Agreement with Kazakhstan: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the terms of the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and its Member States, of the one part, and the Republic of Kazakhstan, of the other part, signed at Astana on 21st December, 2015, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 6th July, 2018.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the motion proposed by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It was considered by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade on 23 October. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, very much appreciated the discussion with the members of the committee on this important motion. The enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement will provide a framework for strengthening the bilateral relationship between the European Union and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has already ratified the agreement, as have 23 EU member states. The European Parliament gave its approval in December 2017. Some parts of the agreement where the European Union has exclusive competence are being applied on a provisional basis, pending ratification by all parties.

While it is important in a political and economic context, we must not forget that respect for democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms are an essential element of the agreement. As mentioned during the discussion with the select committee, the situation as regards human rights in Kazakhstan is challenging. While progress has been made on reform, including in the criminal justice and administrative sectors, it is clear that more must be done. The structured engagement for which the agreement provides will allow Ireland and the European Union greater scope to encourage progress on human rights and good governance. Ireland, together with the European Union and fellow member states, continues to encourage reform within Kazakhstan, particularly in the areas of the rule of law, freedom of expression or belief, and human rights. We are in a better position to influence change within the framework of the agreement where we can engage constructively on these matters. Surely it is better to see incremental progress over a long period on the basis of engagement, rather than end up with restricted engagement where we have no influence. The European Union and Kazakhstan have an annual dialogue in the area of human rights and the next dialogue is due to take place later this month. Although the agreement is of unlimited duration, if any party is in breach of its obligations in respect of human rights, appropriate measures can be taken in response, up to and including termination. It is important to point that out.

But they will not be.

The agreement is the first of its kind to be concluded between the European Union and the former Soviet states of central Asia. It is a clear acknowledgement that Kazakhstan is a priority country within the European Union's central Asia strategy. The agreement also forms part of Kazakhstan's multi-vector foreign policy which is intended to diversify Kazakhstan's political and economic relationships outside its traditional partners. The European Union is Kazakhstan's largest trading partner and also the largest originator of foreign direct investment into the country. The agreement provides an opportunity for the European Union to deepen co-operation across a range of sectors, including co-operation in trade and investment, justice and legal co-operation, economic and sustainable development and an enhanced regulatory framework for businesses. As was mentioned during the select committee's discussion with the Minister of State, the agreement is mutually beneficial to the European Union and Kazakhstan.

The agreement will also provide a basis for Ireland to deepen co-operation with Kazakhstan. As a small country on the western edge of the European Union, we must continue to seek to develop our profile and reputation in countries where we are still a somewhat unknown quantity. Although our bilateral trade is small, there are opportunities in agriculture and education, in particular. Strengthening our bilateral relationship with countries such as Kazakhstan is all the more important in view of the political and commercial realities the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union will undoubtedly effect.

The agreement will provide an opportunity for closer co-operation between the European Union and Kazakhstan on a political and economic level and, importantly, continue to provide a platform for the Union to raise human rights issues with Kazakhstan. That will, accordingly, create opportunities for Ireland to forge stronger political and economic relations with Kazakhstan, whereby we can also continue to raise these issues, as we will always do. I hope Dáil Éireann will support the motion in order that Ireland can proceed to ratify the agreement in the near future.

I thank the Minister of State for his remarks on the motion and explaining the Government's position on the matter. Fianna Fáil supports the motion and approves the terms of the enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Kazakhstan. As a party, we recognise the need to enhance engagement and build partnerships with central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, central Asia's largest economy, is an upper middle income country which is aiming to join the world's 30 most developed countries by 2050. It acquired WTO membership in 2015 and the agreement will further strengthen its integration in global trade and the global economy. Its rapid economic growth, coupled with reforms in areas such as education and health, have paved the way for notable improvements in the social position, advancing the country to the high human development level. Kazakhs now enjoy a healthier and longer life, with less poverty and inequality. Kazakhstan's human development index, HDI, value for 2017 was 0.800, which puts the country in the very high human development category, positioning it at 58 out of 189 countries and territories. Between 1990 and 2017, its HDI value increased from 0.690 to 0.800, an increase of 16%. In the same period life expectancy at birth increased by 3.2 years, mean years of schooling increased by 3.7 years and expected years of schooling by 2.7 years. Kazakhstan's GNI per capita increased by approximately 64.7% between 1990 and 2017.

