiate our discussion on matters that have arisen at the recent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. I also welcome his officials. I thank the Minister for sharing a comprehensive briefing document which was most helpful in the context of our deliberations. We will hear the Minister's opening statement before proceeding to a question and answer session with members.

I remind members of our strictures regarding mobile phones and utterances. I ask that phones be put on aeroplane mode or turned off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference with 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 outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the committee for the invitation to meet with it this morning. It is a pleasure to meet with members of the current committee for the first time.

My Department has provided an information note on the issues that the Foreign Affairs Council has considered in the 13 months since I last met with the previous committee. In the future, I would hope to meet with the committee at least every six months, or more if it so desires.

Given the large number of items on the Council agenda, I will address the major themes in my opening remarks. I am happy to answer questions on any other foreign policy issues during the meeting.

I would also like to say at the outset how sad I was to learn of the death this week of Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the PLO and chief Palestinian negotiator. I met with Saeb on numerous occasions, in Palestine and in Dublin. He devoted over 30 years of his life to the cause of peace between Palestine and Israel. My sincere condolences go to his family and the Palestinian people. The work that he was involved in for over 30 years will undoubtedly continue. I spoke to him by phone in recent weeks before he was diagnosed with Covid. He was as energetic, proactive and positive in trying to find ways of moving a peace process forward as ever. He will be missed. Many colleagues have made statements on this matter.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has left no corner of the globe untouched and the Council has addressed it frequently. In the early months of the pandemic, we focused on co-ordinating consular assistance to EU citizens. My Department assisted over 8,000 Irish citizens to return home safely from 126 countries.

The Council also discussed how the EU could step up support for vulnerable countries. A co-ordinated Team Europe response package has provided over €35 billion to date. Ireland has allocated over €140 million to the global Covid-19 response in 2020 to date.

The wider Middle East region is an area of particular focus for the Council. The Middle East peace process was the focus of a number of discussions in 2020. Ireland played a leading role throughout the spring and summer in ensuring that the Council made clear that any annexation of territory by Israel in the West Bank would be unacceptable and a clear violation of international law. We also emphasised the EU’s continued commitment to a two-state solution based on internationally agreed parameters.

The Council had a very good meeting with the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, in August and will meet with the Palestinian Foreign Minister, Dr. Riad Malki, later this month. While Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced that plans for annexation have been suspended in the context of the normalisation agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, I remain very concerned about Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territory. The expansion of settlements and demolitions, even as recently as the last week, and seizures of Palestinian property have accelerated in 2020, despite Israel’s commitments not to target homes during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have been absolutely clear in my condemnation of these actions.

Lebanon is also facing complex challenges. The situation there was increasingly fragile even before the August explosion. My Department provided significant supplies of medical equipment immediately after the blast, with the support of the HSE and the Defence Forces, as well as disbursing emergency funding through Trócaire. The EU has been clear that the political leadership in Lebanon needs to urgently form a government which can enact real reform.

I am often asked about the connection between defence and foreign affairs. This committee probably understands it well but the response to the explosion in Beirut was a very good example of the connection between the two. I instantly got briefings through our contacts in UNIFIL on what was happening on the ground, what was needed and the security situation. That allowed us to make foreign policy decisions on co-ordinating assistance and using defence infrastructure to get there quickly. Ms Hyland was responsible for co-ordinating for the Department of Foreign Affairs, along with her counterpart in the Department of Defence, a political and practical response to what was needed on the ground using Defence Forces infrastructure and intelligence. It was a really good example of the two Departments on the same policy platform working in tandem with each other very effectively.

The Council also regularly discussed Syria, responding to a succession of crises, including the intensification of conflict around Idlib in the spring. EU member states halted arms exports to Turkey late last year in response to its unilateral military action in northern Syria. We have consistently called for de-escalation, the protection of civilians and the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, which is a big challenge. We have also urged Syrian authorities to engage in a more serious way in UN-led efforts to find a political solution.

On Libya,there are now some grounds for optimism, I am glad to say. We saw a permanent ceasefire agreement signed last month and political negotiations are now well under way. The EU has effectively used the tool of sanctions to support this progress. We have rewarded constructive engagement by easing sanctions against certain individuals but have expedited sanctions against those who defy the UN arms embargo. Ireland supported the launch in March of Operation Irini, which is tasked with implementing the UN arms embargo. Again, that was a political foreign policy decision but from a defence perspective, some of our defence personnel are based at Operation Irini headquarters, assisting with that operation and making an Irish contribution to it.

More broadly in the eastern Mediterranean,Turkish provocations have continued, with Turkey conducting seismic surveys in Greek and Cypriot waters. This is causing enormous tension within the EU and further afield. Turkey must contribute to stability in the region, not engage in aggressive unilateral actions. We hope that these issues can be resolved through dialogue. If, however, Turkey continues to raise tensions, consideration of further restrictive measures will be on the table at future Foreign Affairs Council meetings.

The last year has seen momentous events in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood. The response of the Belarusian authorities towards peaceful protesters in recent months has been appalling and shocking. Two rounds of sanctions against influential figures in Belarus have been adopted by the EU, including targeted sanctions on Mr. Alexander Lukashenko. This has sent a firm message to Minsk. Ireland will continue to call for human rights and media freedoms to be respected and for violence against peaceful protestors to stop. It goes without saying that Ireland does not recognise the legitimacy of the last presidential election in Belarus.

In October, Ministers considered the current state of play in the EU’s relationship with Russia which is very complex. Meaningful engagement by Russia in the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine remains a key condition for any improvement in EU-Russia relations. The Council also condemned the shocking use of chemical weapons in the attempted assassination of Mr. Alexei Navalny and agreed on the implementation of sanctions against a number of individuals who are believed to have been influential or responsible. I also note the agreement for the cessation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent days, which is very welcome. All sides will now need to engage in constructive dialogue to ensure that a lasting resolution can be found. The tensions and military activity involving Armenia and Azerbaijan were very worrying and we must try to ensure that the ceasefire holds. Otherwise, we could see a war being waged right on the edge of Europe.

The Council held a strategic discussion on the EU’s relationship with China in May. We reviewed the commitments and deliverables of the 2019 EU-China summit and prepared for the September 2020 leaders’ meeting. Progress has been made but much remains to be done, particularly on the comprehensive agreement on investment, sustainable development and industrial subsidies, as well as market access in the agri-food trade, financial services and digital sectors. We need to engage positively with China in a number of areas, including on climate change and World Trade Organization reform, but we also need to tackle the unbalanced trade relationship and address human rights issues. I remain deeply concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance, forced labour, and forced sterilisations and birth control in Xinjiang. We have raised these concerns on a number of occasions and will continue to do so.

We have also expressed our clear concern about the adoption of a national security law in Hong Kong. That law risks undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under the one country, two systems principle which we support. The Council adopted conclusions on Hong Kong in July and set out a co-ordinated response, including on the issue of extradition agreements with Hong Kong. On 13 October, the Government suspended Ireland’s extradition agreement with Hong Kong, clearly signalling the depth of our concern. We co-ordinated closely with Germany, Finland and the Netherlands, which have taken the same action.

I will say a few words about Ireland’s upcoming term on the UN Security Council which is a hugely important opportunity for this country over the next two years. We take up our seat on the council in just over six weeks. The Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. We ran for election because we believe we can make a real contribution to that work. Three principles will underpin our approach, namely, building peace, strengthening conflict prevention, and ensuring accountability. All three are areas in which Ireland has real credibility. As the Chairman knows, having previously served as Minister for Foreign Affairs, these principles are at the heart of Irish foreign policy and have been thus for consecutive governments for many years.

