Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

4:25 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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7. To ask the Taoiseach if the war in Yemen was discussed at the October 2018 ASEM summit. [45882/18]

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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8. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the ASEM summit; and the leaders he met and meetings he attended. [45714/18]

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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9. To ask the Taoiseach if the war in Yemen was discussed at the October 2018 ASEM summit. [46873/18]

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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10. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent ASEM summit. [49145/18]

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together.

I attended the 12th ASEM summit, or Asia-Europe meeting, on 18 and 19 October in Brussels. The summit, which takes place every two years, provides an opportunity for Asian and European leaders to discuss how to enhance co-operation in tackling regional and global challenges and deepening economic, social and cultural links between our two regions.

The focus of the recent summit was on improving trade and connectivity between Europe and Asia and on reinforcing the multilateral, rules based system of governance on issues such as international trade, peace and security, sustainable development and climate change.

As well as attending the plenary sessions, I held bilateral meetings with the Prime Minister of Norway, Ms Erna Solberg, President Battulga of Mongolia and the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Wan Azizah, focused on strengthening bilateral relations. I also used the opportunity to raise Ireland's candidature for election to the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 term.

I engaged informally en margewith a number of other leaders including Chinese Premier Li, Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, Vice President Naidu of India and the foreign ministers or special envoys of Laos, Myanmar, Australia, Kazakhstan and New Zealand. These were primarily courtesy conversations about bilateral relations, although in several instances I raised Ireland's candidacy for the UN Security Council.

While discussions at the ASEM considered a number of foreign policy issues, Yemen did not feature on the agenda. I anticipate that Yemen will feature in summit level discussions between the EU and the Arab League early next year. In the meantime, Ireland and the EU continue to be extremely concerned about the security and humanitarian situation in Yemen and the plight of civilians.

The Government is voicing our concerns at every appropriate opportunity, including at the United Nations, the EU's Foreign Affairs Council and bilaterally with the relevant authorities.

4:35 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am somewhat surprised that the conflict did not feature on the ASEM agenda, given that the war in Yemen represents one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises and is now the world's largest crisis. Some 17.8 million people are food insecure, of whom 8 million are severely food insecure. We have all watched the emaciated bodies of the children on television, which is horrific.

It is extraordinary that such an horrific conflict has been allowed to continue for more than four years. To a certain extent, there is complacency within the international order, which almost confines the conflict to a regional war that does not necessitate an urgent, global response, apart from the humanitarian assistance that is in place. The EU has provided €440 million to Yemen for humanitarian development, stabilisation, resilience support and so on. Ireland has also provided €16.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

We support Mr. Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, in his efforts to try to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Having said that I believe there is a sense that the powers that be in the EU, and western leaders in general, are pulling their punches on this conflict with regard its origins and conduct. While providing all this humanitarian assistance, the regional actors need to be called out, for example, on the role of Saudi Arabia which has a strong relationship with the United State. That is unacceptable in the context of the situation in Yemen, Iran and elsewhere. The use of proxy fighters who wreak appalling devastation on civilian populations is barbaric and should have led to a far greater call for action and intervention from the major powers of the world than it has to date.

We cannot salve our consciences by doling out humanitarian aid, important as that is. The political background to this conflict needs to be addressed urgently by the powers that be. This is why it needs to be on the agenda of ASEM and other global fora.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I agree with Deputy Martin. It is remarkable that what is widely regarded by the UN as the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time was not a matter of focus. In many ways, this is a forgotten, if not ignored, war. It is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is being fought at a the cost of the people of Yemen. We see heart-wrenching images of children dying of malnutrition in 2018, which is beyond shocking. I hope that Ireland will continue to raise the issue at every possible forum.

Did the Taoiseach attend the EU-Korea Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, summit, which was held the next day? If so, what were his inputs there? Did Ireland voice a view on the ongoing discussions to bring peace to the Korean peninsula?

With regard to the Taoiseach's discussions with the Russian deputy prime minister, were the ongoing concerns over Russian interference in the election process both in Europe and elsewhere raised by him or by any of the participants in the bilateral meetings or at the summit itself?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I am surprised that while at the ASEM conference the Taoiseach did not discuss the disaster that is unfolding in Yemen. It begs the question generally about whether European leaders and leaders of other governments around the world are willing to call out the Saudi regime for imposing a brutal blockade on the people of Yemen, which has brought between 11 million and 17 million people to the brink of starvation, with at least 10,000 killed directly. Save the Children estimate that 50,000 children died in 2017 as an indirect consequence of the blockade.

