Priority Questions

Overseas Development Aid

Seán Barrett

Ceist:

1 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if his attention has been drawn to a Human Rights Watch report entitled Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia, which urges foreign donors to examine the ways in which the Ethiopian Government uses donor supported resources and aid as a tool to consolidate the power of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43399/10]

Ethiopia has been a priority country for Ireland's aid programme since 1994, with a clear focus on hunger and basic services for the poorest communities.

Human Rights Watch recently produced a report on development in Ethiopia. It stated that the Government has demonstrated a real commitment to economic development and has introduced the technical framework of democracy, but that civil and political rights are deteriorating.

It specifically alleged that programmes and services supported by aid donors have been manipulated for party political purposes, and referred to two programmes funded by Ireland with other donors. The productive safety net programme provides some of the most vulnerable people in Ethiopia with predictable cash or food transfers in return for work. It is protecting the lives of over 7 million people annually. The protection of basic services programme funds services at regional level, notably in health and education.

We take very seriously any allegation of misuse of funding provided under the aid programme. Irish Aid, working with other aid donors, has examined the report in detail. Our shared assessment does not support the allegation of widespread, systematic abuse of development assistance. However, we are concerned about any allegation of misuse of aid at local level.

In recent days, our ambassador has raised the allegations in the report directly with the Minister for Finance and Economic Development and emphasised the real concern in Ireland that they need to be investigated. The Minister stated that his Government is ready to investigate any allegation brought to its attention and to discuss how existing safeguards can be strengthened. We are following up at all levels so effective action is taken to provide the assurance that there is no misuse of aid and all assistance is delivered without interference to the most vulnerable communities.

Irish Aid programmes are subject to rigorous reviews and ongoing monitoring to ensure they are delivered effectively and in line with our commitment to the fight against poverty and hunger. These measures are kept under continuous review to ensure our assistance to Ethiopia is reaching the people most in need, whether it is provided directly by Irish Aid or channelled through our NGO partners.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he accept that Human Rights Watch is a respectable organisation and one needs to pay serious attention to any report it produces? This report, Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia, is 105 pages. The African director of Human Rights Watch, Rona Peligal, states: "The Ethiopian Government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent."

The Deputy is not allowed to quote at Question Time, believe it or not.

I am just quoting from the report. It makes all sorts of allegations. Farmers are described as being denied access to agricultural assistance, micro-loans, seeds and fertilisers because they do not support the ruling party. Rural villagers reported that many families with opposition members were barred from participation in the food for work or safety net programme. There are all types of allegations.

I am not in a position to say whether these allegations are right, but they are very serious. The Minister of State is right in saying our programme in Ethiopia has been very good, but the allegations are very serious. Perhaps with his support the author of this report might be requested to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs so he or she may be questioned. I am not certain who the author was, and these are just quotes from the report. We could then have an opportunity to put these allegations to the person in question to see whether they can be substantiated.

The Deputy is right in saying the allegations are very serious if they were true. The essential point, however, is that our assessment from working with other donors who have conducted studies in the field do not substantiate these allegations. Indeed, the report, which I have here, makes allegations about Goal, an Irish NGO, saying that it collaborated in this practice. I understand Goal has said the allegations are utterly erroneous and has denied them. However, the development assistance group in Ethiopia carried out a study of the programmes referred to in the Human Rights Watch report, post-report, and could not substantiate any evidence of widespread or systematic distortion.

That is not to say allegations of this nature should not be taken seriously. However, I take strong issue with those who would use this report to misrepresent in the media the nature of our excellent work in Ethiopia and to characterise our programmes as just giving blank cheques to the Government, when everybody in the development community knows this is simply not the case. The Minister, Deputy Martin, and I have both visited Ethiopia and seen firsthand the efficacy of the programmes, and all the evaluations and audits that are in place.