For Ireland, a key aspect of building peace is peacekeeping. We will seek to improve peacekeeping mandates to make them fit for purpose and to strengthen the link between peacekeeping and peacebuilding. We want to emphasise the importance of an inclusive approach, ensuring the involvement of women, young people and civil society. On strengthening conflict prevention, we will address the underlying factors that contribute to conflict, notably human rights violations and climate change. We want to strengthen the protection of civilians, including from conflict-related hunger. To ensure accountability, we will seek to uphold international humanitarian and human rights law, and stand firmly in support of the International Criminal Court and the principles of the Rome Statute. That is not always easy to do because there are many very powerful actors globally who do not co-operate with the International Criminal Court, some of whom are close friends of Ireland. Nonetheless, it is important that Ireland stands up for that institution for all the right reasons, and we will do so. We will also engage actively on country-specific issues. We are identifying the specific areas on which we believe we can have most impact, including on the women peace and security agenda, on climate and security, in relation to Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JPCOA, on sanctions policy and practice, and on humanitarian access in Syria which I mentioned earlier. The last of these is of particular interest to my Department and to me.

We have good relationships with the Security Council’s permanent and elected members. We do not agree on everything and we have no illusions about the challenges ahead. I am consulting a wide range of my counterparts and we are doing the same at senior official level. We will also draw from the extensive expertise available within Irish civil society and academia. We have recently established a stakeholder forum, in partnership with the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, to support us in planning for our Security Council term. I look forward to keeping the Oireachtas informed of our work on the council. My Department will provide regular updates to this committee and my officials will always be available to provide oral or written briefings.

Obviously, it is a matter for the committee but, if it wanted to, it might be useful when we have a formal decision on Ireland's responsibilities in chairing committees and holding the pen, as it is called, on certain policy areas and in certain initiatives, which we will certainly know before the end of the year, to have some intense focus in those committees on some of those agendas and the issues around them, on which Ireland can be influential as a source of change and progression. I will not confirm anything today but I understand that Ireland will have some pretty weighty briefs on which we will be expected to either co-ordinate or offer leadership. This committee will, I hope, find it very interesting in that context from the defence perspective with peacekeeping and preventing conflict, and from the foreign policy perspective in the other issues.

I thank the committee members for their engagement. As ever, I look forward to their comments and questions.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for that wide-ranging overview of the recent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. I will now open up the meeting for questions and for further issues to be raised.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for that briefing following the Foreign Affairs Council meeting. To start, I concur with the Minister's sentiments on Dr. Saeb Erekat, the general secretary of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. I expressed my condolences yesterday in the Chamber and I do so again. Dr. Erekat was certainly instrumental in bringing forward peaceful solutions, in trying to address the serious issues facing the Palestinian people, and in driving forward prospects of a two-state solution. I offer my condolences and those of my party to his family, to his colleagues in the PLO and in the Palestinian Embassy in Ireland, and to the Palestinian people.

On the issue of the Middle East one certainly would not be surprised with the approach. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, Michael Lynk, has said:

No country creates civilian settlements in occupied territory unless it has annexationist designs in mind, which is why the international community has designated the practice of settler-implantation as a war crime. The political purpose of the Israeli settlement enterprise has always been to establish sovereign facts-on-the-ground and to obstruct Palestinian self-determination.

Mr. Lynk also said that, "While Israel may have shelved its plans for thede jureannexation of the settlements in August, it is continuing with its de factoannexation of the Palestinian territory through this unrelenting settlement growth."

Up to 2017 there were 620,000 Israeli citizens residing illegally in approximately 200 illegal settlements in Palestine, in the West Bank. I welcome the Minister's comments criticising plans to expand the illegal settlements. Approval was given for an additional 5,000 units. We also see illegal measures being carried out by Israel. Only last week we saw 70 structures illegally demolished in the northern Jordan Valley. I put it to the Minister that annexation, as they call it, not only remains on the table, is actually happening as we speak. My words and the words of the UN special rapporteur graphically highlight that.

While I welcome the Minister's comments, words come easily and without action they exist in a vacuum. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, was one of 11 European Union leaders to sign a letter in May asking what measures could be taken at EU level if the annexation did go ahead. We know that de factoannexation is happening but does the Minister agree it is happening as we speak?

What measures were outlined in response to the Minister and the other EU foreign affairs ministers that could be taken, and which I believe should be taken immediately, to deal with the aggression being carried out by the Israeli state? What measures were outlined in response?

The silence from the Irish Government has been deafening with regard to taking real actions and real measures. I am at a loss, as are many people, as to what is the strategy of the Irish Government and of Europe to deal with the illegal actions carried out by the Israeli state. Will the Minister outline some of the responses?

Some of the actions that have been taken by the Government have included the shelving of the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. The Government has also ignored the express will of the last Dáil when it passed unanimously the motion that the Government should officially recognise the state of Palestine. These measures should be taken immediately. I ask the Minister to outline the Government's strategy and approach, and the EU strategy.

Sanctions are imposed on Russia because of the annexation in Crimea. We have seen sanctions imposed on Belarus, and rightly so. We see sanctions imposed very quickly in other areas but there seems to be a kick-love approach to Israel. I am at a loss, and more importantly, the Palestinian people are at a loss, as to why that softly softly approach is taken. I would appreciate the Minister addressing those points.

What are the Minister's views, and those of the Council, on the situation in Syria and the penalising of ordinary Syrian civilians? The placing of measures, sanctions and embargoes is having a dire impact on ordinary Syrian civilians. We have seen the illegal occupation of eastern Syria by the Americans and the US President, Donald Trump, who is now on his way out of the White House, stated quite clearly that the US mission in Syria solely focused on protecting the oil fields. Is that an approach the Minister and the Foreign Affairs Council would support? While protecting the oil fields it is an illegal act, and also deprives the Syrian people of what is rightfully their natural resource. Will the Minister comment on that also?

I will now turn to Turkey. I welcome the ceasefire agreed between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minister mentioned both countries and the horrific war going on there in recent months, but he failed to mention Turkey's role in that, which is frightening and which needs to be highlighted more. We had a briefing from representatives from Armenia and we invited representatives from Azerbaijan. We also invited the Turkish Ambassador in to speak to us. As far as I am aware we got nothing back in relation to that. We know all the evidence there with regard to the illegal use of munitions, including cluster munitions, in civilian areas.

The Turkish involvement in the conflict should not be regarded in isolation. We see the Turks trying to flex their muscles in places such as Libya, and we also see what is going on in the eastern Mediterranean. Again, the silence from Europe has been deafening. Potential sanctions of Turkey for its actions in the eastern Mediterranean have been shelved. I would like the Minister's view on this. The examination of the matter has been kicked to touch until December. I would like the Minister to comment on President Erdoan's comments last week. He said now is the time for a two-state solution in Cyprus. We are aware that Turkey illegally occupied northern Cyprus. Does the Minister agree with the Turkish approach? It is absolutely scandalous that it should be put forward as a solution or proposal.

There was no comment on the developing major catastrophe in Ethiopia. The conflict started over the past week or two. I am aware that the area in question, the Tigray region, has been an area of potential conflict over many years. Over 600,000 people in the area are affected and dependent on food relief. It is an area of major concern. I would like the Minister's views on it. What measures are being examined to arrive at a peaceful solution?

My last point relates to the Irish position on the Security Council, particularly in the context of human rights. We note what is happening to human rights defenders from Colombia to Saudi Arabia. Even in India, we have heard about the imprisonment of Fr. Swamy for standing up for human rights. The Minister outlined the three principles underlining our approach to the Security Council - peace building, strengthening conflict prevention, and ensuring accountability. These need to be key components in protecting human rights defenders. In Colombia, where there is supposed to be a peace process, human rights defenders are being shot down on the street. Women in Saudi Arabia are being imprisoned. People such as Fr. Swamy are being imprisoned in India. It is very concerning. I would appreciate it if the Minister would outline what approach will be taken by us when we take our position on the UN Security Council.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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A number of important questions have been asked arising from what the Minister said. We have a full house in terms of members but a finite amount of time. Therefore, I am going to hear two more brief submissions and then return to the Minister, who will respond to all the submissions made thus far, including that of Deputy Brady on the Middle East peace process, Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia and our role on the UN Security Council. In acknowledging that members wish to make their contributions, I ask that we be conscious of the time. After we hear from Senators Ardagh and Craughwell, we will return to the Minister. I hope everybody will have an opportunity to contribute.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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What time do we have until?

