Seanad debates

Monday, 15 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Human Rights

10:30 am

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to chair the proceedings. I call Senator Byrne who has two minutes.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. I welcome him to the Chair. I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. I agree with his comments on the previous Commencement matter recognising the role of the ISSU. I also agree with the comments of Senator Fitzpatrick.

I am jointly raising an issue with Senator Ward because, as legislators in a democracy, we should stand up for legislators in other democracies when they are faced with unfair threats. I wish the Minister of State a happy Chinese new year and want to stress that in bringing forward this joint Commencement matter, we want to see greater trade, cultural and educational links with China. However, we have serious concerns about the aggressive and repressive manner in which the Chinese Communist Party is currently expressing its economic and political ambition. We have talked in this House previously about the Uyghur people, Tibet, the Falun Gong and other minorities.

What we are seeing in Hong Kong is a suppression of the protests. However, the introduction of the national security law is a very draconian measure that completely undermines the rule of law that we would expect to see in any democracy. It engages in media censorship and does not allow dissenting views. It represents a major threat to democratic principles. We have seen the arrest and imprisonment of legislators, business people, journalists and of university and school students. Many of them are either living in fear in Hong Kong or are forced to seek exile.

I ask the Minister of State for a clear statement on this. I ask also that the Government adopts a welcoming approach to those who, for a variety of reasons, may have to come here to seek asylum and who may require visas and that it takes the issue up with the Chinese Ambassador.

Barry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach as ucht a bheith sa Chathaoir inniu. I echo what Senator Byrne said. It is very important that we differentiate between the people of China and the Government of China.

What has been outlined in the matter is, in many ways, anathema to us in Ireland. We benefit from a very democratic society, one where people have free speech, the right to raise issues and to criticise their Government. They certainly avail of that opportunity as they should. When we look to China, and to Hong Kong in recent times, people simply do not have that opportunity. They are suppressed, oppressed and prevented from exercising their democratic rights and their right to free speech. This is a major problem.

This is not being done by Chinese people but by their Government which does not necessarily act in their name the way our Government acts in ours. However, as we look at this situation now, Ireland is in a unique position, diplomatically and internationally, both as a member of the Security Council and as a State that does not directly compete with China in terms of military issues or industry. We are not a threat to China. There is an opportunity for the Minister of State and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, and for other members of the Government to speak to China at a certain level and as friends, but also to be very clear about what cannot be tolerated on the international stage.

If China wants to continue to be part of the international community, it must respect the norms of human rights and democracy that it claims to have but simply does not exercise on a day-to-day basis. That is a message that we need to send very clearly as a country and as a Government to the Chinese Government and particularly the authorities in Hong Kong as regards the manner in which they approach their own citizenry and the rights of those citizens. Like Senator Byrne, I would like a very clear statement from the Government that we cannot accept this, we do not accept this and we will not stand by.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí a chur an t-ábhar seo faoinár mbráid ar maidin. Ireland has very long-standing connections with Hong Kong and a strong Irish community there. The Department of Foreign Affairs has been closely monitoring political developments, in particular the implementation of the national security law adopted in June of last year.These measures have led to the detention of a number of pro-democracy and human rights activists over the past few months. We are particularly concerned following the mass arrest of 55 pro-democracy law makers and activists on 6 January this year. These charges were made in relation to the holding of primary elections to select pro-democracy candidates for the next legislative council elections.

In response, the EU made a statement on 7 January calling for the immediate release of those arrested and urged the authorities to respect Hong Kong's rule of law, human rights, democratic principles and its high degree of autonomy under the one country two systems principle, as enshrined in the Hong Kong basic law and in line with domestic and international obligations. All but three of those detained have since been released.

Ireland and the EU have been active in raising concerns about the law and have issued a number of statements which outlined our concern regarding the situation. We call on China to respect its international commitments and the high degree of autonomy granted to Hong Kong under the one country, two systems principle. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, made a statement on 1 July last year to express concern at the adoption of the law and to reiterate Ireland's full support for fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, such as freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly.

On 28 July, the EU adopted Council conclusions expressing grave concern over the national security legislation for Hong Kong. These conclusions restated the EU's support for Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. We expressed our solidarity with the people of Hong Kong and set out a package of measures in various fields, including asylum, migration, visa and residence policy, controls on the exports of specific sensitive equipment and technologies for end-use in Hong Kong, the operation of member states' extradition arrangements and other relevant agreements with Hong Kong.

In line with these conclusions, the Government agreed, on 13 October 2020, to suspend Ireland's extradition agreement with Hong Kong. This decision, taken in concert with a number of other EU member states, clearly signalled Ireland's concern for the rule of law in Hong Kong. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, also raised his concerns for Hong Kong directly with the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland. The EU continues to raise its concern with the Chinese authority, particularly at the most recent EU-China summit and the EU-China leaders' meeting.

Through our consulate general in Hong Kong, our embassy in Beijing and our EU partners, the Government will continue to monitor and assess the situation and will respond to these developments appropriately.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am aware the Government and the EU are raising continuous concerns, but this is something we will have to take very seriously. It is about a democracy being repressed. If the current policy continues, people may flee to Ireland. I ask that consideration be given to granting them the right to remain here, if they have to do so for political reasons. I ask the Minister of State to comment on this is in his response.

Barry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Go raibh maith agat as ucht an ráitis shoiléir sin. It is very important we make that statement which I hope will be followed by actions. As Senator Byrne, I hope we take concrete actions to send the message to the authorities in Hong Kong that we will not stand by and will take actions, such as those the Minister of State mentioned in his reply, to address the issues raised.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators for their comments. Ireland and the EU are deeply concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and the implementation of national security legislation. Given our engagement with the region and our responsibility to our citizens there, it is correct that we do so. We continue to raise these concerns directly and consistently when engaging with Chinese and Hong Kong authorities, bilaterally and in multilateral fora. The protection of the one country, two systems principle in Hong Kong, as well as the fundamental freedoms granted under Hong Kong's basic law, are of the utmost importance to Ireland and the EU.

The adoption of EU Council conclusions on Hong Kong and the accompanying package of response measures highlight how seriously we are taking this situation. The suspension of our extradition treaty with Hong Kong shows the Government is willing to take action in response to the adoption of this law. We will continue to engage on the matter through continued implementation of agreed EU response measures, further measures that may be agreed and continued engagement with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.