We must also consider what is happening in Saudi Arabia itself. There was the barbaric killing of Jamal Khashoggi who was dismembered and, we think, dissolved in acid. In the past few weeks, we heard that some women activists who campaigned for the right of women in Saudi Arabia to drive have been imprisoned. Amnesty International recently produced a report on the routine sexual harassment, torture and degradation of civil rights activists, including hanging prisoners from the ceiling and sexual tormenting of women prisoners by people wearing face masks. Three activists who had just received the alternative Nobel prize in Stockholm have been imprisoned for between ten and 15 years for crimes such as "disobeying the ruler" and "harming the reputation of the State", "engaged in peaceful protests where they criticised the Government". Europe, America and this country continue to treat the regime there as if it is some sort of normal regime. It is a vile and vicious regime that is doing appalling things, and the world is sitting by with Europe and America selling them guns. At least Senator Bernie Sanders has tabled a motion this week in the US Senate calling for an end to the support by the US of Saudi Arabia in this horrific war in Yemen. What are we doing about these people? What is going on is barbaric. It needs to be called out and sanctions are needed.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The war in Yemen should have been discussed at the ASEM summit. Like everybody, I am disgusted and shocked at the images of the humanitarian crisis and the suffering in Yemen, where thousands of people have died and 14 million people are going without food. They are on the brink of famine. The UN World Food Programme has warned that Yemen is facing a full-blown famine in approximately six months unless circumstances change rapidly. What are we doing about all this? What are we doing to assist the humanitarian response to the crisis? Aid organisations cite the blockade over the past three years by the Saudi-led coalition at the city port of Hodeidah, which handles 90% of Yemen's imports, as the reason for the food shortages. Clearly, responsibility for the humanitarian crisis must fall at the feet of the Saudi regime. We are aware that it has used its military might to bomb civilian areas, infrastructures, homes and school buses. Data collected by Al Jazeeraand the Yemen Data Project show that 18,000 air raids have been carried out in the Yemen area since 2015 by the Saudis and the UAE-led military coalition. Almost one third of those bombings struck non-military sites, yet Britain and the US have sold weapons to Saudi Arabia worth more than $12 billion since it entered this war.

There is an urgent need for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia because of the war crimes taking place there. What is the Taoiseach's position on an arms embargo? Does he support that and will he press his EU colleagues and counterparts to support such a call?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Government is greatly concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen. The crisis unfolding before our eyes is deeply troubling, particularly the horrendous impact on civilians, including children.

Ireland, together with the EU, fully supports the UN special envoy in his efforts to ensure that all parties respect international humanitarian law, and that humanitarian aid to the civilian population is allowed to flow unhindered.

The increase in hostilities around the port of Hodeidah is alarming, particularly as the port is essential for the importation of food and humanitarian aid to Yemen. The Government has called on all parties to the conflict to agree a ceasefire as a matter of urgency. We will continue to work through the UN and the EU to encourage all parties to make concessions and to arrive at a negotiated settlement.

Ireland is doing everything it can to mitigate the devastating humanitarian situation in Yemen. Since 2015, we have provided almost €16.5 million in humanitarian assistance directly to Yemen and we are also providing additional humanitarian aid through our contributions to the EU. Ireland has consistently and strongly communicated its concerns, especially regarding the safety of civilians and the need for safe access for humanitarian assistance. We have conveyed this to all parties to the conflict - to Saudi Arabia but also the United Arab Emirates and Iran, which are involved as well. In October, the Tánaiste relayed Ireland's strong views directly to the Saudi ambassador and will continue to make our views known both bilaterally and at the UN and EU. At present, there is no consensus at EU level for an arms embargo on Saudi. Ireland does not have an arms industry and, therefore, unilateral action would not have any effect. However, all exports from Ireland of military and dual use goods are subject to a strict assessment on a case-by-case basis against eight criteria contained in the EU code of conduct on arms exports.

The agenda for ASEM was focused primarily on regional geopolitical issues affecting the European and Asia-Pacific regions. It is important to understand that ASEM covers Europe and east Asia but does not cover the Middle East or the Arab world. Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia were not present and are not members of ASEM. However, I anticipate that the conflict in Yemen will feature in discussions at the EU-Arab League meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Egypt next February. Ireland continues to work at EU and UN level to seek a resolution to the crisis in Yemen. The issue was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council on 20 November, at which EU foreign Ministers reconfirmed our backing for the efforts of the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, to bring all parties to the negotiating table. I was not present at the EU-Korea meeting, as that was handled at Commission President and Council President level. I did not have a formal bilateral with Prime Minister Medvedev but we were at the same table for one of the meals and I did raise the issue of election disruption with him.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, the Government fully supports calls for an independent and impartial investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There has been some progress in identifying the perpetrators but we are still awaiting clarification of what transpired. The ongoing investigations must be transparent and credible, get to the facts of the case and ensure that all those responsible for the killings are held accountable. Ireland and the EU are closely monitoring investigations as they proceed and we will consider what further steps to take in due course in close consultation with our EU partners. Ireland raised its concerns about the killing at the UN Human Rights Council on 5 November during Saudi Arabia's universal periodic review and we will continue to raise our concerns about this case, in particular, and human rights issues in general both directly with the Saudi authorities and at EU and international level whenever appropriate opportunities arise. As I mentioned earlier, the Tánaiste met the Saudi ambassador in Dublin last month and stressed the need for a credible and open investigation leading to accountability for all of those involved.