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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We have two hours. We began at 11.30 a.m., so we will conclude at 1.30 p.m. or thereabouts if that is acceptable.

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his detailed presentation. I will go backwards with regard to his speech. It is very exciting that we are taking a seat on the UN Security Council in the next few weeks. I welcome the fact that the Minister will be keeping us informed, but because it is so soon and because the Minister will be attending only every six months, I suggest that he give us an ongoing rolling update on the work we are doing on the Council. Perhaps it could be done through the clerk of the committee. We are obviously all very interested but the public really wants to know what we are doing and how we are using our seat on this important national body.

The second matter I would like to raise concerns the Uyghur Muslims in China. Has the Minister brought this matter to the attention of the Chinese representative? What was the Chinese response when he raised this issue? We are hearing about forced labour and forced internment. These are very worrying. We should ensure that we raise this matter with the Chinese representative in Ireland. It is incumbent on us to do so.

I welcome the Minister's condemnation of actions in Palestine. I met the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, who gave me a clear outline of further accelerated occupation activity by the Israeli forces.

I would also like to raise the matter of the Israeli practice of administrative detention. Conditions for detainees have worsened considerably due to the pandemic and visits have been suspended since March. There is poor sanitation. Prisoners' rights and children's rights are routinely violated with impunity by occupation forces. Administrative detention is a practice by which Israeli authorities detain Palestinians, including minors, without charge or trial. The detention period can be renewed every six months. Administrative detention is in violation of international law, primarily the Fourth Geneva Convention. Detainees do not get the opportunity to defend themselves in court. The reasons for their detention are rarely revealed to them, or are provided in Hebrew only. Some 30,000 detention orders have been issued in the past 30 years. There are currently 340 Palestinians in administrative detention. Over 120,000 Palestinians have been detained in the past 20 years, including 18,000 children. What is the Minister's position on administrative detention?

I thank the Minister again for attending. I express my condolences and those of the Fianna Fáil group on the death of Saeb Erekat. He was a young man; he died in his 60s. He will be a great loss to the peace process.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I join the Minister and colleagues in expressing my condolences on the death of Saeb Erekat. The loss of any man of peace to this world is a serious loss.

In conjunction with Senator Ardagh, I would like to believe that we would have some sort of rolling audit on the achievements of Ireland in terms of its membership of the UN Security Council. The people would like to know what we are achieving on an ongoing basis.

I was advised yesterday by the Russian ambassador that the Russians have sent peace forces to Azerbaijan and Armenia. I am not sure whether it is to supervise or enforce peace. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's comments on that.

The Minister mentioned China and the concept of one state and two systems. Taiwan has probably been the most successful country in the world in the context of fighting Covid-19. I acknowledge the significant support it has provided to the Irish medical system by providing such equipment as face coverings and other personal protective equipment. Is it not time that Ireland supported Taiwan's desire to be part of the World Health Organization, at least? It needs a voice there. The world would be a better place if it heard this voice. Has the Minister any intention of supporting that?

The Iranians have expressed great interest in purchasing Irish beef and lamb. With Brexit coming down the road, and with no deal seeming to be the likely outcome, is it not time that we opened an embassy in Teheran and started to normalise our relationship with Iran, particularly from a commerce perspective, and to explore how we might capitalise on any opportunities that exist for Irish businesses? I will leave it at that because I am aware that other members wish to contribute.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Before I call on the Minister, I wish to make two points.

The bulk of the observations and questions so far have been on the Middle East peace process. I acknowledge the personal priority the Minister has given to achieving a resolution in that regard. I know he will outline some of the measures in his response.

For the benefit of members, we have been in contact with both the Palestinian and Israeli ambassadorial offices here in town and both have agreed to meet with the committee. We probably would have met with them were it not for the restricted nature of our work as a result of Covid, but it is a priority issue and we will meet by Zoom or otherwise as soon as possible because I believe that would be important for members in light of the current position with the peace process.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I think it would be really good to give both ambassadors an opportunity to come and interact with the committee because they will provide very different perspectives. I also think it is important to understand the thinking of both and then to draw conclusions from a committee and policy perspective. My understanding is that the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland, whom I will meet later today, was very close to Saeb Erekat, and knew him and his family very well. It is a particularly difficult sadness for her.

Deputy Brady raised a number of matters. I do not know where he is getting his briefing, given comments such as the silence from Ireland being deafening on annexation, demolition or expanding settlements in the West Bank.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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There is only silence, never action.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Brady asked his question and I will answer it. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have spent more time from a policy perspective on the Middle East peace process than on anything else outside of Brexit and EU affairs. I have been to Palestine and Israel four times in two years as Minister for Foreign Affairs. We cannot travel at the moment because of Covid. I have got to know those on both sides very well because I want Ireland to be a credible contributor to this debate internationally. That is the way we get change. Taking positions on our own in isolation because they may sound good or feel good in terms of the domestic audience is not necessarily the way to achieve change on the ground for Palestinians, or for Israelis for that matter. The only objective that I have in terms of the Government's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East peace process more broadly is to try to find a way of contributing to the commencement of a process that can result in a two-state solution, in fair treatment of both sides and equality of esteem in terms of that process. On many occasions I have been very publicly critical of the approach of Israel towards Palestinians in recent years, and the approach of some Israeli allies too, in terms of condoning certain actions. I will continue to be critical in this regard.

If some had their way in Ireland, we would be expelling ambassadors every few months because we do not agree with something that is happening in a country in some part of the world. In doing so, we would lose our contact with them then and relationships would break down. From my experience of international affairs and foreign policy, the way one gets things done is to build relationships not break them. Of course there are times when one needs to take a stand on principle, and we will not shy away from doing that, whether it is on the Security Council, in the UN more generally, or in the EU more generally. Ireland has been right at the centre of the debates in the European Union on the Middle East peace process. Over the summer, we were the ones, along with Luxembourg, who took the most proactive approach towards a very clear statement being made by the EU in terms of what the consequence of annexation would have been. In my view, it was dialogue, proactive diplomacy and very clear messaging to the Israeli Government that contributed significantly to annexation not moving ahead. If we had taken the advice of some others and gone out on our own to make a statement - I accept that this would have been seen as one of solidarity with many Palestinians - it would have meant that we would not have been taken as seriously as we are taken on the debate in the Middle East peace process within the European Union, which is ultimately what will bring change.

If Ireland wants to change the direction of global policy, we do that by first of all changing the direction of political discourse on particular issues within the European Union and that creates a real power and momentum for change. In my view, that is how we bring about the change that all of us in this room want to see in the context of a Middle East peace process that can result in Palestinians have a peaceful state of their own, living side by side with a secure Israel. I will continue to pursue that. There is very clear language in the programme for Government in terms of Ireland wanting to recognise the state of Palestine in the context of a negotiated solution or before then if we believe that will protect Palestinian territories or advance the cause of peace. There is very strong language on that. I look forward to the day when I hope I will bring a proposal, which I am sure will have all-party support, on the recognition of a Palestinian state, but I would like that to be in the context of a two-state solution that has been negotiated so that then we can reinforce the new Palestinian state.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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There are more illegal settlements. Will more homes have to be demolished before the Government starts to do something tangible?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I have just explained what we have been doing and what is tangible.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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Is that working?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The problem is that Deputy Brady does not want to hear this because, unfortunately, he comes at this from a domestic political motivation. I think we want to see the same outcome.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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I am coming at it from a human rights perspective.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I ask Deputy Brady to desist. I hope we can have an opportunity for a further round of questions but I ask Deputies to desist.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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With respect, if Deputy Brady's party had its way we would not even have an Israeli representative in Ireland. We would have no embassy in Israel. We would have no channels of communication to try to influence decisions that could be good for Palestinians. That is not the approach that I propose to take because I do not believe it will get the outcome we are seeking. It may get a headline for a few days in Ireland, but it will achieve little more than that.

