I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to table the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber to discuss the Bill and thank him for his sincere engagement and input on the legislation to date. I also warmly welcome the Palestinian ambassador, H.E. Ahmad Abdelrazek, and Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, who are watching from the Visitors Gallery. I acknowledge the fantastic work of Trócaire, Christian Aid, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Sadaka in helping to prepare this Bill and for their years of research and advocacy on the issue. In particular, I wish to thank Michael Lynn, SC, and James Crawford, professor of international law at Cambridge, for their written legal input to ensure the legislation is robust in its compliance with EU and WTO trade rules.
At its core, this Bill is about respect for international law and standing up for the rights of vulnerable people. It is a chance for Ireland to state strongly that it does not support the illegal confiscation of land and the human suffering which inevitably results. As the issue can be complex, I will outline briefly what the Bill seeks to do and why. In practical terms, we are dealing here with a breach of international humanitarian law where one state has occupied another. It is about the construction of illegal settlements beyond internationally recognised borders as a means slowly to confiscate land and natural resources. International law is clear on this. Such settlements violate the prohibition of the fourth Geneva Convention on the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territories and constitute a war crime. Importantly, they also break domestic Irish law. Despite this, Ireland continues to provide economic support through trade in settlement goods.
The most high profile and clearly documented modern example of this issue is the Israeli settlement of the Palestinian West Bank which has been condemned repeatedly by the EU, the UN and the Irish Government. Ireland and its EU partners have a clear position on the Israeli settlements. They state that the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights are territories which have been occupied by Israel since 1967. They have also stated that the Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the conflict impossible.
That peaceful solution is what we should all be seeking but trade in settlement goods is fundamentally undermining it. In the occupied Palestinian territories, people are forcibly kicked out of their homes, fertile farming land is seized and the fruit and vegetables produced are then exported to pay for it all. We strongly condemn the settlements but support them economically. As international law is clear that the settlements are illegal, the goods they produce are, in effect, the proceeds of crime. We must face up to this and cannot keep supporting breaches of international humanitarian law and violations of human rights. That is what the Bill seeks to do. It can end our complicity by prohibiting the import and sale of goods from illegal settlements and prevent Irish involvement in the provision of settlement services and the extraction of natural resources.
Section 3 outlines the scope of the legislation, which is important given the variety of military occupations around the world. If enacted, the Bill will apply by default to territories in respect of which there is clear international consensus on the status of an occupation as outlined in the judgments of international courts, including the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. This includes the occupied Palestinian territories. The Bill provides for the option to go beyond this but only where there is agreement between the Minister and both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is an objective standard which works on the basis of consensus. We begin from the most limited position, relying on legal certainty, and move beyond it only if the Houses agree. The principle remains the same, however, and the application of the Bill could be extended to similar cases where a case on occupation can be made.
It is important to be clear that this is not a boycott of Israel or a ban on Israeli products. We must be accurate on this. We are making the same distinction the EU makes between goods from Israel and goods from illegal settlements beyond its borders. In 2012, the then Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, outlined this important distinction. He said:
I have previously stated that Ireland would support a ban on settlement products. We do not support bans or boycotts on Israel, and this is not in question, but the products of illegal settlements constitute a separate and specific matter.
I urge colleagues to keep this vital distinction in mind.
To me, this issue matters because of the devastating impact it has on human lives on the ground. I am concerned with the little girl whose horizons are bounded by soldiers and a steel fence, whose family suffers from deprivation because they can no longer farm their land. It is the child who goes without eating because what was once food on the table is now harvested and sold around the world to pay for occupation.
I stand in opposition to this war crime, not because of the abstract legal principles but because of the real human suffering caused on the ground. This is the daily reality in the occupied West Bank. The construction of illegal settlements has seen extreme water shortages, a lack of electricity, restrictions on movement, house demolitions and land confiscation. Over 500,000 settlers have been transferred into the area, supported with financial incentives and highly subsidised housing. As land is gradually confiscated, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide basic services and the viability of a functioning Palestinian state is undermined.