I have not been to Ethiopia, nor have I spoken to the ambassador, and I am not making allegations but rather quoting from a report compiled by a respected organisation. In view of what the Minister of State had to say about Goal, perhaps when we ask the author to come before the committee as regards the report we might ask John O'Shea to come in as well and let him stand over what is being said about Goal.

I am only interested in what the report actually said. It called on donor country legislatures and audit institutions to examine development aid to Ethiopia to ensure it is not supporting political repression. That is what I am interested in. I am not denying the good work being done. I just want to see that this matter is cleared up.

Of course I support the Deputy's point and obviously it is a matter for the joint committee of which the Deputy is a member to offer that invitation. However, the essential point remains that our moneys are spent in a way that is rigorously monitored and reviewed. There are very strong safeguards in place which I have inspected over there. There are regular audits and independent evaluations.

We work in partnership with Government and local systems, because that is international best practice in terms of creating capacity and sustaining development in such countries. However, to use this report to characterise the nature of our programmes in a manner that is simply not in accordance with the facts is something I disagree with.

To answer the Deputy's question directly, I accept that Human Rights Watch is a reputable organisation and I agree that engagement with the joint committee could be fruitful.

Human Rights Issues

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

2 Deputy Michael D. Higgins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the large number of trades unionists killed in Colombia and the failure in recent years of the European Union in its negations with Colombian Governments to make the protection and freedom of trades unionists and human rights protectors a condition of any beneficial relationship with the EU. [43132/10]

I am aware of and share the deep concern that has been expressed at the manner in which human rights defenders, including trade union activists have been treated in Colombia. Every death is a tragedy. Despite the Colombian Government's efforts and some progress achieved, the Colombian state institutions have not yet been able to fully address the issue of violence against human rights defenders. It is, however, important to recognise the progress that has been made, which is acknowledged in reports issued by the International Labour Organisation and various UN special rapporteurs. Colombia has made substantial changes to its legal system, including reforming the legislation regulating strikes to bring it in line with international standards. The Government has also recognised the need for greater efforts to protect vulnerable population groups, including trade unionists. Measures taken in this area include the increase of resources for official protection programmes, enhanced risk assessment capacities and the toughening of criminal sanctions for attacks on trade unionists.

At the insistence of Ireland and other member states, the EU-Colombia free trade agreement, which was concluded in May of this year, contains robust and enforceable provisions on human rights, labour standards and sustainable development. Specifically, the first article of the agreement contains a human rights clause permitting the immediate and unilateral suspension of concessions in case of human rights violations. Such provisions make the agreement a powerful instrument to further the cause of human rights in Colombia. This agreement should not be seen as an end point, but rather as a first step. The provisions for human rights and sustainable development in the agreement ensure continued EU engagement with Colombia in these areas.

I welcome the human rights commitments made by the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, since his inauguration on 7 August. In particular, I am encouraged that the president has tasked his vice president, Angelina Garzón, with particular responsibility for taking forward his Government's programme in this important area. I have written to Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguin Cuéllar to indicate my continuing interest in human rights dialogue with the Colombian Government. The Government will continue to monitor the human rights situation in Colombia through our Embassy in Mexico and in co-operation with our EU partners with resident diplomatic missions in that country.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I recently visited Colombia with Deputies Kitt and Breen and Senator Daly and put to the vice president a number of the points raised in my question. We also had an opportunity to follow up on these points at a meeting today with the Colombian Republic's ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who is on a visit to Dublin.

I put it to the Minister that the transition from the Uribe Government to the Santos Government represents an opportunity for the advancement of human rights. Would the Minister agree that this must be delivered? In other words, in terms of the number of people being charged with crime, there must be substantial progress in relation to impunity. There must be protection for people who have been displaced from their land, some 4 million hectares in total.