We will continue to be proactive on this agenda to try to work with both Israel and Palestine. We will try to make sure that we use every opportunity, whether that is a change of US President or trying to change EU policy and attempting to get a more collective approach from the EU that can be more proactive, which is what we are working on all the time.

I do not think anybody could accuse me of not being direct, blunt and clear in my condemnation of expanding settlements in the West Bank. I refer to my commentary on the potential for annexation over the summer, my commentary last week on demolitions, which were both illegal and disgraceful, and my commentary on the existence and expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It is very clear. In truth, no matter what I say on the Middle East peace process, it is simply not enough for some people.

In terms of the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill, I will not be part of a Government that does something illegal. We have very clear advice on this. Deputy Brady knows that but he chooses to ignore if, as it was not there. In fact, many have tried to demonise the Attorney General, who gave very clear advice on the Bill. I have simply followed the advice of an Attorney General on this issue, no more and no less than that.

Deputy Brady and I agree on the outcome we want, but it is the approach on how we get there on which we disagree. Unfortunately, because of that change in approach, some parties seem to paint me and my party as not being committed to this cause. I completely reject that and my record shows it.

It is surprising that Deputy Brady would single out the US presence in Syria but not the presence of anybody else in terms of his criticism. Many would be critical of the US for not being more present in Syria to try to protect civilian populations.

Sometimes, therefore, it seems that the United States cannot do anything right in some people's eyes. Syria has been a humanitarian catastrophe. When history books are written, the global community, the UN Security Council and many state actors will be judged very harshly regarding what has been allowed to happen to a country and a population in respect of death, destruction, forced migration and millions of refugees in neighbouring countries. It is an absolute tragedy.

We must be a country that contributes to the debate about how we can be as constructive as possible in bringing about and protecting ceasefires where they exist and are under strain, and, of course, approach in a constructive way the political conversation, which is a difficult one, about how we begin the process of reconstruction in that country and continue to access vulnerable populations with essential internationally funded humanitarian aid, which is one of the things that has been a topic of important debate on the Security Council. There is only one crossing point into Syria left for humanitarian aid. It is really important for those of us advocating for it to remain open to make those arguments and build alliances and relationships that can ensure that is the case. We will not get this done by scolding people in the international press, waving banners or organising protests. The way to get powerful countries, superpowers in this case, to agree to an approach politically is by building relationships and winning arguments with them, and that is the approach we will try to take to protect civilian populations in Syria, some of which are in very vulnerable situations.

Turning to the issue of Turkey, we have been very worried about the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey has played a role in that conflict, and so has Russia. For whatever reason, Turkey has decided to take a much more aggressive foreign policy approach towards the eastern Mediterranean, including becoming involved in Libya as well as in the tensions and conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and taking a much more aggressive approach towards drilling in Greek and Cypriot waters. No matter what direction we look at it, there is the creation of tension coming from Turkey. That is very worrying because Turkey is a NATO member state, and I know that we are not, it is causing major tensions with other NATO states, and it is on the edge of Europe and of the European Union. In my view it needs to be and should be a partner of the European Union in a progressive way. What we are seeing at the moment is a lot of tension, which is moving in the wrong direction rather than the right direction.

With reference to the term, "the European Union silence is deafening", I have been in meetings for hours with EU colleagues talking about Turkey and how we approach its aggressive foreign policy and interventionist approaches, whether the right approach is sanctions, because that is a very blunt tool, or whether it is engagement. Again, often the easy answer when somebody is doing something wrong is to call for sanctions. If that breaks down relationships, however, in a way that actually entrenches divisions, then it is not the most intelligent strategy to adopt. In international politics, it is always a combination of engagement, of calling people out publicly, of having quiet diplomacy and, at times, having tough and hard sanctions too. The assumption that if we sanction somebody, we will get what we want is something that time and again we are reminded does not always work. The relationship between the EU and Turkey, therefore, is a very complicated one, but it is one that is under quite some strain at the moment.

There are interventions from Germany and France, in particular, in terms of intensive engagement, and from Cyprus and Greece, obviously, but from many others as well in trying to find a way of easing tensions but at the same time sending a clear signal to Turkey that the EU cannot ignore its actions, particularly deliberately targeting EU states. That is complicated even more in respect of the arrangements and agreements we have regarding refugees and migration. I know some people would be very critical of that aspect, but it is reality and it complicates the relationship even further. I do not think, by the way, that it compromises the positions that the EU will take, but it certainly complicates things. I think the Deputy and I are in agreement on many of the concerns regarding Turkey, and I hope to be able to visit that country, if it is possible to do it, before the end of the year to raise a number of these issues directly. I have had direct phone calls with the Turkish foreign minister raising some of these issues as well.

Moving on to the subject of Ethiopia, this is a worry. Let me refer to the official note because this is in many ways a developing crisis. Ireland is deeply concerned by the outbreak of armed conflict between the federal Government of Ethiopia and the regional authorities in Tigray. I visited that region when I was the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, because we have several funded projects there in agriculture and agricultural research and development. The Ethiopian Government has declared a state of emergency in Tigray for six months and has ordered a military offensive. There are reports of casualties, although it has not yet been possible to verify numbers. If not contained, this conflict could threaten the stability of Ethiopia and have serious regional implications for the wider Horn of Africa. I have urged all parties to cease hostilities, de-escalate tensions, demonstrate restraint and work for reconciliation. Ireland has been working in Tigray for many years and there is an Irish Aid office there with two staff. We are also aware of one Irish citizen in Tigray.

The EU is supporting regional efforts to engage with the parties, the UN Secretary General has also offered to support dialogue and our embassy in Addis Ababa is actively supporting these efforts. Tigray is home to many refugees, displaced persons and local communities which have been significantly impacted by Covid-19, flooding and invasions of desert locusts. Humanitarian issues, therefore, are central to Irish concerns as well. I do not want to overstate Ireland's influence on some of these conflicts, but we will watch the situation and try to play as constructive a role as we can. Ethiopia is a really important stabiliser for that part of Africa, given the countries that surround it. For this tension and conflict to spiral out of control could be a worrying regional event, as well as one for Ethiopia.

I will be shorter with my answers from now on. On human rights abuses and our role on the Security Council, accountability is our third big pillar. That means we want people who are responsible for human rights abuses to be held to account and to be called out by the Security Council. It should not be forgotten, however, that the use of the veto in the Security Council by the five permanent members has essentially prevented accountability in many cases, whether it has been the use of chemical weapons, human rights abuses in conflicts, the use of munitions in built-up populations and so on. We will be, I hope, an independent and courageous voice within the UN Security Council for calling out international events and atrocities if and when they occur and doing everything we can to try to apply international law and Security Council resolutions to the people and countries responsible. We live, however, in a world with so many conflicts that are ongoing and so many countries that perhaps do not apply the rules of international law as we would like them to that we are going to have to be selective and targeted in the areas where we really shine a light, I hope, so that we can be impactful in what we are trying to do.

As already stated, I am very happy to speak to colleagues and all parties about areas of concern on which we could have an impact when we are on the Security Council.

