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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Jan 2011

Vol. 727 No. 2

Other Questions

Foreign Conflicts

Joan Burton


6 Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the view that he and other Ministers of the European Union hold in relation to the recent loss of life at demonstrations of students and others protesting in Tunis and elsewhere in Tunisia. [2860/11]

I have been following recent events in Tunisia very closely, including the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January following widespread unrest due to popular discontent at extensive unemployment, corruption and repression. I condemn, in the strongest terms, the violent repression of the popular demonstrations which have taken place over the past month and I express the sympathy of the Irish people to the families and friends of the victims. I pay tribute to the courage of the Tunisian people and their peaceful struggle for their rights.

The situation in Tunisia continues to be highly volatile, although there have been some positive developments in recent days. While the overall security situation has improved compared to recent weeks, there are still incidents of serious protest and violence. I have had the occasion to contact a constituent living in a remote area of Tunisia and the tale being told is a terrifying one. An interim national unity government, including some opponents of the former President, such as Nejib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, who became Minister of Regional Development, was announced on 17 January by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi. The continued presence of members of the deposed President's RCD party, however, has resulted in a number of resignations from the new government, resignations from that party on the part of the Prime Minister and renewed protests on the streets.

The response from Ireland and its EU partners to the developments in Tunisia has been to urge the need for calm, restraint and dialogue and to make clear that the EU stands ready to assist Tunisia as it undergoes a transition to a stable democracy, with full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms. It is vital in this regard that free, fair and inclusive elections are held as soon as possible in Tunisia.

I strongly support the statement issued by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Štefan Füle on 17 January which reaffirms EU solidarity with Tunisia and its people. In this statement, the EU urges the Tunisian authorities to act responsibly, preserve peace, show restraint and avoid further violence and, in particular, further casualties. Ireland, together with its EU partners, condemns any actions aimed at further destabilising the security situation. There is a clear need for an indepth discussion by EU Foreign Affairs Ministers and this may be possible at the Foreign Affairs Council scheduled to take place on 31 January.

I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. Perhaps he will convey to former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, my appreciation of his courtesy and co-operation during the period of his Ministry.

On Tunisia, is it the view of the European Union that the French Government should freeze the assets of the Ben Ali family, including those of the wife of former President Ben Ali and his extended family given that it is reported that the entourage left with a tonne and a half of gold and that the Swiss Government has taken the unusual step of freezing the assets of the entourage as it arrived? Is that a view that would be mirrored in the European Union, in particular in the French jurisdiction where I believe the extended family may have significant assets?

I understand that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has sent a team to Tunis. Is the European Union liaising with the particular team given that that office has reported 100 people have been killed?

The situation is fluid. As the Deputy mentioned, some spectacular stories are being told in regard to the shocking habits of people associated with the outgoing regime and the movement of assets. There was no discussion of that specific issue at any of the meetings I attended. The recent decision by the Federal Supreme Court in Switzerland in relation to the movement of assets by the Duvalier family may well trigger a general discussion on the matter. Where countries are impoverished by the illegal movement of assets to European soil, any civilised European State should have a view on that which would prevent it happening. To date — I stand to be corrected — I have attended virtually all Foreign Affairs and European Council meetings and there has been no discussion on that matter.

There has not been indepth discussions on Tunisia but, undoubtedly, there will be when the matter turns up on the agenda on 31 January.

It is appropriate that the Minister of State mentions the Duvalier family because that family's assets are also in France. When Papa Doc junior fled Haiti loaded with the assets of the Haitian people there was a deep reluctance on the part of the French Government, given its particular form of colonial diplomacy, to freeze the assets of the Duvalier family. The Minister of State can, therefore, when asking questions about the assets of the in-laws of the former President of Tunisia, also ask what is left of the Duvalier fortune, which is banked in Paris.

It is important that the European Union, when speaking on these issues, does so with truth. There is a serious issue involved in respect of the French Government not only in respect of these two particular issues but relating to many other dictatorship families in Africa.

I do not disagree with anything the Deputy has said. The Deputy will be aware that I share his view on this matter. I hope to attend the meeting on 31 January at which I will reflect some of the concerns he has expressed.

I join with Deputy Higgins in wishing the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, every success in the future and thank him for his service.

