The primary focus of the recent trade mission to the Gulf, as with all trade missions, is to encourage business-to-business links and encourage investment and employment opportunities. I believe that if we want to be effective in addressing human rights issues with countries, we must do it in an appropriate way and at the right opportunity, so that our concerns are taken seriously and acted upon.
Ireland has always been at the forefront internationally in raising human rights issues through bilateral contacts and especially through the European Union and the United Nations. We have never shied away from addressing these issues. We will continue to be a strong advocate for higher global standards that improve human rights, and encourage the highest standards of business conduct and corporate social responsibility.
In recent weeks there have been calls for the Government to raise human rights issues more forcefully on trade and investment missions. This would represent precisely the kind of token gesture that Irish governments have avoided over the years – undermining the missions’ crucial objective of delivering trade and jobs for Ireland, while achieving nothing on human rights. Trade missions are not the place to raise human rights issues effectively.
The trade mission to the Gulf region which the Taoiseach and I led earlier this month, accompanied by 87 Irish companies, is part of a strategy targeting €1 billion in further exports to the region by Irish companies in the medium term. This would represent an increase of €600 million.
The trade mission to the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia saw Irish companies announce the initial outcome of their investment in market development, including the creation of 95 new jobs in Ireland, and new contracts and business developments worth more than €65 million. Further investment, trade and jobs can be expected.
Throughout the trade mission, Irish companies from a wide range of sectors concluded deals, prospected with hundreds of potential buyers, developed relationships with key influencers and networked with local experts and buyers in what was the largest ever Irish trade mission to the Gulf.
The success of our exporters abroad and the support they receive from agencies such as Enterprise Ireland are not traded off against human rights. The Government continues to push for higher standards of human rights around the world. Where these are undermined we seek to have the issues tackled and addressed by the most effective means possible.
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In this regard, Ireland is an active member of the EU human rights group in Riyadh which co-ordinates EU policy on human rights issues within the kingdom and progresses implementation of the EU’s human rights country strategy for Saudi Arabia.
I believe the cause of human rights can be promoted through trade. Included in EU free-trade agreements, for example, are provisions that promote human rights, labour standards and other issues about which we are rightly concerned. These agreements make provision for committees involving civil society to monitor their operation. This means that our interests in promoting greater opportunities for exporters can work in tandem with promoting higher standards of human and labour rights in the countries with which we trade and invest.