I referred specifically in my question to the position of trade unionists. The vice president of the CUT was assassinated during President Uribe's time. During the first 75 days in office of the Santos Government, a number of trade unionists have been killed. The Minister referred in his reply to the International Labour Organisation, ILO. The ILO standards in regard to either consultation or conditions at work are not being observed by the extractive industries in the areas which our delegation visited. I have raised all of these issues with the Colombian ambassador. The Minister states that there is an enforceable human rights clause in the Colombia-EU agreement. Perhaps he will say if it is a stronger clause than was contained in the EU-Israel agreement, which has not been enforceable. What is the substantial difference between the two agreements and how will the Colombia-EU agreement ensure transparency and enforceability in relation to human rights?

I welcome the visit by Deputies Higgins, Kitt, Breen and Senator Daly to Colombia. I applaud Deputy Higgins on that initiative. It is important that Oireachtas representatives visit such locations to see and hear at first hand from a variety of different perspectives. This adds value to our consideration of the situation.

I agree with the basic points made by Deputy Higgins in regard to impunity and the need to view the transition to a new Government and new leadership as an opportunity to deliver on commitments given. The Deputy will be aware from previous responses to questions on this matter that I met last February with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, at which time I specifically asked for her perspective in respect of Colombia and progress on human rights issues in that regard. The response I received was positive. All of this is in a relative context in terms of where we are coming from in that country.

On the human rights clause, it is a strong clause. Obviously, much depends on the will of the European Union to, in given situations, invoke its rights to suspend an agreement because of a violation of human rights. The EU has acted in previous situations, in particular in regard to Sri Lanka where the GSP plus arrangement was suspended because of violation of human rights issues. Also an investigation was undertaken in regard to El Salvador in terms of its non-compliance with ILO conditions.

The Minister and I could agree on much of this. The fundamental issue arises from the EU representative in Bogota who was not clear in his reply to the specific question as to how the human rights clause might be made transparent or enforceable. The issue that arises for the EU and Ireland is whether we can have an economic agreement first and that human rights will follow, which is a residual theory of human rights.

As a delegation, we were interested in and in agreement on the need for the human rights requirement to be up-fronted. In other words, that the process of establishing human rights becomes something that happens on the same day as does economic development.

A question please Deputy.

That was my question. This is about the placing of human rights and the economic change in ratio to each other. We believe that if the European Union pressed, it could have a transformational effect in making human rights development and economic opportunities coterminous rather than human rights being residual by assumption to economic development.

I do not accept that human rights are residual. The Deputy's point is well made. I, too, have made the point that the agreement represents an opportunity to up-front the human rights dimension and to get greater delivery. The agreement includes a number of binding commitments to implement core labour environmental conventions. It also foresees a mechanism for the monitoring of the implementation of labour laws, which includes civil society institutions. I believe this represents a significant new step.

We believe that with this addition, the agreement will contribute to the improvement of the situation of human rights in Colombia and, in particular, to labour rights. Obviously, this will require vigilant monitoring of the situation. Ireland has been to the fore at the EU in insisting on this clause because of the concerns raised domestically by members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs here.

Foreign Conflicts

Seán Barrett

Ceist:

3 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the proposed referenda on whether Southern Sudan secedes from Sudan and also whether the Abyei region decide to be part of Northern or Southern Sudan and if he has satisfied himself that the necessary security arrangements will be in place to enable these referenda to take place. [43400/10]

The north-south peace process in Sudan is at a critical juncture as the country prepares for a referendum on self-determination for the south and a separate referendum on the status of the district of Abyei on 9 January 2011. The referenda are envisaged by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, which brought an end to the north-south conflict in Sudan. Ireland and the EU believe that full implementation of the CPA is fundamental to securing peace and stability in Sudan as a whole and in the wider region. This is a position shared by a wide range of countries, including the United States and the member states of the African Union. The three-member panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban to monitor the referendum visited Sudan in November for the second time for the start of the voter registration and expressed the belief that, notwithstanding the difficulties given the size of Sudan and the scale of the process, voter registration can be completed successfully. For this to happen, leaders from northern and southern Sudan will need to respect the agreement reached and act to curb any acts of violence in the run-up to the election. The security situation is a matter of concern but every effort is being made by the international community to ensure that the referenda take place in a secure environment. The EU and other actors will monitor the security situation closely in the weeks ahead.