I am struck by this issue of money belonging to ordinary people being stolen by dictators who are being given comfort in other countries. Any ordinary person wishing to open a bank account must answer questions on money laundering and supply a utility bill as proof of address. I am surprised that so-called civilised states are tolerating the movement into their vaults of vast sums of money and gold without any great difficulty.

I find this extraordinary. The Minister of State will be aware that the issues of Irish aid and allegations about Ethiopia were discussed yesterday at a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs. I agree with the Minister of State and Deputy Higgins that the EU must not alone condemn this but should put in place systems that will not allow this to happen in the European Union or any associate country with which we have a relationship. It is indefensible that ordinary people are being ripped off by dictators. These people cannot live in peace but must engage in an uprising at considerable loss of life in order to do so. As a civilised society, we must act against that situation.

I agree. As in the case of agreements we have with Central and South America, within which there are human rights elements, as discussed on an earlier question, it is imperative the banking system within Europe is not used in the manner in which it has been historically used, from the time of the Holocaust and previously. It is an affront to civilisation that people who have been deprived of their rights, as happened with the Jewish communities right across Europe who, 50 years after we discovered the horror in the camps, still have not had retribution from the so-called civilised banking communities. It is another one of those issues in respect of which I agree with the Deputy. I believe the matter should be discussed.

If this issue comes up for discussion on 31 January, I will be pleased to mention the point made by the Deputy.

Kathleen Lynch


7 Deputy Kathleen Lynch asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the assistance proposed at Irish and European level for those affected by the recent mudslides in Sri Lanka said to have caused more than 300,000 persons to have to flee their homes. [2886/11]

I will convey the Deputies' good wishes to Deputy Martin.

The floods which have ravaged eastern parts of Sri Lanka in recent days have caused widespread destruction and are thought to have affected nearly 1 million people. At least 40 people are known to have died while 300,000 have been forced from their homes.

The Government of Sri Lanka has estimated the total damage caused by the flooding and resultant mud slides at €375 million and there are serious concerns over the effects of the disaster on farming communities, with up to 30% of all arable land in the region thought to have been submerged.

The United Nations is expected to launch an appeal for Sri Lanka this week. To date, the European Commission has provided emergency funding of €2 million in humanitarian assistance to the flood victims. This aid will be channelled through a number of international aid agencies to provide emergency food assistance, water and sanitation, as well as basic relief items to those most in need. In addition, funding from the Red Cross disaster relief emergency fund, DREF, to which Ireland is a donor, has been made available to the Sri Lankan Red Cross to assist some of those most affected quickly and through experienced emergency workers on the ground. Funding through the DREF is one of the key lessons which we have implemented as a result of the Asian tsunami, which affected Sri Lanka. Ireland has provided €4 million to this fund since 2008. I assure the Deputy we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops in the coming days, especially in light of the possible UN funding call.

I welcome the Minister of State's reply, which is practical. At the time I tabled this question, almost 40 people had been reported dead. Food provision is important, given that only one fifth of the rice farms survived. There is not only an emergency in the context of the immediate homelessness caused by the flooding, but also in regard to food security in the short term.

We will monitor the situation. Since I have taken up this portfolio, it has never ceased to amaze me how some disasters, rightly, generate significant international publicity while shortly after similar disasters do not capture the imagination of the international media, even though they cause immense hardship. For example, during Cyclone Nargis in Burma, not far from Sri Lanka, 129,000 people died overnight in eight hours. That is one of the forgotten tragedies. I assure the Deputy that even though these are described as forgotten emergencies, Irish Aid continues to monitor them and we respond to funding calls. A needs assessment is often prepared a month or two later and submissions are prepared by Irish Aid for the Department. We respond to them to ensure relief is provided to those most in need, in particular, the Tamil minority community.

Brian O'Shea


8 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on preparations for elections in Nigeria in April 2011. [2870/11]

A raft of elections will be held over the next few months in Nigeria. The elections to the National Assembly will take place on 2 April, the residential elections are due to take place on 9 April 2011 and the gubernatorial and state legislature elections are due to take place on 16 April 2011. On 13 January 2011, the People's Democratic Party, Nigeria's largest political party and the party of the incumbent federal government, held its presidential primary. The incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan, was selected with a handsome 80% of the vote. Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, is responsible for organising the elections and its chairman, Professor Jega, has publicly and repeatedly committed to ensuring the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner. Over the past few months, INEC has been working to put in place logistical arrangements for the elections in April. There were delays in holding elections because of INEC's concerns.

