Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Questions (41, 46)

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

41. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong; the further steps he and his EU colleagues will take, including sanctions attached to EU-China trade agreements, to promote democratic values in China; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52647/19]

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Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

46. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the position of Ireland on the continuation of violence in Hong Kong in the name of democracy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53197/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I have asked the Tánaiste many times in the past year or two about the situation in Xinjiang in China, where up to 1 million Uighur people are being kept in concentration camps, and what actions we were taking with our European partners in that regard. The horrendous fate of the Uighur nation was recently highlighted by the great German footballer, Mesut Özil. I also ask about the future of Hong Kong and what supports we are giving to pro-democracy groups there.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 41 and 46 together.

Ireland, along with our EU partners, is closely following developments in China, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. As I have stated on several occasions in this House in recent weeks, Ireland and our European partners remain deeply concerned about the credible reports of the treatment of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region, including arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions on freedom of religious belief. We have raised our concerns with our Chinese counterparts in both bilateral and multilateral contexts, and, along with EU partners, we continue to do so. 

Ireland was one of 23 states to sign up to a joint statement on this issue at the UN General Assembly Third Committee on 29 October. This statement called on the Chinese Government to implement urgently eight recommendations relating to Xinjiang made by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, including refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities. In July this year, Ireland was one of 22 states to sign up to a joint letter at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. This letter expressed concerns about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions. The letter called on the Chinese Government to uphold its international obligations to and respect for human rights in Xinjiang.

The issue has also been raised at EU level, both bilaterally and in multilateral fora, including at the EU-China summit and EU-China human rights dialogue in April this year. During the dialogue, the EU noted that while actions to counter terrorism are essential, these actions must respect the principle of proportionality, fundamental freedoms and international laws.

The Government is also closely monitoring the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. I am concerned, in particular, about the violent confrontations that have taken place. I welcome, however, that the district council elections were held on 24 November without incident and call on all parties to respect the election results. I also welcome recent moves towards an inclusive dialogue from the Chief Executive, Ms Carrie Lam, and the Hong Kong authorities.

With regard to the protests, Ireland fully supports fundamental freedoms such as the freedom to assemble and the right to peaceful assembly. As I have noted previously in this House, Ireland has consistently called for these freedoms, which are provided for in Hong Kong’s basic law, to be upheld. Whereas the protesters' right to peaceful demonstration should be respected, we should not condone violence. Dialogue and engagement rather than violent actions will provide the best outcomes for the people of Hong Kong. At the same time, I continue to call upon the police to exercise restraint and proportionality in its response.

Ireland fully supports EU statements on developments in Hong Kong, the most recent of which was released on 18 November by the then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms Federica Mogherini. This statement recalled the EU's support for the one-country, two-systems principle and reiterated the EU position that restraint, de-escalation and dialogue are the way forward. It called for confidence-building measures, including an inclusive and sincere dialogue, reconciliation and community engagement and for a comprehensive inquiry into the violence, use of force and the root causes of the protests.

At a bilateral level, officials in my Department have engaged with the relevant Chinese authorities to convey our concerns, including with representatives of the Hong Kong Government. Along with the EU office and representatives of other EU member states in Hong Kong, we will continue to engage regularly with Hong Kong authorities on this matter and to convey our support for dialogue and a peaceful resolution to the protests.

Ireland and the EU will continue to monitor developments and engage with Chinese authorities and like-minded partners in bilateral and multilateral fora to address these concerns.

It is good to hear that our ambassador to China and the consul general in Hong Kong have been proactive on the matter. It seems clear that the Chinese authorities are not adhering to the basic law and the 1997 agreement, which was to last for 50 years. It is effectively an international agreement but China is disregarding it. The recent local elections mentioned by the Minister demonstrate the vast bulk of the 7 million people in Hong Kong want independent and democratic institutions.

The Tánaiste mentioned the UN General Assembly Third Committee, which found reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. They were being held for long periods without trial and there was mass surveillance that disproportionately targeted ethnic Uighurs. We had a ludicrous statement from the Chinese authorities yesterday or earlier today that 1 million detained Uighurs have now graduated from these camps. The current position is untenable and outrageous.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. There has been a lull in the severity of the violence and ongoing tension but it is obvious that there was an outbreak of violence on a smaller scale last weekend. There was a very disturbing report that on previous occasions first responders and other medical staff were detained by law enforcement agents while they tried to provide assistance to the injured. As the Minister indicates, the values supported by the Hong Kong protestors included freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest, and these have been seen as threats to the Hong Kong Government.

We can see what has happened in China to Uighurs and other Muslim minorities so we cannot really hold much hope that the Chinese would respect the democratic will of the people in Hong Kong, as we saw in recent election results. A great deal depends on China but I do not have too much faith in its respect for democracy.

These are two really serious matters and in some ways separate questions would probably be justified. Ireland is trying to use the influence we can bring to bear in the international fora in which we operate. Within the United Nations we have been both vocal and, I would like to think, quite courageous when many other countries were not signing a joint statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee. Ireland decided it would do so because we wanted to be part of the process of shining a spotlight on this matter.

It is important to say that our relationships with China are probably better than they have ever been. My relationship with the Chinese ambassador is very good. I met the Chinese Foreign Minister this week, albeit briefly, in Madrid. From my experience, the way to get results and use influence is through political engagement. That is what we will continue to do.

The oppression in east Turkmenistan, as I believe some of the Uighurs call it, is ongoing. We have a report today that Han Chinese are being sent to every household in the country to continue a level of oppression. How can we deal with a country that seems to have a network of concentration camps? That is a clear point.

The Tánaiste indicated that these two major international letters have been signed that concern the matter. Is it not time to start thinking about sanctions? The Minister has correctly said that trade between China and the entire European Union has grown exponentially. We are using Chinese phones and other equipment. Is it not time to talk seriously about sanctions and major steps to address the oppression of the Uighurs, who are the majority in their state, and the people of Hong Kong?

Although ours is a small voice, we are respected and there is more we can do. It is good to hear that the Tánaiste met the Chinese Foreign Minister and that he has a relationship with the ambassador here. It is about keeping these matters on the agenda. The demands of the protestors are something we would take for granted here. They include the withdrawal of the word "riot" and unconditional release of arrested protestors without charge, as well as an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of genuine universal suffrage. There has been no real concession on the part of either Ms Lam or the Chinese Government; it is extremely unlikely that such a concession will come.

We have heard from China the way in which the Chinese media have portrayed what happened in Hong Kong. It certainly did not give a true account that the protestors were seeking democracy. We must be a stronger voice but I know trade is probably dictating our response.

It is not true to say that trade dictates our response. It is true to say we have an increasing trade relationship with China but we have trade relations with many countries which, at times, have had questions to answer in respect of human rights. We have raised those questions. Ireland needs to continue to be courageous in raising these matters, shining a spotlight on parts of the world where uncomfortable questions and conversations need to take place. The way to do this is not to jump immediately to calling for sanctions but rather to seek engagement. My experience with China and its ministers is that they are more than willing to engage in conversations that may be uncomfortable as long as it is done in a respectful rather than threatening way. That is the approach we continue to take, and it does not mean that we do not raise matters at international forums which force people to have uncomfortable conversations. It is a really important role for Ireland to play.