The UN continues to play a lead role in co-ordinating international assistance in the electoral preparations to the Sudanese authorities through the UN mission in Sudan. The EU Special Representative to Sudan, Rosalind Marsden, is also playing an active role in encouraging both sides to fulfil their obligations under the CPA. The EU will deploy an election observation mission to Sudan, to cover the voter registration process and the referendum. Preparations for this mission have already begun.

I am sure the Minister will agree that after 20 years of war in this region it would be a shame if, at the last moment, the referenda were destroyed or a lack of confidence ensued because of lack of proper preparation. What efforts are being made by the UN Security Council to provide additional troops to maintain order and to ensure polling booths and all the paraphernalia required for the holding of a referendum are in place? Given this one opportunity to make a democratic decision, it would be a shame if the result was undermined by a lack of credibility in the process. Are preparations being made to provide the necessary security arrangements to ensure people entitled to vote will be able to do so in safety?

There has been significant international engagement with this issue for some time, particularly at the UN, which is leading the efforts to co-ordinate works on the ground. The US has been very involved as well through President Obama's special envoy whom we met some time back. He gave us a good appraisal of the situation, albeit that was more than 12 months ago. The EU is concerned about ensuring the referenda go ahead peacefully and conflict is avoided. People are satisfied that this can happen but they are vigilant, given the history and potential for difficulties. The Union will appoint an election observation team and so on and, together with the UN, it will keep the security situation under constant review.

Would it be possible for the Minister to raise this at the forthcoming General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting? Could he ask for a report on whether the Union is satisfied to date? It would be good for Ireland to show leadership in this area and the Minister is ideally placed to ask that question. If we could have a formal request that this be discussed at the meeting, it would be worthwhile.

At the UN General Assembly.

No, at the GAERC meeting.

Certainly. It was on the agenda of the last Council meeting and we will continue to raise it. I will take on board what the Deputy said.

EU Membership

Seán Barrett

Ceist:

4 Deputy Seán Barrett asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if the EU is facilitating dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo and if so, if he will report on the up to date position regarding these talks. [43401/10]

On 22 July the International Court of Justice, ICJ, delivered its advisory opinion on the unilateral declaration of independence in respect of Kosovo. The court's advisory ruling held, by a majority of ten to four, that the declaration of independence did not violate international law, Security Council Resolution 1244 or the Constitutional Framework for Provisional Self Government of Kosovo. However, the court did not rule on the legal consequences of the declaration or the existence of a right to secession as such, as the General Assembly, in seeking its opinion, did not ask it to deal with these issues. Serbia subsequently put forward a draft UN General Assembly resolution on the issue, the text of which would not have been acceptable to most EU members, including Ireland.

Despite differences within the EU on Kosovo's independence, agreement was reached on a common EU compromise UN resolution text. Ireland was prominent within the EU in arguing for a common position and in efforts to convince Serbia to support the draft resolution. Following discussions between President Tadic and High Representative Ashton, Serbia accepted the EU text. On 9 September, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution co-sponsored by the EU27 and Serbia by consensus. The substantive paragraph in the resolution dealt with the EU's facilitation of dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade to promote co-operation and achieve progress on their paths to the European Union. The successful outcome of the negotiations with Serbia on the text of the resolution represented a significant advance. Despite initial signals that Belgrade would stick to its own text, the Serbian Government ultimately demonstrated willingness to compromise on this issue, in spite of considerable domestic political opposition.

Preliminary confidential discussions have been taking place in Brussels on the parameters and format of the EU-facilitated dialogue. While both sides have expressed their commitment to the process, careful preparatory work needs to be undertaken given the sensitive nature of the issues involved. It is also possible that the unforeseen general election in Kosovo on 12 December may have some impact on the timing of the process.