The first major step to organising the elections is the compilation of a new register of voters. Voter registration commenced on Saturday, 15 January 2011 and will continue for two weeks. To reduce fraud it has been decided that the new register will contain biometric information, including fingerprints and photographs, for each registered voter. Accordingly, the compilation of this new register is a complex logistical challenge for INEC, comprising 132,000 brand new direct data capture machines operated by around 360,000 staff throughout the country. The voter registration process is being closely monitored by the media, Nigerian NGOs and the international community, including the Irish embassy in Abuja. While there have been initial reports of problems with voter registration, it is too early to pass judgment on the process. The EU intends to send an EU election observation mission to cover the elections, subject to an invitation from the Nigerian Government. It is expected that the first members of a mission will arrive by the end of February.

I wish the Nigerian people well and I hope the electoral process will advance democratic participation. The background to this is that Nigeria continues to produce more oil while it sinks in the league of UNDP countries. In other words, the people's welfare is worsening while more oil is produced. Is the EU concerned about the religious and ethnic clashes that have taken place in recent times in Nigerian cities? The composition of the choices in the electoral process is likely to exacerbate existing tensions.

I refer to the dispersal of the Union's electoral observation mission. Is it deployed to observe north-south and Islamic-Christian tensions?

I dealt with the issue of violence in Jos, Nigeria, on the Adjournment in the Seanad last night. There has been significant violence in that area and while it looks to be purely Christian-Muslim violence, it is more complex than that. It is not about religious leadership; there are complex issues relating to land ownership and property. There has been widescale violence, the causes of which are multifaceted. They are partly political, partly ethnic, partly religious and partly economic. The EU will try to disperse its election observation resource to ensure it has a full overview, which is what it has done in other cases.

The INEC is making real efforts. The head of the mission, for example, made it clear last year that he was not happy that the voter register they were using was sufficiently robust to have a free and fair election. That is why the election date was put back while the process of voter registration goes ahead. It is highly technical, given biometric details will be taken in a country as large and diverse as Nigeria. I wish the Nigerians well.

There is a large Nigerian community in Ireland. Do these people have a vote in the elections? If so, what arrangements are we making through the Nigerian embassy to facilitate the casting of votes? It is disturbing that the wrong outcome in an election in this country and other African countries could lead to an increased flow of refugees into Ireland. I often wonder whether proper steps are taken when refugees arrive here, what diplomatic steps are taken to investigate the reasons for this and what can be done to deal with the issues.

I am not sure what the provisions are for overseas voting in Nigerian law. I do not have that information.

Could the Minister of State have that checked?

Yes. A number of countries have such a process, although we do not. We are all deeply involved, including the EU, in the general issue of the violence that flows from the sense that flawed elections are a denial of democracy because there is no point in going with a process that is a facade for fraud. I get the impression from material I have read that the INEC is making real efforts.

With regard to international vote observers, the process is that they are invited by the Nigerian Government and they make independent assessments. I hope, as the Deputy has said, the election will go ahead, be free and fair and give the people the opportunity to choose.

I note that the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, is a student of WikiLeaks. Therefore, he will be interested to hear that one of the most interesting ones on Nigeria is a statement by Shell to the effect that "We have people in all the relevant Nigerian ministries." Given that the candidate for the Presidency that has been chosen by the lead party is in favour of the privatisation of the oil industry and that there have been discussions on its future, the embassies told Washington that they expect matters to be quiet until the elections started. Would the Minister of State agree that it is a matter for concern that the welfare of the Nigerian people might not be the automatic outcome of the election?

I share the hope with Deputy Higgins that the welfare of the Nigerian people and that alone will be the sole concern of the election.

Jack Wall


9 Deputy Jack Wall asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views and position regarding recent leaks (details supplied) that Shannon Airport had been used on at least three occasions by aircraft involved in extraordinary rendition of prisoners [2881/11]

It is not my practice to comment on matters contained in leaked documents which have no official standing. I have already made some comments on the documents in question.

I do not intend to delay the House on the matter. The Minister of State knows my views. There is a difference of opinion between the senior Minister and several Ministers on the failure of the Government to take the powers it had under the 1978 and 1987 air navigation Acts to achieve inspection.

In order to save time on a later question, I understand a Cabinet sub-committee was dealing with the issue. I understood the sub-committee was set up following a demand from the Green Party. Has it met and what did it achieve by way of bringing forward legislation that would have achieved inspection and amendment to either of the two air navigation Acts to which I referred?

