Sinn Féin welcomes the Cluster Munitions Bill 2008 published by Fine Gael. I echo the comments made by Deputy Timmins yesterday when he asked Deputies from all sides to support the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas.
As it is rare that the occasion presents, I am sorry the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is not present to hear me commend him for the role played by the Government in spearheading the Oslo process begun in Norway in February 2007 to establish a treaty to ban cluster munitions. Since then more than 80 states have endorsed the Wellington declaration and efforts will, I hope, conclude in Dublin next month with the first explicit international humanitarian law directed at the use of cluster munitions.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs has witnessed at first hand the devastation caused by cluster munitions in Lebanon following Israel's invasion in 2006. He also witnessed the role played by Irish troops in helping to clear what some reports indicate are more than 1 million cluster bomblets left unexploded throughout that country. Unexploded cluster munitions are also to be found in the former Yugoslavia and all over Iraq and Afghanistan. The lengthy period of time these unexploded bomblets — there are often as many as one in five of the devices in each cluster munition — can lie on the ground for unwary civilians to stumble across them is one of the most appalling attributes of a weapon incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.
I also acknowledge that the Minister has given a commitment that the Government will end the investment of public money in the manufacture of these weapons. The proposal to write into legislation and thereby ensure no public funds will be invested in financing or manufacturing cluster munitions, the commitment contained in section 7(3) of the Fine Gael Bill, is to be welcomed.
I look forward to the wholehearted support of the Green Party for this Bill. In 2006, former Deputy Dan Boyle published the National Pensions Reserve Fund (Ethical Investment) (Amendment) Bill 2006, which I supported. At the time, the then Deputy pointed out that the pension fund was:
invested in unethical industries, including arms and tobacco. It would appear that, under the existing legislation, the NPRF Commission has an obligation to invest in such industries if it expects them to return maximum profits.
The Green Party proposed, in its Bill, to go beyond eliminating investment in companies which profit from the manufacture of cluster munitions and turn the pension fund into a tool of ethical investment.
As section 19 of the National Pension Reserve Fund Act stands, the only criterion for choosing where to invest public money is based on the best possible return on the investment. No restrictions apply and no areas of trade are to be deemed unethical or unsuitable for Irish money investment.
The National Pensions Reserve Fund now amounts to €21.3 billion and holds shares in more than 2,500 companies and a number of other investment products. For this reason, while I support the Bill before the House and the efforts of the Government to divert our money from the manufacture of cluster munitions, I call on the Government, including the Green Party, to go further and amend the National Pensions Reserve Fund Act. The legislation should be changed in order that Irish people can have absolute confidence that our money is not being invested in oppression and the abuse of human rights. We should not make a profit on the misery of others or watch our pension fund rise in tandem with the slaughter of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.
In December 2003 an investigation by the publication USA Today found that US forces had used nearly 10,800 cluster weapons since the invasion of Iraq in February of that year, while their British allies had used almost 2,200 such weapons. During the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli Defence Forces used artillery-fired cluster munitions in populated areas of Lebanon according to Human Rights Watch. Researchers from that NGO also photographed cluster munitions in the arsenal of an Israeli artillery unit.
While I am supportive of the Bill, I propose to make a number of points on some of its sections. Section 3 states: "It shall be an offence for any person to trade in cluster munitions". Trade is defined in section 2 to include the "transit", "import" and "export" of cluster munitions. My reading of this definition is that it would be illegal for cluster munitions to be transported through Irish territory, seas or airspace. If this is the case, it underlines again the need for a regime of inspections to be put in place around flights through Shannon Airport. Similarly, if the Bill was enacted, the Government would be obliged to take proactive steps to ensure cluster munitions were not being transported through Ireland.
Section 3 may also have implications for Irish troops serving abroad as part of the EU battle groups. The French military used cluster bombs in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991 and notably in Chad in 1986. The French Government does not support the Oslo process for an outright ban on the use of these weapons but instead argues that the weapons can be made more effective by being made less harmful to civilians, although I wonder how it intends to do this. Its position is shared with Britain. If Irish troops were deployed abroad as part of an EU battle group which included French or British forces, a position in which we currently find ourselves, is it not possible that the armed forces of either of those countries might deploy with cluster munitions as part of their arsenal? In that case, it is theoretically possible that Irish troops could facilitate the transport, supply or storage of these weapons for the armed forces of other countries while on active service abroad. In such cases, what would be the legal position of the Irish troops? This House would be answerable in such circumstances.
While I welcome the suggestion of a register of prohibited investments in cluster munitions, as outlined in section 8, I would welcome from Fine Gael some clarification on how the party believes such a register would work in practice. I understand the regulations will be set by the Minister but I would be interested to learn how, in practical terms, companies would be identified and added to the list. Could a company establish a subsidiary to carry out the manufacture of cluster munitions while continuing to attract Irish investment into the parent company? How would this be established and monitored? The practical considerations of the proposal need to be spelled out. Would there be a need for an appeals mechanism where a company could argue that it did not trade in cluster munitions as outlined in the legislation?
I call on people to support the global day of action to ban cluster bombs on 19 April when the Cluster Munitions Coalition and Amnesty International are organising an event in Dublin. I urge Members to show their support in any practical way they can for these events on 19 April.
On behalf of the Sinn Féin Members, I register our support for this Fine Gael Bill as published. I urge support for it from all sides of the House. I am somewhat concerned we cannot proceed with the Bill immediately due to the Government amendment.