Dáil debates

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Human Rights

10:05 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this important issue, coming as it does after the debate we have just had during Question Time. It is very appropriate and I thank the Minister for being in the House to reply.

Over the past year, in particular, when the global community has been preoccupied with the fight against Covid-19, it is quite understandable that issues of a human-rights nature and atrocities, which take place under various headings throughout the globe, have to some extent gone unnoticed. They were certainly not noticed to the extent they would otherwise have been. It is important that Ireland uses its position as a member of the UN Security Council to highlight locations throughout the globe where these atrocities are taking place. They take place on a daily and hourly basis, and even as we speak, they continue. Reference was made during Question Time to the situations in Sudan, Ethiopia and throughout Africa and to the atrocities various organisations visit on helpless, poor and humble communities regularly.

Atrocities against women were referred to during the previous debate and I want to emphasise that point again. These atrocities continue with greater ferocity and rapidity, and the number of incidents increases daily. Rape and sexual abuse seem to be more commonplace than they ever were. The Minister acknowledged rape has always happened during the course of a war, much to our chagrin. I hope this is being taken into account and that decisions will be made in the UN which will overhaul the activities of the perpetrators in these situations.

I have only a short amount of time to refer to the ongoing difficulties in China, which were mentioned by other Members during Question Time, in Myanmar, which continue, and in other locations throughout the globe. These atrocities seem to continue with impunity because there is a belief among the perpetrators that there will be no response, and that there can be no response. They seek the use of the time available to them to do so under cover of other tragedies.

I ask the Minister, even if it means standing out and being different from everybody else, that we use the position we now have on the UN Security Council to highlight these atrocities, to bring public and international attention to them, and to make it clear that there is a way of punishing these people and that punishment will be meted out. By doing so, nobody will presume that they can pursue such atrocities with impunity. The International Criminal Court and the war crimes tribunals were referenced in the previous debate. It is imperative that this is done as a matter of urgency so as to give ample warning to the perpetrators of the kinds of atrocities spoken about over the last hour and a half in this House. They will continue unless something really dramatic is done, that is, to let it be known that there will be retribution and that it will be swift and severe. This has happened in the past, for example, in regard to Sierra Leone and the perpetrators there.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important issue this evening. Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, sometimes known as the Istanbul Convention. It is a timely reminder of the impact of Covid-19, particularly regarding the increasing incidences of domestic violence against women during the pandemic. As Deputy Durkan is aware, women are to the fore in providing healthcare and support for those affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, in many countries, the economic downturn and closure of schools means that many girls are not returning to education, which undermines decades of progress in human rights and sustainable development goals. I am also very conscious that access to human-rights monitors, from the UN to civil society organisations, are severely curtailed because of the travel and other restrictions during the pandemic.

Ireland has been very active in promoting and protecting human rights at the United Nations through our current membership of the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. Deputy Durkan will be aware that Ireland took up its seat on the UN Security Council on 1 January. Since then, we have been working across the full council agenda, which includes some 30 country and 20 thematic files. Promoting respect for human rights, accountability, and compliance with international law is central to our efforts.

In recent months, for example, we addressed the issues in Myanmar and Ethiopia. Myanmar has been a focus of the UN Security Council since the coup in February. During discussions at the council, Ireland has highlighted concerns for the protection of human rights, the humanitarian situation and the rule of law, in line with our values. We are also active at the Human Rights Council and support the work of the UN Secretary General and his special envoy on Myanmar.

On Ethiopia, Ireland has been very proactive in encouraging the council to focus on this crisis. We initiated council discussions on the deeply concerning humanitarian situation in Tigray in February and March. We led negotiations on a press statement on Ethiopia, which was adopted by the council on 22 April. This was the first time the council spoke publicly on the situation there. The statement called for unfettered humanitarian access in Tigray and expressed deep concern about human rights violations and, in particular, sexual violence against women and girls. We have raised concerns about human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in a wide range of other contexts. We will continue to do so throughout the term on the council.

More broadly across the UN system, Ireland is a strong supporter of the work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who I have met on a number of occasions - in February and in March - at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We delivered more than 20 statements on thematic and country-specific human rights situations including Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Yemen, South Sudan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territory.

As I will be speaking immediately after this debate about the issue of Israel and Palestine, I will not cover that now. I am, however, very concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories and will speak about that in more detail. I am glad to be able to tell the House that I confirmed this evening that the UN Security Council will be discussing the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation in a closed session tomorrow.

10:15 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I ask that he utilise Ireland's position and his own to pursue the issues to which he has just referred in a way that makes it clear to the perpetrators that there is an end to all this, that there is retribution and that there will be justice for the victims in these cases. I did not refer to the antics of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the surrounding areas or the human rights abuses in China, but obviously we are well aware of them and the Minister himself referred to the latter. There are similar cases in other countries, some of which would claim to be democracies. Let us not forget the opposition leaders who are confined to prison as a result of speaking out. The erosion of democracy has continued in an alarming way, over the past 12 months in particular.

I know the Minister is committed to this issue but measures must be prioritised within the UN and the EU with a view to ensuring all such perpetrators recognise that, as and from now, there will be retribution and they will have to account for their activities. Previous similar perpetrators have ended up with long prison sentences from the courts in The Hague and there is this distinct possibility that they must go that route as well. That will soften their cough, as people used to say once upon a time, and focus their attention on the things they are doing now.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I hope it is clear from this question session that the protection of human rights is central to Irish foreign policy. The challenge, of course, is in being effective and not just saying the right things but actually being an agent for change in countries that are often a long way from here and from Europe. That is the real challenge. We must work out how to use Ireland's position within the European Union, the UN and the Security Council, as well as the bilateral relationships we have with both big and small countries, to advocate for and protect human rights for vulnerable populations, of which there are many. As a reminder of just how many vulnerable populations exist, there are currently 75 million displaced people living in refugee camps.

The last time Ireland was on the Security Council, it was looking at 12 or 13 files. There are now 30, so that number has increased almost threefold. The real challenge for me is finding a way to use the platforms, opportunities and relationships we have, and the influence we are lucky to have as a small but influential international country, to derive the most impact we can out of those opportunities to protect people. We have spoken a lot, and will speak even more, about how we can do that in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is in a very worrying place right now. I assure the Deputy that approach will continue to guide us on these issues.