Senator Ardagh raised a few issues. I will try to ensure that we provide a rolling update on the topical issues so she can call me in if she wants to try to get more detail or more proactivity. I have raised the issue of Uyghur Muslims in China and I can outline our position on this. Ireland remains deeply concerned about the credible reports regarding restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance, forced labour and forced sterilisation and birth control in Xinjiang. We supported an Opposition motion expressing real concern on this issue recently in the Seanad. Ireland was one of 39 states to sign a joint statement at the UN Third Committee on 6 October. We also raised this matter in our national statement to the UN Human Rights Council on 25 September. We have consistently called on China to allow unrestricted access to the region for independent observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We have also called on the latter to provide regular information about the situation to safeguard the rights and freedoms guaranteed under international law. Ireland fully supports the EU position of raising this matter in its engagement with Chinese authorities and we will continue to raise our concerns bilaterally and at multilateral fora.

Our relationship with China is important. It needs to be proactive and positive in many areas but it also needs to be honest in terms of calling out matters in respect of which we have real concerns. We have tried to do this in a firm and respectful way. If we are going to be effective in bringing about change in areas where we have concern, having a relationship that allows those conversations to take place in the first place is important, as opposed to reactions that break those relationships in a way that limits the capacity to bring about change.

In terms of my condemnation of actions and expanding settlements, I have referred to such settlements as effectively being a form of creeping annexation. Formal annexation is something different. Essentially, that is applying Israeli sovereignty to large tracts of land in the West Bank which, in my view, is completely illegal and totally unacceptable politically. This is why we have fought very hard to prevent that happening. Expanding existing settlements has a similar impact over time but is not the same as extending sovereignty legally to parts of the Palestinian territory because, effectively, they are seen as temporary settlements within occupied territory. It is still illegal.

Senator Ardagh also inquired about administrative detention. I have an note on Palestinian prisoners during the Covid crisis, which she might find interesting. There are well-founded concerns about the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and Ireland has repeatedly recalled to Israel the applicability of international human rights standards. I have also raised specific issues, including in respect of the detention of minors, during a visit to Israel. There have been worries globally about the vulnerability of prisoners to Covid 19 and Irish missions in the region continue to monitor this situation closely. I also wrote to my counterpart, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ashkenazi, about a prisoner who was previously on hunger strike and who had been on hunger strike for 100 days. I expressed real concern about that case. Subsequently, it has been addressed but not because of my letter I am sure. The relationship is there that allowed me to send a pretty direct letter expressing concerns. We will continue to watch this and I take the points raised.

Senator Craughwell also asked for a rolling audit. With regard to Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia would not be a country that contributes peacekeeping troops very often, just as the US does not. We are going to have to wait and see how this develops. The important thing is that the military offensive has stopped. A Russian-influenced ceasefire is holding for now and let us hope it can last. I know it has created huge tension politically, particularly in Armenia, and there has been a great deal of unrest as a result of this. This is a very delicate situation and Ireland needs to be very responsive in how we comment on it to ensure the ceasefire holds and we can move into the space of political dialogue again.

In terms of reopening an embassy in Teheran, the closing of our embassy there in 2012 was a decision based on the cuts to Government spending at the time. We maintain open relationships with Iran on a range of issues and Iran continues to have an embassy here in Dublin I am glad to say. The embassy of Ireland in Ankara is accredited on a non-residential basis to Iran. The ambassador in Ankara supports our engagement with Iran, including the development of political relations, trade relations and supporting Irish businesses operating or hoping to operate there. Ireland is also represented in Iran by an honorary consul. Honorary consuls are an important element of the State's global engagement and they provide consular services and assistance as well as supporting citizens. It is not, of course, the same as having a resident embassy and we are reviewing this issue. I am not in a position to say anything beyond that for now.

I have already commented on relations with China. China is far too big a country not to have structural relationships with it, and we have a very good relationship with the Chinese Embassy and the Chinese ambassador here. We speak to him on a regular basis about various things, from important consular cases to trade to concerns they have about some of the statements we make on human rights and Hong Kong. Again, we will try to maintain a relationship that maximises Ireland's influence on the issues we care about.

With regard to the World Health Organization, this year Ireland has been very vocal about supporting it and we have put a lot of money behind those statements. It is not just words. We are also aware of some of the other tensions. I do not want to make any comment on China and the World Health Organization without putting a bit more thought into that comment. It is something we are open to discussing.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and his officials. I join colleagues and the Minister in expressing our condolences to the Palestinian people on the death of Saeb Erekat. It is an appropriate thing to do in the case of a man of peace.

It is interesting that many emigrants abroad look to our embassies as a safe haven or a refuge in the worst of times and it is great we were able to give assistance to 8,000 people to return home during the Covid crisis. While obviously we have to discuss geopolitics today, and I will come to those issues, we should also stress this as something positive and good. It is also positive that we gave €140 million to the Covid response globally. We should be proud of that.

I welcome the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu, has announced the suspension of plans for the annexation. This is good but just as it is good news it is very disturbing that there is an expansion of settlements and demolitions. This has to be condemned. I am happy that the Minister is particularly proactive in respect of the situation in the Middle East.

I would urge again that our absolute condemnation of that kind of action is made, particularly in the context of Covid. In any context, it is very serious.

I was horrified by the television coverage of the post-election situation in Belarus. The police brutality visible on our screens was shocking, appalling and disgusting. For that reason, the sanctions against Belarus are welcome. Will the Minister elaborate on how he sees the situation there? We have a particular Irish interest there with one of the Belarus opposition figures having spent a pleasant part of her childhood here.

The Minister addressed the issue of the Uighur Muslims as raised by Senator Ardagh. I am concerned about the national security laws in Hong Kong. We have to be in an active position on China on these issues while conducting normal business. We cannot be ambiguous about those issues and I do not think we are. It is important that the committee shows its support on this matter.

The Minister did not refer in his address to the situation in Poland. That is not to say that it is not concerning him. Will he respond to the diminution and erosion of human rights in Poland? Poland and Ireland have great bonds of friendship. They are among the very welcome immigrant groups in Ireland with whom we have a special bond. We have great interpersonal relationships, as should be the case, and we all have a fondness for Poland which makes this all the more disturbing. The erosion of LGBT rights there and the whole humanitarian situation in Poland is shocking. What progress could be made in this regard? Will EU countries make Poland aware of our dissatisfaction in that regard?

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I too want to be associated with the comments on the death of Saeb Erekat, a man of peace.

The Minister mentioned in his contribution a €35 billion contribution from the EU for vulnerable countries dealing with Covid. Will he give us more detail on that?

Will the Minister comment on the situation in Hungary?

I thank the Department for the comprehensive note on the Middle East. Will it send one on South Sudan? Will the Minister keep an eye on the situation there with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, moving away from the humanitarian protection of civilian sites that is being proposed? South Sudan is in a catastrophe of biblical proportions with locust plagues, floods, Covid and 1.6 million people displaced with 7.5 million people in need of assistance. Will the Minister ensure that the European Council keeps this on its agenda?

David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, said Yemen is on the verge of famine with 80% of the 30 million people there in dire need of help. Will the Minister ensure that Europe keeps an eye on this? The issue in Yemen is caused by war and conflict. It is a proxy war between two powers in the region. Yemen has been described as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today.

I join with the Minister's comments on Tigray in Ethiopia and how important that does not escalate. The Horn of Africa is an important region and it should not go very wrong.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Chairman. Earlier this year in Australia there was an inquiry into Covid and how all this happened or from where it emanated. It is not about seeking to apportion blame but obviously we will learn lessons from it. Covid-19 has and is, as we know, killing many millions and devastating the economy. I would have thought there was an obvious obligation on the international community to involve itself in such a process and investigation. Can the Minister enlighten us as to whether that appetite exists, especially in the context of a vaccine, which has given us all hope that we would be in a position to exit from this calamitous situation? It has dominated the world for almost a year at this stage.