The EU is continuing to work with the parties with a view to early commencement of the dialogue between both sides. Acceptance by both parties of the need to engage in a dialogue was significant. As we know from our own experience, a willingness to engage in dialogue is an essential first step to moving any such process forward. We will continue to support the EU-facilitated dialogue, which can be a catalyst for peace, security and stability in the region.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he happy that procedures are in place whereby the EU will be seen actively to pursue the course for a peaceful resolution? Has a timescale been set in light of Serbia's application to join the Union? What effects could this have on the future membership of Kosovo? Has an effort been made to speed up these discussions?

We are clearly at an early stage in the process and, therefore, a specific timeframe has not been set. The very fact that both parties have indicated a willingness to engage represents significant progress, which is positive. We must not lose sight of the fact that there is still tension, particularly in the predominantly Serb areas of northern Kosovo. Dialogue is extremely important to prevent that tension from escalating into conflict. Careful preparatory work has to be put into ensuring the dialogue is effective and leads to outcomes but, at this stage, we do not have specific timeframes for the conclusion of discussions.

The Deputy raised the issue of the EU membership perspectives. Our view, as a country, has been that we support in principle the membership perspective of all countries in the western Balkans as a significant contributor, ultimately, to stability in the region. Full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, is a prerequisite for that and the achievement of the norms and values and other issues related to joining the EU will also be essential.

I was interested in the Minister's comment about opposition within Serbia. My concern is that if the process is allowed to be dragged out, the discussions and negotiations could slow down. It is vital that the EU plays an active role in pursuing both parties to conclude negotiations as quickly as possible.

I agree with the Deputy. It is important that the progressive forces in both countries are allowed to win the day and that the process is not allowed to drag on too long but we know from our own history that in situations such as this, where there have been significant difficulties and so on historically, the very fact that dialogue has commenced is a good sign. It is important that we, at EU level, do everything we can to create the environment to ensure these talks are productive.

Emigrant Support Services

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

5 Deputy Paul Connaughton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the consultations he has had with the US administration concerning the plight of the undocumented Irish in the US given that the US elections are now over; his views on whether a bilateral arrangement can be achieved between Ireland and the US which would allow Irish citizens a greater opportunity to obtain working visas in the US; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43537/10]

Finding a solution for our undocumented citizens in the United States remains an important priority for this Government. The Government is also committed to working with our friends in Congress to enhance Ireland's bilateral visa arrangements with the US through the establishment of a two-year renewable E-3 visa facility.

I am very much aware of the difficulties confronting undocumented Irish citizens in the United States and the distress which both they and their families in the United States and Ireland experience arising from their position. I urge anybody who might be tempted to follow in the footsteps of the undocumented to take account of their plight. My Department and the embassy in Washington DC, in particular, has continued to work proactively on the issue with the US Administration, which is what was asked in the question. It also worked with congressional leaders and Irish immigration reform advocates, which I met in September. These groups included the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, ILIR.

We have been encouraged by President Obama's continued commitment to resolving this issue, and it is a view he shared when the Taoiseach and I met him in Washington in March. President Obama has since reiterated that commitment on a number of occasions. Earlier this year, President Obama welcomed what he described as the strong outline proposal for reform presented at the end of April by senior Democratic Senators Harry Reid, Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez.

Following active engagement with our friends in Congress, this proposal included provision for a path towards the regularisation of the status of the undocumented, including the Irish. It also specifically contained provision for an E-3 visa arrangement for Irish citizens which was subsequently included in an immigration reform bill introduced by Senator Menendez. Although this was only the first step in a lengthy legislative process, it represented an important achievement for the Government and the Irish community. However, the outcome of the congressional elections on 2 November presents significant new political challenges for immigration reform legislation. Given that the outgoing Congress will continue in place until January, it will be some time before new committees are established and the long-term prospects for reform are clearer.