The Deputy is correct that a Cabinet sub-committee was set up. It was set up in 2008 and dealt with some familiar aspects of international human rights law. It met on three occasions and was chaired by the Minister for Finance. The renewed programme for Government in October provided for a review, and a change if necessary, of the legislation affecting civilian aircraft in the context of the existing, ongoing work of the Cabinet sub-committee on human rights. It also provided for the strengthening, as is appropriate, of the powers of inspection of such aircraft which is the very issue to which Deputy Higgins has referred on several occasions and the collection of flight information. Events have rather caught up on that but it is a matter of ongoing concern.

The work of the sub-committee was suggested as an alternative to my own legislation, which I prepared and moved in Private Members' time on behalf of the Labour Party. I am disappointed that we are still left with the fact that it is very important that, first, we are seen to act within such powers as we have in the 1978 and 1987 Acts. When we returned a questionnaire to the Council of Europe we said that we had the legal capacity to do whatever was necessary to sustain the assurance that we had given. What we omitted to say in the questionnaire was that we were not in fact exercising all of the powers that we had under the legislation. Therefore, the second point relates to amending legislation which I suggested.

I agree with the Minister of State that given that more Ministers have left the Government than has left the Tunisian Cabinet the expectation that we would conclude on the matter is probably tenuous.

Deputy Higgins's connections are ingenious. The Garda Síochána has the power in law to carry out those extensions where there is reason to believe that an offence has been committed. That mechanism has not been triggered.

Middle East Peace Process

Brian O'Shea


10 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to a report produced by the Palestine section of Defence for Children International entitled Under Attack: Settler Violence against Palestinian Children in the Occupied Palestinian Territory which details incidents over the past number of years which have impacted on children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2869/11]

Emmet Stagg


16 Deputy Emmet Stagg asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the most recent reports he has from his officials in Israel; if his attention has been drawn to yet further illegal settler expansion in East Jerusalem; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2888/11]

Martin Ferris


44 Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if there have been any recent developments in attempts to secure an end to Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories; and if he will support a call for sanctions on Israel if they continue to ignore international demands for an end to settlements. [2907/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 16 and 44 together.

The questions cover a range of issues. Ireland and the European Union regard all Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal. The partial freeze on new settlement construction in 2010 was, nonetheless, an important element in creating the atmosphere to allow substantive political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to begin. The freeze expired on 26 September and, as I reported earlier in my reply to a Priority Question on the peace process, efforts to persuade Israel to reinstate it have failed. We have made clear our profound disappointment at the resumption of settlement building, as have many others.

Settlement expansion aims at changing the demographic balance on the ground, and creating facts which will dictate the shape of any future peace agreement, which is simply not acceptable. It also involves the progressive expropriation of Palestinian lands, expulsion of families, and destruction of their homes. Again, all of those actions are unacceptable. Since the partial moratorium ended, settlers have pushed ahead with new house starts or foundations for new building. That again, is unacceptable. At the same time, there have been a number of announcements of construction permits, building plans and other planning stages, particularly in the area of East Jerusalem. I am kept informed of these by reports from our own missions on the ground and from other sources. These announcements are part of the ongoing and relentless process of settlement expansion, the details and stages of which are kept deliberately opaque and unclear, including, many observers believe, to public opinion in Israel.

These developments inflame Palestinian public opinion, which is hardly surprising, and destroy public support for their leaders to engage in serious negotiations with Israel. They increase support for the people who would have a different view. It must be a matter of the greatest concern that the Israeli Government does not recognise that, or accord it sufficient importance. I would appeal to all sides, particularly the Government of Israel, to recognise that the greatest possible restraint should be the highest priority at this time. The European Union restated its views on settlements, and the importance of this issue, in the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council in December 2010.

The related issue of settler violence is an important and shocking one, to which Ireland has drawn attention at EU level and elsewhere. The majority of individual settlers, it should be stressed, are mostly driven by purely economic motives, namely, direct incentives from the Israeli Government or conservative charities to encourage them to live in settlements. But there is a substantial fringe of ideologically committed settlers who are consistently aggressive both in terms of occupying land and of direct violence against Palestinians in their neighbourhood. At the same time, Israelis living in and travelling to illegal settlements in the Palestinian Territories fear that they themselves are being put at risk because of the exacerbated sense of tension all of that activity creates.