Kazakhstan has increasingly integrated into the world trading system. For the European Union, Kazakhstan is important both in its own right as the largest and wealthiest country in the strategic central Asian region and also as a transit country on trade routes between Asia and Europe.

In addition, Kazakhstan is increasingly becoming an important player on the world stage. It is a member of the European security council for 2017 and 2018 and has acted as a mediator in hosting Syrian peace talks.

I welcome the economic and social changes taking place in Kazakhstan, but I am mindful of its poor human rights record. Fianna Fáil believes enhanced partnership and co-operation between the European Union and Kazakhstan must be achieved in tandem with efforts to improve democracy and human rights. Economic interests cannot be advanced to the detriment of all else and it is essential that human rights are given the same degree of importance. The European Union must carefully monitor this agreement to ensure actions will follow words and that commitments made in it to co-operate with civil society, as well as to respect human rights and the rule of law, will be upheld. Kazakhstan has problems related to the torture and rights of detainees. There is a broad prohibition on the right to strike, while women continue to face distinct economic hardship and employment discrimination. There is a lack of female representation in public life and decision-making bodies, in spite of a 30% quota being legally required in political institutions. NGO registration is compulsory and authorities enjoy wide discretion to close down groups for apparent violations of law. It is incumbent, therefore, on the European Parliament to monitor developments in Kazakhstan to ensure progress will be made not only on the economic front but also in the area of democracy and human rights. While supporting the agreement Ireland should not be silent when it comes to concerns about human rights. It must use its influence at EU level to advocate for the strengthening of human rights and civil society in Kazakhstan. Fianna Fáil will support the motion, but I hope the Minister of State will take on board the comments I have made.

It will come as no surprise to learn that we will not be supporting the agreement. The enhanced partnership agreement seeks to increase co-operation between the European Union and Kazakhstan in 29 areas, including economic and financial co-operation, energy, transport, the environment and climate change. While we welcome co-operation in some of these areas, others are problematic. Thus, Sinn Féin opposes the agreement.

The agreement calls for the European Union to create an enhanced partnership with Kazakhstan, but it does not take a strong stance on human rights in Kazakhstan, one of the least free countries in the world which Nazarbayev's regime has ruled with an iron fist since independence in 1990. No elections held since have been judged to have been free or fair. It is wholly inappropriate for the European Union to increase co-operation with any country with such severe human rights issues. More than 140 participants in the peaceful protests held on 10 May and 23 June have been persecuted for executing their right to peacefully demand that the political oppression and torture be stopped and advocating for free education. On 7 October Kazakhstani human rights defender Elena Semenova was banned from leaving the country to participate in meetings with members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In recent years the European Union financed a €5.5 million project aimed at enhancing the criminal justice system in Kazakhstan and co-financed the programme to support the Kazakh authorities in improving the quality and efficiency of the justice system, yet, according to the reports of human rights organisations and independent international watchdogs, the officially presented outcomes are imaginary and do not correspond to reality. The European Union should withhold financial support from Kazakhstan, unless it makes genuine progress in protecting human rights, rather than implementing any new co-operation agreement. Kazakhstan is ranked as one of the least free countries in the world.

The European Union's insistence on liberalising trade with as many countries as possible will have negative consequences for ordinary people in Europe and throughout the world. The problem with the agreement is that we know from experience the human rights mechanisms will never be enforced or triggered. It amounts to carte blanche for the regime to carry on its suppression and oppression. One need only look at the European Union's free trade agreements with Colombia and Israel to see this. Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. Hundreds of community leaders have been murdered there with impunity this year. Sinn Féin opposed the EU-Colombia free trade agreement. The Government repeatedly told us that it would be a step forward in protecting human rights, but all we have seen is a major regression. None of the human rights mechanisms in the agreement has been triggered.

Israel has implemented an apartheid regime and commits war crimes with impunity. The EU-Israel association agreement has a human rights mechanism, but even in the face of the most serious human rights and international law violations, it has never been triggered. The European Union failed to suspend the agreement when Israel murdered 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza in the space of three weeks in December 2008 and January 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. Again, there was no suspension when it murdered over 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza in the space of seven weeks in July and August 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. The European Union has never moved to suspend the agreement while Israel maintains an illegal and mediaeval siege of Gaza and continues to build illegal colonial settlements on the West Bank. If the European Union will not abide by the human rights mechanisms in the face of these war crimes, when will it ever do so? That is the question.