The Government will continue to maintain very close contact with the US Administration and Congress, as well as with Irish community advocates, to address this issue in the period ahead. Since 2006 the Government has provided a total support of $325,000 to the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and in September of this year, I met with the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres and the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform to discuss the prospects for reform. The Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, last evening announced that he will introduce the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, DREAM, Act as a stand-alone bill after the Thanksgiving recess.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Although many advocates are optimistic about the prospects for passing DREAM, friends on the Hill indicate there is currently no concrete evidence of renewed bipartisan support for the bill, or that some Democratic senators who have not supported DREAM in the past will vote for it on the next occasion. Over the next two weeks it will be possible to better determine the level of support for DREAM now that it has become once again a concrete proposal. It will also be possible to better judge, after discussing further with our friends on the Hill, the prospects for other immigration measures such the E-3 type visa for Ireland.

Senior officials of my Department had talks in Washington as recently as last Monday on the issue of Irish immigration to the US. They discussed the issue of the undocumented, the conditions in which Irish citizens are held prior to deportation, the operation of the existing working holiday visa programmes and possibilities for the political agreement on the immigration issues following the 2 November elections in the US.

I thank the Minister for his reply and will begin by saying that I could not fault the efforts of either the Minister or the Government over the past couple of years. I have been deeply involved, with others in Fine Gael and other parties, in the matter. We have gone to much trouble to do our best on Capitol Hill over the past couple of years and the Minister is speaking to the converted when he says it is a difficult process. The problems are horrendous. I received a phone call——

The Deputy should put a question.

A woman rang me from Washington the other day who wanted to attend her mother's funeral in Dublin. She is undocumented in the US. What kind of advice would the Minister give to a person like that? Such problems arise every week and month.

I know of the Deputy's long-standing commitment to this and accept what he is saying. I have met people who could not come home for the funerals of loved ones and it is a difficult position to be in. I indicated in my reply and to the immigration reform movement that there is an obligation on us, with every opportunity for discussion, to tell people not to go to the United States unless everything is in order and not to be in breach of visas. It may seem initially attractive and people may think they will get by or get on but all of us involved in this for some years know the distress and significant stress that can be placed on some people, even those who have been in the US for ten years. It is not worth it in terms of quality of life and employment.

We cannot give advice to people in those positions. Many people have returned to Ireland but have not made it back to the US, with all the consequent chaos and dislocation brought to their lives. Senior officials in my Department had talks in Washington as recently as last Monday on the issue of Irish immigration into the US, and the Deputy knows we brought about the work holiday agreement for 12 months, which is a first.

It is limited enough.

It is very limited and restrictive in terms of implementation. The talks on Monday were with a view to bringing more flexibility into the issue. In our talks with immigration centres, it emerged that people on that agreement could eventually go to a better quality visa in the United States. I foresee a long hard slog in this respect with regard to refining existing arrangements and expanding them somewhat at some levels; this may apply to existing bilateral agreements.

In our talks with ILIR it was clear that given the electoral outcomes and political context in the United States, the issue will continue to be difficult. With the E-3 visa, the bilateral aspects come back into prime focus, as we see if we can develop that bilateral track with new representatives in Congress.

Will the Minister for Foreign Affairs state whether he believes we are further away from a comprehensive solution to this since the congressional elections?

I believe we are much further away but what does the Minister believe?

Before those elections we were not that close either, if we are to be honest. By this I mean the domestic political context in the United States is making it very difficult for legislators, even those who are for this reform by instinct. They must consider the security of their own seats, for example, and the issue is as basic and straightforward as that. Many people who are advocates for reform have had to fight very hard to survive the recent electoral contest. The economic context is not good in the context of facilitating reform of immigration law because there are record levels of unemployment in the United States because of a significant recession. This dampens the appetite in communities and society for facilitating such reform.

It is a challenging issue and I have not seen anything in the elections that will change the matter. Much will depend on who will head the key committees, as Senator Schumer was a good leader with a good track record who was interested in promoting the issue.