It was reported earlier in the year, although it may not be the case and that is why I ask, that some countries within the Union which were hardest hit by Covid did not necessarily appreciate - or it was not apparent that they were getting - the level of support that one would expect from their counterparts in the Union. That dissipated and there is now a more unified and a better European-centred approach that will allow countries to be in a situation where citizens throughout the EU see a pathway where there will be a universal approach. We saw that recently in relation to travel. Many might say this is a belated approach but, as I said, this is not about apportioning blame but ensuring we build on the hope and evidence across the globe.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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On the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu's suspension of annexation, we are uncomfortable with the fact that he has essentially described it as a temporary stalling of plans to annex part of the West Bank. We want that to be a permanent commitment from Israel not to annex parts of the West Bank. The land is not theirs. Israel is an occupying power in occupied territory. It was interesting because when the Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, was asked about this, in the context of more recent initiatives around normalisation with some Gulf countries, he made the case that, as long as normalisation is progressing, annexation will not be progressing. It was about the most definitive step I have heard a senior Israeli politician take in terms of a commitment not to allow annexation to proceed. That is something we will watch closely.

It is a time for Ireland to engage with all parties but also to see what follows in the context of the presidential election in the US and whether that impacts US policy in the Middle East process. Many people are waiting to see where this will go next. Certainly Ireland will do everything it can to influence this in a constructive way, speaking to both Israel and Palestinian leaders, to progress a peace process that can result in a successful outcome, as opposed to what we have seen in the past several years.

On Belarus, many of us were pretty shocked by what we have seen there.

We have seen women protestors thrown into the back of vans and taken away, detention without trial and a lot of clear intimidation. As has been rightly said, perhaps the most prominent Opposition spokesman, who is not in Belarus but is from Belarus, is someone who has a very close personal connection with Ireland and was here as a child. We are watching this closely. We are in absolute solidarity with those who seek democratic reform. Most importantly, this is not Ireland trying to intervene in another country's affairs. This is Ireland trying to speak out for, along with others in the EU, free and fair elections that would allow the Belarusian people to decide who governs them democratically. We do not believe that the last election was either free or fair and that is why we have supported the peaceful demonstrations and pro-democracy movement in Belarus, and will continue to do so.

In terms of Poland and the rule of law, I will say a number of things. We note with concern the recent rhetoric in Poland regarding the LGBTI+ community, and the development of so-called LGBTI ideology-free zones. It is extraordinary that a country in the European Union even has that terminology on a sign anywhere. Our embassy undertakes a number of initiatives to raise awareness and to facilitate discussion on the rights of LGBTI+ people and this includes taking part in the Warsaw equality parade each year. The embassy is also one of a number of diplomatic representations that sign an annual letter in support of the Warsaw equality parade and other such parades around Poland. This autumn the embassy will support a number of engagements, including events to showcase the experience in countries, such as Ireland, ensuring the adoption of equal rights for the LGBTI+ community.

As for concerns that were raised regarding Hungary, the rule of law is a fundamental principle for all EU member states. Our concerns about issues relating to the rule of law in Hungary are well known, particularly around judicial independence, civil society space, media freedom, academic freedom and fundamental freedoms. Under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, there have been a number of hearings at the General Affairs Council over the past two years, involving the Commission, Hungary and other member states. We have participated actively in these, highlighting the importance we attach to respect for the rule of law. We support the continuation of Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. Constructive dialogue should continue with a view to ensuring that the values of the EU are respected by everybody.

Deputy Stanton has raised the issue of €35 billion. What the EU has done but not communicated as well as perhaps it should have, is that it has been extraordinarily proactive in funding supports for Covid responses such as healthcare systems, personal protective equipment, PPE, and supporting countries all over the world that simply could not afford a response themselves, ranging from Africa, Latin America to parts of Asia, and in our own neighbourhood in particular, in terms of some of the eastern partner countries and so on. The European Union has even made commitments, or has already funded, programmes that are supporting a public health response to the challenges of Covid all over the world. Other countries are sometimes far better at trumpeting what they are doing than the Union is collectively but I hope that is changing.

In terms of South Sudan, I have been asked to make sure that South Sudan and Yemen remain a priority and part of Foreign Affairs Council, FAC, debates and I can assure the Deputy that we will do that. There has been a focus, particularly on Yemen. Over and over again we have items on the agenda on Yemen and, more recently, there has been discussion on South Sudan as well.

Deputy Cowen raised the issue of Australia and called for an international inquiry into how Covid began. We need to understand what happened so that we can learn lessons to make sure this does not happen again. Part of the problem is that some have been very targeted in terms of their blame so that, politically, there has been a focal point for anger and blame against where Covid originated. That has resulted, I think, in a tension that makes getting an international and credible inquiry agreed. We need to approach this matter in a way that is likely to succeed in getting co-operation from countries like China and others on how did this happen, when was it spotted, what was the response, what were the mistakes, how can we do it better the next time, how can we have a global alert system for a virus like this when it is forming in its initial cluster and before it starts to spread, and how can we stamp it out more efficiently. These are very real and genuine questions that at the end of all of this we are right to ask, albeit while getting buy-in in order that this does not turn into an international targeting of one country, particularly when it happens to be as large and influential as China. If we are going to get buy-in from China then the approach that we take has to be one of partnership, which is less about blame and more about establishing facts.

As for the EU's response to Covid-19, at the outset the European Union was, like every country, taken by the pace at which the disease spread. What happened was that countries looked after themselves as best they could. They shut borders, ignored EU rules and concentrated on trying to protect their own populations. As a result, countries like Italy in particular were torn apart by the virus. I am not sure what the EU could have done to help them faster. As we have moved on through this pandemic, the European Union has really got its act together. In the early days we were really effective at co-ordinating a response on getting people back to their home countries. There was really good co-ordination in terms of rescue flights where European countries shared information with each other and brought each other's nationals home. For example, when we organised a rescue flight out of Nigeria we brought other EU nationals back and dropped them off in London. When we had a rescue flight out of Peru, we did the same. Of course, we got Irish citizens on rescue flights that were organised by other member states and by the UK, that formally is not a member state any longer but certainly behaved in a way that was hugely helpful and responsible towards helping us to get Irish citizens home or helping them to get off cruise liners and so on in a way that friends and neighbours should support each other.

That co-operation demonstrated very good early solidarity within the European Union. Since then, on vaccines, PPE and international travel, there is a lot more co-ordination and leadership coming from the EU. The big thing is the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the budget and the recovery fund that has been put in place and the scale of it, which is going to help the countries and their economies that have been hit the hardest to recover. As a country that is going to have to recover in a post-Covid environment, I am very happy that we are a member of the European Union in terms of the supports. As a country, I would not like to be fighting on our own to access vaccines, for example, when there is going to be a lot of pressure and competition to access them early. We have the European Commission now centrally purchasing, in advance, vaccines in hundreds of millions of doses to make sure that large and small EU member states can be protected. It does not matter whether a country is Germany or France, or Cyprus or Malta, it is going to be protected as an EU member state and get fair access and so on. We have learned a lot of lessons. The EU has really responded to the Covid crisis in the second half of the pandemic thus far in a way that has learned lessons from the pressures of the first half.

It is important to recognise that. The European Union's response has been far from perfect but no one is talking about a shortage of personal protective equipment, PPE, in the second wave. I hope we will not be talking about a shortage of vaccines, even though other parts of the world will be desperately trying to get their hands on vaccines and may not be able to. By the way, the EU will be extraordinarily generous in using its buying power to buy up vaccines for parts of the world that will not be able to afford to compete, and so it should. It is an opportunity for us to build relationships with countries that are fearful they will not be able to afford to compete in the market to buy vaccines when they become available. The EU is planning a big funding programme to help other parts of the world in that regard. Not only are we showing solidarity within the European Union but the value system the EU represents will, I hope, ensure our wealth, buying power and influence will see to it that countries which otherwise would not be able to compete to access vaccines when they become available will be able to do so. All of that is positive and worth putting on the record.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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With regard to the global business and human rights treaty, the sixth session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group on business and human rights took place in Geneva. For a long time now, there have been calls for the Irish Government to become more involved and engage more proactively in this treaty-making process. One of those leading the call is Trócaire. It has stated it is time for Ireland to stand up, speak up and be on the side of those who are under attack from big business. It stated:

Corporate greed is leading to land being seized, forests being cut down and rivers poisoned. Those who stand up to defend their rights are being harassed, intimidated, even murdered.