The Minister of State, Deputy Breen, has referred to the influence Ireland will have. What influence has it used against the daily slaughter of Palestinians? There are no answers. In fact, my colleague, an Teachta Ó Snodaigh, raised this issue with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee. He asked for one example of an EU co-operation or trade agreement that had been suspended because of the issue of human rights. The Minister of State was unable to name one. I cannot think of one either. Despite these agreements including clauses on human rights, they are never enforced or acted on. They are simply used as cover and it will be no different in this case. Therefore, Sinn Féin cannot and will not support the agreement and will be voting against it.

This agreement and the fact that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support it tell us everything we need to know about the truth of European Union trade policy. It is only words and empty rhetoric when it comes to human rights. In its actions the European Union is concerned about profits for big EU companies. It is concerned about market access and willing to dress it up in whatever language it takes. That is, ultimately, all that it cares about.

The agreement is being and will be used by the Nazarbayev regime to portray itself as improving, increasing democracy, moving westward, etc. These are exactly the talking points the Government features in its speeches. That is exactly the line used by the regime. Those responsible refer to it as being better to see incremental progress over a long period on the basis of engagement, rather than ending up with restricted engagement. That is merely an excuse from the point of view of the European Union. There is no evidence whatsoever that engaging in such trade deals promotes democracy, assists the work of civil society organisations or creates freer space for trade unionists or those who are attempting to organise in countries such as Kazakhstan. Instead, it has the effect of bolstering regimes, but the European Union simply does not care about it.

The regime in Kazakhstan is utterly horrific. I have first-hand experience of it. I visited Kazakhstan as a Member of the European Parliament in 2011. I spent several days there. During my visit I met human rights activists and trade unionists throughout the country. I spent several days across the Mangystau region in the west of Kazakhstan where a major strike of oil workers was taking place. It was an illegal strike. They were operating outside the framework of the official trade union movement because that movement is completely state-controlled. It is an independent movement of tens of thousands of workers.

After I came home I discussed the matter with the workers again. There is an active socialist movement in Kazakhstan and there are members of the sister party of the Socialist Party in Kazakhstan.

We discussed organising a protest on Kazakhstan independence day in December 2011 in Zhanaozen, which is the provincial capital of the Mangystau region. On that day, tens of workers were massacred when they went out to protest. They were shot down in the streets by state forces and the massacre was captured on video. The Minister, Fianna Fáil Deputies and whoever else wishes can view the footage. Those are the actions of this type of regime.

Before I visited Kazakhstan, my colleague, former Deputy Joe Higgins, visited some of the country's prisons where he saw the horrific conditions of systematic torture experienced by people who had been arrested on charges such as stirring up social discontent. People in Kazakhstan can be arrested, imprisoned for years and tortured in a brutal way by the regime on the basis of accusations of stirring up social discontent.

I attempted to visit Kazakhstan again to try to assist in an investigation to uncover the names of those who were killed and undo and expose the impunity afforded to those who ordered the massacre. I was refused a visa on two occasions and was never able to access the country, despite being a member of the European Parliament with a particular focus on the question of Kazakhstan.

The record of Kazakhstan, as I am sure the Minister of State knows, is horrific in every possible way. In terms of freedom of association, no independent political parties are legally registered in Kazakhstan and workers are not able to organise in trade unions. In the past decade, media outlets have been consistently shut down and anyone who speaks out against the regime is silenced. Perhaps worst of all are the conditions of torture that prevail within the country's prisons.

I want to mention the human rights lawyer, Vadim Kuramshin, with whom I worked closely in recent years. Thankfully, Mr. Kuramshin finally left prison some months ago, having been arrested and jailed on trumped up charges for six and a half years. I note the Minister spoke in the committee about improving penal conditions. Mr. Kuramshin wrote about the conditions he suffered in prison. I want to read out a few sentences he wrote so that when Members vote to proceed with this agreement, they will know the kind of torture they are endorsing. He stated:

From the date of my last conviction ... I had constantly been subjected to torture. Practically my entire sentence was spent in punishment rooms and solitary confinement.

