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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 Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello Zoom on Joe Costello] Many Irish NGOs that are engaged in this area have briefed us on the progress made in recent years. People in the area, particularly those who are indigenous to it, have been discriminated against. As previous speakers indicated, it remains the most dangerous place in the world in which to be a trade unionist. It is a sad fact that this remains the case, even under the new Government. The fact that 26 Colombian trade unionists were murdered in 2013 - a total of 73 have been killed during the past three years - is outrageous. Colombia is also the most dangerous place in the world for human rights defenders, with 78 such individuals killed there in 2013. A further 30 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia in the first six months of last year. A total of 5.5 million people in the country have been displaced and literally hundreds of thousands have been killed during the conflict.

There is some hope, and we must examine the matter in that context. We must also consider it in the context of the European Union. What is the European Union and how was it founded? The answer is that it was brought into being in the aftermath of the worst atrocity ever committed in the history of mankind, namely, the Holocaust, which we are commemorating this week.

Deputy Peter Mathews: Information on Peter Mathews Zoom on Peter Mathews Which the Taoiseach refused to mark with one minute's silence yesterday.

Deputy Joe Costello: Information on Joe Costello Zoom on Joe Costello The Holocaust involved the total denial of all human rights and the murder of millions of people. The European Union first came into existence in order to ensure that such an event involving so-called civilised nations would never happen again. There is a strong argument to the effect that measures that will guarantee that prosperity and peace will be achieved on the basis of human rights should be put forward. That is the basis on which the European Union was established. It is important, therefore, that the Union should reach out to other countries in this regard. From that point of view, I will be voting for the motion.

Ireland has a very proud human rights record. Mary Robinson previously served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Ireland is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. We won election to the council in the face of very strong opposition from across the globe and on the basis of our track record on human rights. We must be seen to uphold our proud tradition in this regard. I am particularly happy that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has launched a consultation on human rights and business. This is particularly relevant to the motion currently under discussion and the agreement to which it relates. When I served as a Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I was always concerned with regard to how we might manage to ensure, in the context of our trade, marketing and business relationships with our partner countries, that our commitment to human rights might be maintained. I am delighted that we will at last have a formal response in this regard in the context of the consultation process taking place at present.

The Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation made some very strong criticisms of the state of Colombia, and some members voiced deep concerns regarding Ireland's signing up to the agreement. If we assent to the motion before us, it will bring to 20 the number of member states of the European Union which have signed up to the agreement. This will mean that it will be well on the way to attracting unanimous support. I would like to establish whether, while indicating our assent, we might also make a stand. It is better to have people inside rather than outside the tent, particularly in the context of exerting influence over them. It is important that we bring to the attention of the European institutions the nature of the debate in this House and that which took place at the meeting of the joint committee. I would like the Minister to send details of both debates not just to the European Council - which is required by law in the context of ratification - but also to the Parliament and the Commission. Will he indicate whether he will take this course of action?

In light of the nature of this debate, the House should mark the anniversary of the ratification of the agreement - if such ratification comes to pass today - by holding a debate each year. That debate should take place at the joint committee, which could meet the stakeholders, officials from the Latin American and Caribbean unit and representatives of the trade union movement to discuss Latin America and Colombia in particular. The joint committee could bring forward a report each year and this could be laid before the House in order that Members might debate it. Such reports could be produced until we are satisfied that the monitoring mechanisms and the systems relating to the citizenry are sufficiently strong to reflect the intentions outlined in the agreements before us. I ask the Minister to accept my suggestion in this regard in order that we will not just leave matters as they stand, forget about the matter and be left to wring our hands at some point in the future.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton): Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I thank Deputies for their contributions. Many very genuine concerns were expressed and I understand the nature of those concerns. No one is saying that Colombia is free from abuses of human rights and everyone knows that it is a dangerous country. However, we do not pick and choose the governments we want to rule the different countries with which we trade. We have no say in respect of either the abuses or enforcement of laws in these countries but we can seek to exert influence in this regard. As Deputy Eric Byrne stated, the agreement before the House will give us the opportunity to seek to exert such influence. We can influence matters in many ways and I set these out earlier in the context of how provision is made for them in the agreement. I refer to the fact that meetings can take place with civil society groups, trade unions and NGOs in Colombia in respect of this agreement and its implementation. There is also an arbitration system and there will be open sessions at which citizens will be able to raise issues of concern. The EU Parliament will be represented on a monitoring committee, members of which will visit Colombia regularly. Parliamentarians such as ourselves are exchanging information on and examining the types of issue about which people have expressed concerns. Irish trade unions can be represented on a special committee on sustainable development, which can pursue issues of genuine concern.

We have two choices in respect of the agreement. We can either reject it - and that will be the end of the matter - or we can take up the challenge, difficult though it might well be, and seek to work its terms. I am of the view that this is what those who are saying that we should use the opportunity with which we have been presented are suggesting. There are people with concerns very similar to those that have already been expressed who are stating that we should use the agreement. We should not seek to withdraw from all those avenues of influence that I outlined earlier and that are offered under the agreement.

The concerns of Members of the House will be expressed. I have already submitted the concerns expressed by the joint committee directly to the Commission. However, I do not agree with those who have stated time and again that disengagement will bring about some form of improvement in the position relating to human rights abuses.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Seán Crowe Zoom on Seán Crowe We did not say that. We are seeking the opportunity to revisit the matter.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton The Deputy should read the transcript of the debate, because that is what was said. Sinn Féin's position in this regard is particularly strange. During the peace process here, there was active engagement and support on the part of the US and the EU. Their support for the process was not seen as in some way condoning the abuses or atrocities that occurred. Far from it. That support was seen as encouraging people-----

Deputy Peadar Tóibín: Information on Peadar Tóibín Zoom on Peadar Tóibín We are talking here about the elected government of another state.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton -----along a road towards the delivery of a better outcome for all. What we are talking about here is a government that is seeking to take a democratic road and introduce a peace process, imperfect though it may be. We have an opportunity, via this agreement, to seek to protect human rights and have oversight in respect of their delivery.

Deputy Peadar Tóibín: Information on Peadar Tóibín Zoom on Peadar Tóibín The state in question is killing human rights defenders.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton We will also have oversight of the labour standards which apply in these countries. I am of the view that we should seize the opportunity with which we have been presented.

One of the essential elements of the agreement is the respect for democratic principles and human rights. If this aspect is not honoured, the agreement can ultimately be terminated. I go along with those who have stated that we should proceed with the agreement. Deputy Smith, who does not support the agreement, stated that the European Union has a very proud record in promoting peace through trade.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Seán Crowe Zoom on Seán Crowe Yes, in Israel.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton We are being given an opportunity and we must use it as best we can. I would be happy to return to the House to brief Deputies on the reports that will emanate from the trade council regarding the progress made in respect of the agreement.

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