Indigenous communities often face the impact of this race for natural resources. The number of killings of human rights defenders in the context of corporate activities is shocking, with an average of over four land and environmental defenders being killed every week in 2019.

Since 2015, more than 2,000 attacks on activists working on human rights issues related to business have been documented by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Women human rights defenders are also being targeted through threats of sexual violence and smear campaigns.

The EU opposed the negotiations, recommendations and conclusions of the process in 2018. Is this position of the EU in line with the views of the Department? Does the Minister agree that the EU's strong opposition to this treaty on business and human rights is correct? Has he or his Department been lobbied to oppose any of the drafts of the business and human rights treaty since 2014? Most important, why has Ireland yet to address the treaty session in the absence of an EU mandate? So far, France and Spain have done so. The Minister was recently quoted as saying he was looking at it. What does that mean? What does that look like? What will his priorities be with regard to this treaty? What are the red lines as far as this Government is concerned?

On behalf my staff and constituents, I express genuine and sincere thanks to the staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs who went above and beyond and played an absolute blinder in getting my constituents home from some of the most far-flung places on the planet during Covid-19. The Department put their minds at ease and their families' minds at ease and they landed safe and sound back in Ireland. I thank the Department.

I want to drill down a little on the issue of people who are victims of crime while abroad. There is a lack of knowledge about consular services. I am sure there is not one Member of the Oireachtas who has not been contacted by a brother, sister, mother, father or other family member trying to get contact details for consular services abroad during Covid. The issue extends beyond Covid-19. There is little easily available advice for people who are abroad. I am referring to pertinent information specifically in the initial hours following a traumatic event, for example, where somebody is the victim of a serious assault or an accident. We should also bear in mind the language barrier that arises in many of these cases or even the lack of access to a mobile phone. The Minister and I know consular services are available but there seems to be a lack of awareness among the general public or a breakdown in communication about them should someone need these services while abroad.

I will highlight a specific case, primarily because it has come back into the public eye in the past few months, namely, an attack on a young Irish woman in Praia da Rocha in Portugal in 2004. She was 20 years of age at the time and working as a holiday representative. Her name has been in the public domain. This young lady was stalked, bound, gagged, beaten and raped following a home invasion in what can only be described as an absolutely horrendous ordeal. She described that the attack was planned, orchestrated and carried out in a manner that left her genuinely fearful for her life. She thought she would die at the hands of her attacker on the night in question. Unfortunately, since day one, the State has not provided any assistance. There has been no involvement, advice or support. The woman's name is Hazel Behan. She is remarkably resilient and has rebuilt her life, work and world. She has a strong family and good friends and she is now in a good place.She has spoken openly about this attack over the years on "The Late Late Show" and on national media. Throughout this process, the State has not provided any support or assistance or involved itself in the case.

I raise this case now, even though I freely admit that none of us in this room, whether the Minister, I or anybody else, can turn back time or rewind the clock. This incident may have taken place 16 years ago but it is now in the public domain again because of recent developments. Multiple law enforcement agencies from a number of jurisdictions are involved, yet there is still no support or assistance being provided by any arm of the Irish State, despite the State being involved in the logistics of what is taking place beyond our borders. Ms Behan says she had received most support from Germany. She is not a German citizen and, until recently, had never set foot in Germany. She also received support from the British but she is not a British citizen. There is no legal obligation on these countries to provide her with the level of assistance they are providing. They see, however, that they have a moral obligation and they are stepping up to meet that obligation.

The Department of Justice is very much aware of what is going on in this case because it has such a high media profile. I have no doubt that will be the case again. Do the Departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs communicate in cases such as this? Ms Behan thought at one stage this incident was in her past and would never gain play such a prominent role in her life but here we are today. For some reason, it seems steps have not been taken to help victims of these crimes feel supported and listened to by someone with relevant experience who can talk them through what a process abroad may involve.

Hazel Behan is an Irish citizen who was attacked in Portugal and is getting more support from the German and British authorities than she has ever received from this State. This is a serious and worrying case.

The Minister and I know those services are available but, in terms of the general public, that breakdown of communication and awareness causes trauma and anxiety in people's lives. Not knowing where to go to get the most basic of information compounds that trauma and anxiety. I know that is the case because I spoke to Hazel this morning. To quote her directly, she said: "Hazel Behan found herself standing in a foreign country literally naked with not so much as a flyers of where to go for assistance." Is that the best we can offer those of our citizens who are victims of crimes in a different country? I do not believe so. I believe even the Minister set a higher standard for what it is we could be doing, and rightly so.

The final issue I want to raise is one a colleague of mine, Deputy Maireád Farrell, raised in the Dáil recently. It is to do with the Finance Bill and the subsidies for NATO military forces for exemptions from VAT and excise on services and goods they will receive from 2022.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I am reluctant to interrupt the Deputy but there is a parallel process here insofar as the Finance Bill is tabled for discussion and debate next week. I ask that perhaps that issue be retained until then, having regard-----

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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I will just ask, as a clarifying-----

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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-----to the fact that I would not expect the Minister for Foreign Affairs to be in a position to reply for and on behalf of the Minister for Finance in any event.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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With the Chairman's indulgence I will ask a question on the criteria. From the perspective that we are not a member of NATO for a variety of reasons, can the committee be provided with the cost benefit analysis behind those decisions? I refer to the information on which that decision was based.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I will ask Deputy Lawless to come in and I will then revert to the Minister.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for the update. I will focus on two issues he touched on in both his update and in the briefing material provided from the EU Foreign Affairs Council meetings. There was a significant discussion in the Council on Russian activities and influence. In the main, it seemed to be around the geographical sphere of influence on the borders in eastern Europe and into Ukraine, Belarus, etc. I am interested in that but I am also interested in a wider sphere. Was there any discussion at that meeting or at other recent meetings on disinformation campaigns, which may have been advanced beyond their immediate geographical sphere across the EU, perhaps into Ireland or further afield into the US? Is that a concern to the Council? Is it something that has been discussed?

On a related note, I ask about Ireland's position on housing up to 40% or more of the EU's datasets, the predominance of US but also other multinational technology, financial services, pharma, life sciences and other companies in Ireland as the European, Middle East and African headquarters? There are very significant commercial activities and data activities in Ireland, which is a good thing. It is something we want to propagate, continue and welcome and is fundamental to our own economic strategy but it leaves us somewhat exposed in terms of cyber security and attacks and threats. It may be more a question on the defence side than the foreign affairs side, although I believe it touches on both, but in terms of hostile actors, be they other nation states or non-nation actors, what is our state of preparedness for that?

On the same theme, we have the transatlantic cables at a proximity to data transfers, both across the EU and back to the US. I believe there is an exposure in that in terms of attacks on cyber security, which may tie in to some of those points. That is one set of questions.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Apologies. What was the Deputy's last question?

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I asked about our level of preparedness and defence and the fact that those transatlantic cables emanate from our western shores across to the US. An extremely significant volume of data would transfer from Ireland to the US which contains a good deal of EU data also. There is 40% or more of the EU's data within Irish data centres so there are very significant volumes of data here, which is a concern both from a privacy and data protection view in terms of the data itself but also from a commercial sensitivity point of view. From a cyber security and cyber defence point of view, what is our degree of preparedness if there are any attacks on that?

