Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 January 2016

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Dara Murphy.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. In putting this Commencement matter to the Minister I wish to emphasise, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has acknowledged this, the terrible persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa by Boko Haram, Daesh and various other bodies. There is a growing awareness that this is a systematic killing of minorities such as Yazidis and Christians, and Coptic Christians in the case of Libya. There is a need for the international community to do more than it is doing at present. Rhetoric is fine, but it must be backed by more concrete action which will hopefully, in the first instance, make the perpetrators of these atrocities begin to think that they will be held accountable. Many politicians in the US and Britain have been calling for this to be recognised for what it is, genocide.

The Minister of State might be aware that shortly before Christmas a group of 75 British politicians sent a letter to the Prime Minister to express their concern about the genocide being perpetrated by Daesh against various communities, including Iraqi and Syrian Christians, Yazidis and other vulnerable groups. They pointed out that there is clear evidence that genocide is occurring, including the assassination of church leaders which we have seen, mass murders, torture, kidnapping for ransom in the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, sexual enslavement, which is very common, the systematic rape of Christian girls and women, forcible conversion to Islam, destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries and Christian artifacts, and the theft of lands and wealth from Christian clergy and laity. Daesh has made statements taking credit for the mass murder of Christians, so it is not as if these things are happening unknown to the world. Daesh has put these statements on the media.

One incident is an example of what is happening. Last December, Daesh tortured a young child along with two other Christians and crucified them to death. In an attempt to force the child's father to convert to Islam from Christianity the boy's fingertips were cut off. The bodies were left hanging on crosses for two days under signs reading "infidels". That is a clear indication that what is happening is tantamount to genocide. Genocide as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide makes it clear that genocide is not simply random killing of individuals but the systematic killing or serious harming of people because they are part of a recognisable group, which may be national, ethnic, racial or religious. The convention identifies it as acts committed with the intent to destroy the group in whole or in part.

The purpose of this Commencement matter is to call on the Minister and the Government to use all the influence at their disposal, at both the United Nations and the European Union, to obtain an agreement that the word "genocide" be used. That will have two main benefits. It will send a clear message to those who are organising and undertaking the slaughter that at some point in the future they will be held accountable for their actions by the international community and that they will be caught, tried and punished. It will also act as an incentive and encouragement to the other 127 nations that are signatories to the convention to face up to their duty of responsibility in this regard. It would be a sad reflection on Europe, which has a strong Judeo-Christian tradition, if it fails when our Christrian brethren are being slaughtered to such an extent across the Middle East and parts of north Africa. The time has come for governments and Ministers to step up on this issue. I hope that ideological groups within the public service in the EU and the United Nations will not thwart this because of their antipathy to some Christian religions. It would be a sad day if that happened.

This is an appalling episode in our midst. I hope the Minister will give a strong reply and that the Government will deny some of the reports that this Government is reluctant to classify it as genocide.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Walsh for his concern and the efforts he has made consistently to highlight the plight of the Christian minority in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.The Government is in no doubt that Christian communities in many parts of the Middle East, especially in areas facing the rise of extremist groups such as Daesh, have been the victims, as the Senator said, of appalling crimes, including murder, sexual violence, enslavement and forced conversions. The Government has repeatedly condemned crimes that have been committed against many religious minority communities, including Christians.

Ireland, in conjunction with 57 other states, sponsored a resolution calling for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court in 2014, as I am sure the Deputy is aware. Unfortunately, the resolution was vetoed by two permanent members of the Security Council, namely, China and Russia.

Ireland has provided over €43 million in recent years in humanitarian support for the victims of the Syrian and Iraqi crises and will make a further significant contribution at the forthcoming London conference on the Syrian crisis, which takes place in two weeks' time. We have also accepted over 200 refugees from the Syrian conflict through our resettlement programme and, together with the UN, have also volunteered to take in, as the Senator will be aware, a further 4,000.

In line with international law on refugees, we do not discriminate between refugees on the basis of their ethnicity or religion. Furthermore, we do not believe that the solution to persecution is to remove Christian communities from the Middle East, as this would effectively mark the destruction of Christian heritage at the very place of its birth. The only means of securing the protection of Christian communities and other minorities across the Middle East is through the promotion of sustainable political solutions to the conflicts which have for so long destabilised the region and have been the key factor in the promotion of radical and extremist ideologies. Ireland has been a key supporter of the UN's efforts to achieve an end to the conflict in Syria and Libya and for a unified Iraq free from the threat of Daesh crimes.

The Government has no doubt that horrific atrocities amounting to grave war crimes have been committed in the Middle East, including those, as the Senator noted, that have deliberately targeted Christian communities. The crime of genocide is, however, specific and unique. In order to not to undermine the status of this crime nor weaken its definitional elements, very careful consideration is required before making a determination that genocide has been committed. This should include an assessment of the evidence supporting such claims. Ireland fully endorses the views of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that, subject to a determination by an independent and competent court, ISIS may have committed war crimes against humanity and genocide.

I note that the largest number of victims of jihadist terrorists and terrorism attacks have, in fact, been Muslims whom Daesh and other terrorist groups have murdered for their lack of religious observance, their homosexuality or their commission of petty crimes. As the Senator is aware, Ireland's capacity to obtain direct information from the areas in which the crimes are taking place is limited. It is considered appropriate, therefore, that the matter is properly investigated by an independent and competent court or tribunal. It is a determination resulting from such an investigatory and adjudicative process that is likely to assist in bringing these crimes to an end. It is for this reason that Ireland has, for example, called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, the role of which in respect of the investigation and the prosecution of international crimes we have consistently supported.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his fairly comprehensive reply. He dealt with the issue of genocide which, as he went on, I thought he would not. We need to be careful. There are radical ideological groups within the UN, in particular. It is not an organisation that is as kosher as it would like to pretend. If our blood brothers and sisters were being taken, raped, forced to convert and forced into sexual slavery and if elderly people were being killed, we would cry out to the high heavens about it. These people are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, our concern should be equally strong.

There is evidence for genocide in all of the reports that have been published. The killing of Coptic Christians in Libya and what has happened in Syria has been put on video. It is pretty clear that there is an attempt to wipe out the Christian community. I have views about whether we should be selective about immigrants but that is a separate issue.

I agree with the Minister of State. It is important that we not do not denude the Middle East of its Christian community. The Patriarch of Antioch has made a statement in that regard and has appealed to Christians to remain there. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that the Government takes a much stronger position than it has done in this regard and to press for the latter to be defined. Most objective people would agree that what has happened is tantamount to genocide. The definition may have to be met but it should not be allowed to be blocked by one or two countries.

Photo of Dara MurphyDara Murphy (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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As I have said, the Government believes the UN and the Security Council, in particular, have not fulfilled their obligations to uphold the UN charter or international law in Syria to date. Genocide is defined under international law as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, radical or religious group, as the Senator said. However, proving the crime of genocide requires a comprehensive investigation of the evidence and having that established by a competent international court. We, along with other members, have been strong on this, and we believe that, ultimately, this proof from a competent court will provide what we all want to see, namely, an end to the terrible violence, not just against Christians but also against Muslims and others as well.