A 2013 World Bank study found that this has cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion. Meanwhile, agricultural produce and other goods in the settlement have appeared on Irish shop shelves, sustaining this injustice. A farmer from the West Bank told Trócaire's partner NGO:
My family was forcibly displaced in 1967 when our land was annexed. The village's structures were demolished and levelled out to establish an agricultural settlement. Every day I watch settlers expand their land and cultivate it with grapes and almonds while we are not allowed. I work in the settlements because I am forced in order to provide for my family. I feel overwhelmed and bad every time I work as a paid labourer, watching settlers grow on the land I inherited from my parents. I always imagine how my life would have turned out if I had control over my land, as well as how my children's lives would turn out. It is a horrible feeling to see my land a couple of metres away, but not to be able to access it due to the annexation fence, part of the annexation wall.
Today we can take a stand against this injustice. A ban on settlement goods is not a radical ask. It is a disassociation from clear breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. It is a modest and tangible step we can take. It has long been called for in the Oireachtas. In 2012, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, with members from across all political parties, called for such a move on the basis that it could have a strong and effective impact on suffering in the region. Six years ago, the Irish Government criticised the relentless progress of Israeli settlements and said it could seek an EU ban if matters continued to worsen.
In the years since, it has only gone one way with settlements expanding, more homes being demolished and more land confiscated. Last year, the Israeli Government approved the construction of the first new settlement in 20 years. This month alone, it sanctioned the construction of over 1,000 new settlement homes. It is clear that mere condemnation simply has not worked. As long as we support the settlements economically and they remain profitable, they will continue to grow.
Concerns have been raised about our capacity to do this as a member of the European Union. On this point, I refer to the former legal opinions provided by Michael Lynn and Professor James Crawford. They accept that while the EU's governing treaties outline common trade rules, Article 36 provides for exceptions where it can be justified on the basis of public policy or the protection of the health and life of humans. A member state is perfectly entitled to seek derogations when it serves a fundamental interest of that state, such as ensuring respect for international humanitarian law or domestic laws. This is made absolutely clear in the legal opinions, which I am happy to share with my colleagues.
What is at issue, however, is not legal capacity but political will. I fully agree a co-ordinated EU action would be fantastic. However, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Dáil last week that there is no prospect of that happening. At EU level, we are at a point of paralysis, as we have been for decades. In that context, Ireland has a responsibility to show some leadership. We have done so before. In 1980, this was the first European state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation, PLO, and our neighbours soon followed. When the EU decided in 2015 to issue labelling guidelines for settlement goods, it did so as a result of member states taking the lead. The UK moved first in 2009, followed by Denmark in 2013, Belgium in 2014 and the EU as a whole one year later.
This is collective action spurred by individual action.
The economic impact here would be low. Based on EU and Irish estimates, the value of settlement imports is approximately €1 million per year. Given the small figures involved, this will not cost Irish jobs. In reality, it would mean showing that certain products are produced in the settlements and asking a supermarket not to stock them. The financial impact is small, but the political and symbolic importance is significant. I recall the brave Dunnes Stores workers who stood against apartheid in 1984. It was not about the money but the principle. They refused to be complicit and so should we. However, this is not simply about taking a stand, but offering a real and practical step that other states can follow. Certainly, there will be questions about how well exporters are obeying the EU’s labelling guidelines but these are the issues that deserve to be examined in detail on Committee Stage if we agree to this proposal in principle. There is a wealth of information available, for example, linking specific products to specific settlements, most recently from a coalition of 22 human rights organisations working in the region.
It is clear that a peaceful, two-state solution has never been under greater pressure. I have spoken to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and acknowledge and respect his genuine determination to work on this issue. However, I believe that Ireland must be firm in stating that its foreign policy will always respect international humanitarian law and human rights, and that illegal settlement expansion is not acceptable. We have a duty to stand up to injustice, and we owe it to those living at the sharp end of occupation. I ask my colleagues to take that stand today.