I am deeply concerned about the specific allegations of violence against Palestinian children contained in the report by Defence for Children International, DCI. DCI Palestine has documented 38 incidents of settler violence towards children in the period from March 2008 to July 2010, including six very disturbing cases where settlers reportedly shot and wounded children, some as young as 15. That is simply not acceptable.

The allegation of Israeli military collusion in some of these attacks is a matter of grave concern. Israel has a legal obligation under international law to protect Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories. This report and reports from other NGOs suggest there is instead a culture of impunity, with the authorities failing to hold settlers accountable for their actions under Israeli law. That is deeply regrettable. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organisation funded by Irish Aid, estimates that only 10% of Palestinian complaints to the police about settler violence result in a prosecution, and a number of these prosecutions have publicly failed to proceed. That creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety among the Palestinian community. It is imperative on Israel to take steps to ensure that all civilians under its jurisdiction, whether Israeli or Palestinian, are held accountable for their actions to the same standard in the appropriate courts.

The Government has argued strongly at EU level for a firmer approach to settlements and settler violence. We would support, for instance, discussing the possibility of excluding settlement produce from the European Union, although it is clear that this would not yet command general support in the EU. As successive Ministers have made clear, however, I do not believe in a policy of general sanctions against Israel, which would be both futile and counterproductive. It is clear and obvious to me and other Members that every effort must be made to stop this behaviour, which exacerbates an already difficult situation and which makes the cause of peace more difficult to achieve.

Given the number of questions involved I am grateful for the Minister of State's comprehensive reply. I take the opportunity to formally convey on behalf of all Members, especially those of us who have frequently visited Israel, Gaza and the occupied territories, our best wishes to John Ging in his new role in the United Nations. He has been one of the most distinguished people representing Ireland abroad under great pressure.

The reason I referred specifically to children in the first question is based on a report given to me to the effect that Palestinian children are more traumatised by the humiliation of their parents than by the death of a parent. The case upon which the Minister of State has, rightfully, based his reply, for which I am glad, involves the defence of Children International, which is represented in 40 countries and has a record of 30 years in Palestine. Let us consider it in terms of the rule of law. There are some 500,000 settlers in 200 settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The circumstances in east Jerusalem have changed since the position described by the Minister of State. There have been 84 house demolitions and 24 evictions which have dislodged 407 children. Other houses have been given demolition orders and in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah some 1,500 children are at risk of displacement. Would the Minister of State agree that it is time to call on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to address the issue of the impact on children of settler activity, in terms of the deaths that have already taken place, the risk to life and the displacement and disruption of family life?

There are several aspects to the issue of children. Most of us accept that violence against children, from whatever source, is simply unacceptable.

I have condemned the rocket attacks on children in Gaza and Border communities.

I do not suggest the Deputy has done anything otherwise He has been altogether even-handed in this regard. As I stated at the end of my last contribution, the cause of peace is not served by violence, regardless of its source. The Deputy will be aware of an additional point. Issues relating to criminality or criminal responsibility arise with regard to the manner in which children from Palestinian and Israeli backgrounds are treated. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires an even-handed approach, which is not the case at present. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that Israel rescind the provisions on military orders which discriminate in respect of the definition of a child. The definition of a child is central to the action taken, especially——

Will the Minister of State bring this to the notice of the Secretary General and arrange a visit?

Yes. The making of a Palestinian child criminally responsible at the age of 16 years is simply unacceptable when an Israeli child is deemed not to be criminally responsible until he or she is 18 years. This is clearly discriminatory and a breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I urge the Israeli authorities to accept immediately the recommendation made. I am also concerned about other issues affecting the treatment of Palestinians, such as arrests in the middle of the night and detention without access to families. There is something horrific about young teenagers being arrested and the humiliation of children in detention.

I am aware of the point made by the Deputy about the trauma children suffer when they see their parents mistreated. As a parent, I do not understand it. How can one understand it? It pains me. I hold no negative views about Israel and I have no negative personal views about the Israeli people; quite the opposite is the case. However, I believe for a people with a tradition of great humanity and which has made such a contribution to humanity it is a tragedy that the tradition is denied by these actions. I enjoin the Deputy in respect of all the points he has made. The peace talks must be brought forward. We must all recognise the need for a two-state solution and people must learn to live in peace with each other, which was the case for many centuries until the 19th century interventions.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.