Thursday, 23 January 2014

Questions (6)

Mick Wallace


6. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation if the perceived benefits of the trade mission to Saudi Arabia are worth the negative consequences of dealing with a regime with such a poor human rights record; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2958/14]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Jobs)

Saudi Arabia has probably one of the worst human rights records in the world. On the recent trade mission the Taoiseach congratulated Saudi Arabia on its election to the UN Human Rights Council, but did not challenge it on its human rights record. We are not talking about something that happened 30 years ago, but something that is happening today. Is it right to leave all principle outside the door when we participate in a trade mission?

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.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

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.

A recent Human Rights Watch report stated:

Saudi Arabia stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens in 2013. Authorities continued to violate the rights of 9 million Saudi women and girls and 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. In 2013, courts convicted seven human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms.

The Minister says we should use appropriate ways to raise human rights issues and should not make token gestures. However, money talks louder than anything. If we tell these people they should not do certain things but continue to do business with them, do we really think anything will change? Would apartheid have been addressed without the boycott of South Africa? This country supported the war in Afghanistan on the basis that the Taliban was engaged in human rights abuses, despite the fact that the Taliban was supported by the Saudi royal family. Does the Minister believe it is acceptable for us to make our philosophy to suit our financial ambitions?

Earlier in parliamentary session we were talking about the importance of putting resources into emerging markets so that Ireland can be positioned to take advantage of growth opportunities. When we go on trade missions we bring companies that are seeking to create jobs here at home for Irish people. That is a challenge. We have 12.5% unemployment and the growth is shifting to new markets. When we enter free-trade agreements with countries through the EU, each of those agreements seek to have changes in the way they conduct their businesses. There is a long record that shows opening up to business drives changes and that is the approach we take. When we are on a trade mission with representatives of almost 90 companies seeking to do business, it is not appropriate to use that as the occasion to lecture about changes that ought to happen in those countries; that is a time when we are trying to do business. However, there are other fora where we can legitimately put those issues on the agenda, for example through the human rights forum and through the trade negotiations, which is what we do. There is a proven track record that this is the way to achieve change in human rights as well as enhancing integration of peoples and opportunities across the globe.

The Minister says that opening up trade links with these people will change how they do things. How has Saudi Arabia changed how it does things in the past 20 years? As far as I can see nothing is changing. As long as it can do business with everybody it will be under no pressure to change anything. We approved of the EU sanctions on Iran because we wanted to force it to the negotiating table. Why does everybody turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia? Is it because it has so much money? It would be ridiculous for me to ask if money rules the world - of course it does. There was a time when Ireland would have taken a more ethical stance on such matters. I do not suggest we should not trade with people, but, by God, at least we should not be afraid to raise these issues even if it is on a trade mission. I do not agree with the Minister's argument that we should leave it outside the door when on trade missions, as it would undermine our potential to increase jobs; that is not a good way forward.

We need to consider the experience even in our own country. When we became more open to trade and integration in Europe we dramatically changed human rights in Ireland. The record is there. We saw change come here as a result of much of the integration and trade that occurred between Ireland and the EU. That is the objective. We do not ignore Saudi Arabia, which will be a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In October Ireland made two recommendations during Saudi Arabia's examination under the Council's universal periodic review mechanism. Ireland is not inactive over human rights in countries with which we trade. However, there are two separate tracks and we need to pursue the human rights through the appropriate mechanism. Increasing trade and integration will, over time, drive those changes because if a free-trade agreement is negotiated, as has been done in some Gulf countries, it imposes conditions. That is a sound and tested route to bring change as well as developing mutual opportunity.