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Free Trade Agreements between the European Union and Columbia and Peru: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 865 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith] I referred to the fact that, in particular, the agrifood sector has suffered as a result of those sanctions, including the displacement of products that would otherwise go from central Europe eastwards. I subsequently read reports in a farming publication of individual EU member states being able to get certain products exempted from sanctions. I do not know how valid those reports were. It was not small member states that were mentioned, but the larger ones that were identified in the Farmers' Journal as having made some progress in having certain product lines exempted from the sanctions. Perhaps the Department can have that checked out for us. If there are exemptions we should be in there fighting our corner as well, while not taking away from the principled stand we have taken in supporting the EU's sanctions on Russia. We are dealing as strongly as we can with the aggression Russia has shown towards Ukraine over the past year or so.

  Deputy Eric Byrne mentioned that at a recent meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, non-governmental organisations made a telling presentation regarding their concerns about this proposed free trade agreement. NGOs such as Trócaire and Christian Aid, as well as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, are all reputable bodies whose officials are working in those areas. They are a good source of intelligence for the State and for all of us. When they take a strong stand on issues, their arguments, contentions and concerns should be heeded in detail.

  A group contacted me about this free trade agreement and I have met with its representatives. Subsequently, the chairperson of that group, the Irish Colombian Lawyers Caravana de Colombia, Mr. Seán O'Reilly, wrote to me. He wanted his group's views to be shared with other Members of the House and with the general public. Mr. O'Reilly wrote as follows:

I refer to the email from a group of civic and developmental organisations attached, who I understand have contacted you directly. We all share great concerns at the Dáil's proposed ratification of the said agreement without any proper human rights safeguards being discussed, much less implemented.

  We hereby call upon you to vote against the Bill on Wednesday next and to urge your colleagues to do likewise. Having personally travelled to Colombia with The International Jurists Caravana de Colombia from 14 different countries in 2012, and having led the Irish group in 2014 - we were the second largest international group - our concerns were about attacks on and the real lack of protection for lawyers and other human rights workers, labour leaders, journalists and most especially those working for and from the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Given the threats they face, we must call upon the Dáil to reject this treaty. Ireland especially should ensure that any country attempting to emerge from a conflict or post-conflict situation must ensure proper protection from assassination and threats to all those who seek to uphold the proper rule of law and, most especially, those who work for the most marginalised in Colombian society.

  I personally am the principal of a small firm of solicitors in Dundalk. I was a participant to the 2012 and leader of the 2014 Irish Colombia Caravana Lawyers group, on our bi-annual fact-finding missions. Every two years an international delegation of jurists has visited Colombia since 2008 to investigate, hear testimonies, collect information, file reports and monitor the situation.

  By way of emphasising our concerns, during 2013 we learned of 15 lawyers who were killed. Our work continues in Ireland and the latest reports of our investigations, findings and recommendations are to be launched at the Law Society in May 2015, with a specific report written by judges who participated in the 2014 International Caravana to Colombia, as well as the general report written by the delegation of over 60 participants.

  There have been over 160 lawyers who have visited Colombia with the Caravana and in 2014 around 60 delegates participated from over 16 jurisdictions. Once in Colombia, the delegation divided into small groups to visit different regions of the country in order to meet judges and lawyers in as many parts of the country as possible. The human rights defenders we met view this Bill in its current form as not in any way addressing their concerns or the concerns of those they seek to represent.

I received that letter from Mr. Seán O'Reilly, leader of the Irish delegation 2014, Caravana de Colombia. We must take note of the contents of that letter, which is from a group committed to dealing with human rights abuses in Colombia. We must express our concerns regarding all the issues Mr. O'Reilly has outlined in that correspondence. I met Mr. O'Reilly and some of his colleagues who provided me with instances of desperate human rights abuses they have come across. They also cited the great, committed work of so many international jurists and lawyers who go to Colombia annually or bi-annually to try to help in dealing with the situation there.

  My colleague, Deputy Calleary, quoted earlier from the decision of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to recommend opposition to this free trade agreement. As Deputy Tóibín said, it is seldom that a committee decides - I presume unanimously - to oppose a Government proposal. In his concluding remarks, perhaps the Minister can let us know if this deal is being driven strongly by any countries within the EU. The Minister will know better than anyone else in this House that at times, depending on who holds the position of EU trade commissioner, there can be a huge push to get some agreements in place. I recall that one particular commissioner, along with the then president of the European Commission, was very strong in trying to get the Mercosur agreement put into effect. The latter deal affected sectors in Ireland and could pose serious problems for others sectors in our economy. Opinion was divided in the agrifood industry. The dairy and drinks industries were very much in favour of Mercosur, while the beef sector was opposed to it.

  The Minister has seen parliamentary questions I have tabled to him raising concerns about the proposed EU-US trade deal as well. There are obviously potential benefits but there can also be major downsides for Ireland, including our indigenous food sector. I sincerely hope that if the proposal before us is progressed, the concerns of our own industrial sector will be dealt with effectively. Fianna Fáil will be opposing this proposal.

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello Zoom on Joe Costello I am delighted to have an opportunity to discuss this motion. It is good to see an in-depth debate on issues related to business, trade and human rights. From Ireland's viewpoint, it is important for us to engage in such a discussion. In fact, I would like to have seen a longer period for this debate because there is huge interest in the issue.

I am very much in favour of good trade, political and diplomatic relations with all of the Latin American countries, including in this case Colombia and Peru. I acknowledge that certain progress has been made concerning the peace process under the Santos Government in Colombia. A recent report from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has indicated some progress in the area of human rights, but I also know that the situation remains dire. We have all received communications from the trade union movement, which has taken a strong interest in the matter, and from NGOs.

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