On South Sudan, which the Minister touched on, I had the opportunity to visit the South Sudanese border with a group from the previous Oireachtas. I am aware that in some circles at that stage, which was late 2017, the question being asked was whether the experiment, to use that word, of South Sudan as a new, independent nation state had succeeded or whether it was regressing. I note that in one of the briefing documents Sudan is about to receive additional aid because it has been removed from various lists of terrorist sponsors. Perhaps its northern neighbours enjoy a little more success but South Sudan is problematic, to put it mildly. We saw the greatest population displacement there since the Second World War take place across the south Sudanese borders over the past five years. It is catastrophic. We have talked about Syria and other countries which are equally in disarray and difficulties but South Sudan continues to be a global black spot. I know from being on the ground on that occasion that there is a significant Irish presence, which we were very proud to see. The Minister has touched on it already but he might provide a quick update on that.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I do not wish in any way to curtail the Minister in his reply, particularly having regard to important issues raised by Deputy Clarke and Deputy Lawless, but we have some private business to conduct and we have 15 minutes to hear the Minister's reply, closing comments and deal with our private business. We will see how we do but in the context of the Minister's attendance, I wish to remind him briefly of an issue that has been the subject matter of discussion here, that is, the Armenian-Azerbaijanian conflict. We have had submissions here, and there has been debate and concern expressed among our members. I ask the Minister to continue to do what he can, with his EU colleagues, to ensure that every effort is made to help assist a settlement process that will not involve any miliary engagement or undue influence externally. It is an issue we might come back to at a later stage with the Minister but, in the meantime, let us hope that the ceasefire can be maintained and that matters will proceed towards a satisfactory settlement. I thank the Minister for his attendance and I look forward to hearing his replies to Deputy Lawless and Deputy Clarke.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman. To respond to that last point because I know a number of people have mentioned it, I have a good short and concise note on it. On 9 November, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed an agreement to bring an end to the conflict. This agreement was to come into effect at midnight on 10 November. This followed significant Azerbaijani military gains on the ground which could have cut off Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh. The agreement, if fully implemented, would see a lasting ceasefire, a return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers would be mandated to safeguard a land corridor for Armenia with those parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that are not under the full control of Azerbaijan. Armenia, in turn, is to provide transport links for Azerbaijan to allow it connect with the autonomous republic to the south west of Armenia.

Internationally displaced persons or refugees will return to the territory and adjacent areas under the control of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Ireland will continue to monitor developments closely and we will work constructively with our EU partners to assist in the challenging task of making any ultimate settlement sustainable. It is good that we would have an official position on that.

To respond to Deputy Clarke, on the global business and human rights treaty, Ireland is committed to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights adopted unanimously by UN members in 2011.

Any new UN initiatives should be consistent with and build on the guiding principles and important measures, including the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises and the International Labour Organization tripartite declaration principles.

The sixth session of the open-ended working group took place in Geneva from 26 October to 30 October, two months after a second draft of a legally binding instrument on business and human rights was circulated. The EU made a statement on behalf of member states, which Ireland helped to shape. The EU statement welcomes some of the changes in the current draft of the legally binding instrument and highlights the further necessary changes and the measures taken by the EU and member states to protect human rights in the context of business activities.

Ireland has taken an open-minded, constructive approach on the matter and we will continue to consult relevant stakeholders, including civil society.I am aware of the strong views of the Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights. My officials in Dublin and Geneva have met members of the coalition, including in recent weeks, and we will continue to have this valuable engagement.

We have a very strong record in supporting human rights defenders in different parts of the world and I presume members are familiar with the Front Line Defenders awards that take place each year. Before I was a Minister I was on the panel of people who chose who would be given those human rights defenders awards each year. In Iveagh Gardens, next door to the Department of Foreign Affairs, we have mounted a plaque that is essentially a monument to human rights defenders.

This is an area on which we want to continue to be a global voice. Unfortunately, there are many people in incredibly vulnerable positions trying to raise concerns and protect people. These include indigenous or vulnerable populations that are being persecuted. They need a voice and often that voice gives them protection as well, and that is what we are trying to do.

I am always told by my team that I cannot speak about individual consular cases because there are so many sensitive cases. The member has named Hazel and I presume she is okay with that. I know she has also raised her own case. All I can say is that we have a consular charter on our website and it indicates how we are supposed to support and protect Irish citizens abroad when we can. This is a case that happened in 2004 and I would like to hear more about. If a note is sent to me, I will certainly take a look at the case to consider lessons learned or how we could have supported her in a more comprehensive way. If mistakes were made, we will try to learn from that. I certainly was not familiar with the case at the time.

We have a 24-hour helpline for emergencies that people can call from any part of the world. In many cases we have helped people to get legal representation in different parts of the world they may not have been able to get themselves, or there may be language or access difficulties and so on. Our consular team does an extraordinary job, often in very difficult circumstances. I am very proud of the work it does but that does not mean we cannot constantly strive to do things better or learn lessons from individual cases. If Deputy Clarke wants to follow up the conversation on Hazel's case, I will certainly try to be as supportive to her as I can be.

I am not familiar with the element of the Finance Bill that was raised. I am sure the Minister, when he addresses the Bill-----

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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If there are issues, perhaps the Deputy could drop a note to the Minister.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I just do not want to comment on something on which I do not have the facts. The question of misinformation was raised and it is a major issue. Cybersecurity is also a major concern. We are specifically asking the new commission on the future of the Defence Forces to look at cybersecurity from a defence perspective.

The 5G communications networks conversation is an example. The security and resilience of Ireland's 5G network are clearly essential for all the reasons outlined, including the amount of data that moves in and out of the island across the Atlantic and within the EU. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the National Cyber Security Centre engaged fully with the EU process on the security of 5G networks. The Department produced a national risk assessment of 5G and contributed to the EU-wide risk assessment that was published in October last year. Ireland also actively contributed to the development of the EU 5G security toolbox of mitigation measures published in January this year. The national cybersecurity strategy contains specific measures around the security of telecommunications systems, including 5G, and these measures build on a comprehensive EU process. The Department is working with industry on the development of a set of enhanced telecoms security requirements to secure all telecoms services. This will be published for public consultation in the first quarter of next year.

This is a space in which we are really active. It is interesting being the Minister responsible for defence and foreign affairs in this space as Ireland must be to the fore, internationally, in ensuring we are securing data and protecting it, both in law and in reality when it comes to protecting our networks, and we must also communicate that internationally. I am glad this important topic was raised.

Misinformation campaigns are a concern that has been raised time and again. Conflict and security are now shaped very differently in political debates. The damage is done or instability is created by state or non-state actors in a cynical or underhanded way, either during elections or in destabilising governments by influencing public discourse in multiple ways, particularly on social media. It is something the EU is very alive to and concerned about. There is much evidence to suggest this is a very active and moving space. We are alert to it and it is very much part of our broader cybersecurity strategy.

The issue of South Sudan was raised. As I mentioned, the number of refugees displaced across borders into neighbouring countries is significant. We provide significant humanitarian funding to South Sudan, mainly through the World Food Programme and other non-governmental organisations. Concern, GOAL and Trócaire are all active there. We will send a more detailed note to the committee if required. We also support the South Sudan peace process and the funding of a ceasefire monitoring mission there as well. We have a stake in that matter, and for good reason. It could not only contribute to destabilising South Sudan, which is a very new country struggling to find its feet. It could also have a regional destabilising effect on neighbouring states. It is something we are watching closely.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his attendance and the comprehensive nature of his replies to members. As Chairman of this committee, I would like to be associated with his earlier comments and those of the members on the passing of Saeb Erekat. I have arranged to personally convey the condolences of the committee to Palestinian representatives later this afternoon.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.30 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 November 2020.