Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Human Rights

10:30 am

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I want to raise Ireland's relationship with Hong Kong and, in particular, the continued crackdown by the Chinese communist party not just of journalists, politicians, pro-democracy activists and students but anybody who seeks to question it in any way in the special autonomous region of Hong Kong.

In recent years, because of the introduction of the national security law, we have seen increased crackdowns against any of those who dare to question Beijing's authority. We have seen the use of mass trials and the denial of due process. It is fair to say that there is no belief that many of those who come before the courts now in Hong Kong will receive a fair trial.

On 10 August 2020, Jimmy Lai was arrested for the first time. He was a businessman. He tells his own story. He came from a relatively humble and poor background and became a very successful businessman. He ultimately set up and founded the popular newspaper there, Apple Daily, as well as supporting the pro-democracy movement within Hong Kong. He has now been detained, effectively, for 1,000 days. His trial is due to start on 18 December. The United States Government, the European Parliament and UN human rights experts have all called for Jimmy Lai's unconditional release. Recently, ten Catholic bishops and archbishops from around the world, including the Bishop of Raphoe, raised the question of Jimmy Lai's continued detention without trial. I believe it is time for the Government to make a statement that we too believe that Jimmy Lai should be released unconditionally. We should support, as we have always done, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. His son, Sebastian, came to Leinster House not so long ago and his story was very powerful. He spoke about the personal impact that it has had on him and on his family seeing his father jailed. He is determined to continue to raise this case.

We know that Jimmy Lai is not the only one. Students are also affected. Only recently a student who during the 2019 pro-democracy marches was shot by police has been sentenced to 47 months imprisonment for rioting. My concern is with the national security law, which is obviously being targeted against Hong Kong's citizens. Recently a student, who is based in Japan, returned home to Hong Kong and was jailed for two months for sedition. The reason is that between 2018 and 2023 she posted 18 pro-democracy social media posts, of which only two were posted in Hong Kong. Our concern about the national security law is that it is extraterritorial. We must bear in mind that we have a significant number of students in particular from Hong Kong based in Ireland and we must have concern for them.

I hope the Minister of State will set out in the strongest possible terms our concern about the lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong and that he will join with so many others in calling for the unconditional release of Jimmy Lai.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Department of Foreign Affairs, including through the consul general in Hong Kong, has been following Jimmy Lai's situation closely, including his forthcoming trial on charges relating, as the Senator has referred to, the national security law. This trial is scheduled to begin on 18 December, although I understand from the Department that there may be a further delay to proceedings. Mr. Lai and a number of his colleagues at Apple Newshave been detained since 2021. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs have had contact with Mr. Lai's legal team in this period. They are also closely following other cases, both media and non-media related, in Hong Kong, including the Stand Newscase, where verdicts are scheduled to be delivered in the coming weeks and the trial of the Hong Kong 47, HK47, which began earlier this year.

We remain seriously concerned by the impact of the national security law on fundamental freedoms and by the decline in democratic values, media freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong since its introduction. lreland and our EU partners have consistently expressed grave concern about the effects of the national security law, including in the form of the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions in July 2020. In a further signal of Ireland's concern the Government took the decision to suspend the extradition treaty with Hong Kong in October 2020.

Ireland has also consistently raised its concerns in relation to developments in Hong Kong directly with the authorities in Beijing and in Hong Kong itself. On 7 November, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs met with foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Beijing and set out lreland's long-standing position on human rights. This included our specific concerns around fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong as well as other broader human rights issues including in relation to Xinjiang.

As a newly re-elected member to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Ireland calls on China to respect fundamental freedoms and international law, including when it comes to preventing the erosion of the rights and freedoms in Hong Kong guaranteed by the one country, two systems principle.

Ireland has also voiced its concerns on many occasions in multilateral fora. Most recently, we reiterated our concern about the impacts of the national security law on fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong as part of our item 4 statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.

Ireland cosponsored an event in the margins of the Human Rights Council in September to discuss the situation of Mr. Lai and the broader situation in Hong Kong. In February 2022, as a member of the Media Freedom Coalition, Ireland joined a statement calling on the Chinese authorities to respect freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Ireland will continue to monitor the situation with regard to Mr. Lai's case, media freedom, and fundamental freedoms more broadly in Hong Kong.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I am very grateful both for his statement on this matter and, indeed, the strong stance of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs on human rights and continuing to raise it and making sure that Ireland's voice is heard in the case of Jimmy Lai and so many others who are being unlawfully detained. That is critical.

We must also bear in mind that more than 5,000 Irish citizens are currently estimated to be in Hong Kong. They could be subject to the requirements of the national security law. As we are increasingly seeing, even the simple act of liking particular social media posts may be viewed as seditious, something that we take for granted in Ireland in liking posts or protesting. In those circumstances it is deeply concerning that people are being hauled before the courts and imprisoned.

I welcome the statement made by the Minister of State here. I also welcome the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs is monitoring this case. I hope the Government will continue to call out the unjust imprisonment of Jimmy Lai and so many others.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I will convey the Senator's acknowledgement of that to the Tánaiste. As he will be aware, the protection and promotion of human rights is at the heart of Ireland's foreign policy. That is why we raise human rights with all of our partners. We believe strongly in addressing these issues in a transparent, open, and frank manner. This was the Tánaiste's approach during his meeting last week with China's foreign minister. At that meeting, the Tánaiste also re-emphasised Ireland's long-held view that all human rights issues of concern should be comprehensively discussed and examined at the UN Human Rights Council, and within the wider UN human rights architecture.Mr. Lai's case and other ongoing prosecutions of media workers and others in Hong Kong remain a concern. I add that maybe we should not take media freedom for granted in this country either. We will continue with our EU and like-minded partners to seek every appropriate opportunity to highlight these cases in multilateral forums and raise recurring concerns directly with the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.