When I arrived at the correction colony of Ust-Kamenogorsk on the 12th December 2017, I was immediately subjected to cruel beatings by the prison officers of this establishment. I was beaten by dozens of officers all at one time.

When I asked them not to beat my back, the officers used their knees and even began to jump on my back. This caused me great pain and distress. I was then carried into the inspection room. There, in the presence of human rights activists and employees of the prosecutor's office, two knives which had been planted on me were ostentatiously removed. [This was] filmed in order to use against me.

As Mr. Kuramshin noted, this was "a gross breach of the international code of conduct which Kazakhstan is supposed to adhere to." That the European Union would do such a trade deal and the establishment political parties would endorse such a regime tells us everything we need to know.

As no further speakers are offering, I ask the Minister of State to conclude.

I thank all the Deputies who made a contribution. Many genuine concerns were expressed and we all understand the nature of those concerns. I repeat that we must recall that Kazakhstan is still a relatively young country, gaining its independence in 1991. It is on a reform path but, as we all know, it takes time to build a democratic society. The agreement provides for a broad framework to reinforce political dialogue, providing EU member states with a range of tools for influencing reform, including institutional links that allow for regular discussions.

The agreement updates and augments the existing partnership and co-operation agreement agreed in 1996. It will contribute to modernising the commercial environment in Kazakhstan and increase the ease of doing business for Irish and European firms.

Kazakhstan is a key regional partner for the EU in Central Asia. With the development of a new central Asia strategy next year and the belt and road initiative, the region will only increase in importance over the next decade. I ask Deputies to take note of that.

Kazakhstan works well to engage constructively on a multilateral basis. It works with the OSCE, the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and the Council of Europe in its legislative reform. We must also note that Kazakhstan sought the opinion of the Venice Commission on several occasions, including most recently on its administrative procedure and justice code.

This agreement covers 29 sectoral areas, among them civil co-operation, co-operation in education, which is extremely important, as the Deputies opposite know, culture, research and innovation. The scope for engagement at all levels provides an ideal platform for Ireland and the EU to encourage change in Kazakhstan.

The EU continues to support Kazakhstan in its efforts to reform. More than 350 projects amounting to €180 million have been funded by the EU, with a particular focus on strengthening the capacity of regional and local government, supporting reform of the justice sector and improving the capacity of the public sector to introduce social and economic reforms.

Some Deputies opposite may believe that delaying ratification of these agreements until such time that progress is made on human rights is the sensible approach to take. They are entitled to make that argument but I argue that this would go against the very essence of what the EU stands for in promoting change through dialogue and engagement. All of us know how important dialogue and engagement was in our country.

Let us not forget that respect for democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms is an essential part of this agreement. If any party is in breach of its obligations on respect for human rights, appropriate measures can be taken in response, up to and including termination of the agreement.

That has never happened.

Please allow me to speak. This is a step that has been carefully considered. While I would prefer to dwell on the agreements with countries such as Georgia that have brought about positive reform, there are times when the EU activates the mechanisms within these agreements when there is a deterioration in the human rights situation. While it rarely happens, it sometimes occurs. I will give the two Deputies opposite an example of that. In 2016, the EU suspended its direct aid to Burundi’s government under the clause of the 2000 Cotonou Agreement between the bloc and the 77-country African, Caribbean and Pacific, ACP, group guaranteeing the respect of human and democratic rights.

Furthermore, the EU has twice chosen to suspend financial assistance to Moldova, most recently last June. Following the invalidation of elections by three courts in Chisinau, the EU suspended macro-financial assistance based on clear evidence of the violation of political conditionality criteria.

The agreement provides a framework for closer economic co-operation, which can bring about peace, as we have seen in the past. As part of such co-operation, we can continue to emphasise the need to protect human rights and encourage Kazakhstan on its reform path.

I emphasise again that by ratifying this agreement, we will be in a position to add our voice to the EU and the 27 other member states in encouraging Kazakhstan on its path to reform, rather than sitting on the sidelines as others engage. I hope Dáil Éireann will support the motion so that Ireland can proceed to ratify the agreement in the near future. Sitting on the sidelines is not a way forward. Engagement and dialogue are the most important way to improve human rights. We have seen that in the past.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 8 November 2016.