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Minister Brophy Speech to Seanad Private Members Motion on Xinjiang

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A Cathaoirleach, a Sheanadóirí,

I am pleased to join you in the Upper House this afternoon and to contribute to this important debate. I thank Senators McDowell and Mullen for bringing this matter to the attention of the Seanad. The situation in Xinjiang is of great importance, and it deserves attention in Ireland and in the Oireachtas.

The Senators are right in highlighting Ireland’s proud history of supporting the protection of human rights across the world. It remains a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy and in my contribution I will set out where Ireland has been active on this particular issue.

 

The motion notes that freedom of religious belief is enshrined in our constitution.  I know that for many of our citizens, their religious faith is a cornerstone of their lives, and they could not imagine, nor countenance, a situation where this aspect of their lives were impinged by the State. Yet, we have seen reports of just such occurrences in Xinjiang.

 

Additionally, of course, there are very worrying reports of arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance, forced labour, and even forced sterilisations and birth control in the region.

 

For many of us in Ireland, the reports from Xinjiang carry unsettling echoes from our own history and it is clear from the level of media reporting and public concern, including here in the Oireachtas, that the situation in Xinjiang has struck a chord and is of increasing concern to the Irish people.

 

It is also disappointing that this issue is impacting negatively on what is a positive and growing relationship between Ireland and China. The motion already outlines the level of trade between the two countries; but there is much more to the engagement between us. The 2016 population census found that nearly 20,000 Irish residents identified themselves as being of Chinese ethnicity. In 2018, Tourism Ireland estimated that 100,000 Chinese tourists visited Ireland. In the same year, there were more than 3,500 Chinese students attending third-level education in Ireland. These are real, concrete, person-to-person ties, and they can serve as a foundation from which to address our concerns with China. And we should not forget that in the depths of the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year, China became an important and reliable source of PPE and other essential equipment for Ireland.

Our relationship with China has been a positive one and it is a relationship with great potential for Ireland.

 

Nevertheless, given the parallels with our own history and the centrality of our values, it is unsurprising that the situation in Xinjiang has been viewed with great concern in Ireland. And it is in the nature of Irish people that when we see an issue such as this, we make our feelings known.

 

But it is not simply a question of raising our voices in protest. We must make our views known in a manner that has the prospect of improving the situation of the people of Xinjiang. We must also ensure that, in seeking to challenge Chinese policy in Xinjiang, we make it clear that we do not, in any way, seek to undermine Chinese sovereignty. Our motivation is a positive one. We are pro-human rights, not anti-China.

 

Similarly, this house will recall that China has in recent years faced the threat of Islamic extremism, including the horrendous attack on Kunming railway station, in 2014 where 31 civilians were brutally stabbed to death. So, when the Chinese government states that its actions in Xinjiang are in response to this threat, there is something behind it. However, in recognising the reality of terrorist threats in China, and of the very real need for the Chinese Government to protect their citizens, we must not lose sight of their obligation to respond appropriately, proportionately and in a manner that respects the human rights of the Uyghur people.  The reports we have seen suggest that this is not the case.

 

The best way to argue for a change in Chinese policy in Xinjiang is to engage with Chinese authorities and convey our position in relation to what we understand to be happening in Xinjiang.  It is also important that we work in cooperation with like-minded states. Along with our EU partners, Ireland has been vocal about highlighting the issue of the deterioration of the human rights situation in Xinjiang. This was most recently raised by EU leaders with the Chinese leadership on 14 September. Ireland fully supports this EU position, and we see the EU as an effective platform for engagement with China on human rights issues.

 

We must also note the existing engagement Ireland has had at the UN on the issue of Xinjiang. This week, Ireland was one of 39 countries, including 20 from the EU that made a joint statement on Xinjiang in the UN Third Committee. The statement was delivered by Germany, which currently sits alongside China in the Security Council, and expresses grave concern “about the existence of a large network of “political re-education” camps where credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained. We have seen an increasing number of reports of gross human rights violations. There are severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association, and expression as well as on Uyghur culture. Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uyghurs and other minorities and more reports are emerging of forced labour and forced birth control including sterilization.”  The statement calls on China “to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office..”

 

This is the latest expression of our concern and builds on previous occasions where Ireland has spoken up on this issue.  In our national statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 25 September, Ireland reiterated our deep concern regarding the treatment of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, and urged China to allow unrestricted access to the region for the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Prior to this, Ireland was also one of 27 states to issue a Joint Statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 30 June, which also called on the High Commissioner to provide regular information about the situation in the region.

 

Ireland has previously supported a Joint Statement at the UN Third Committee in October 2019, and a Joint Letter at the UN Human Rights Council in July 2019, which called for the Chinese Government to urgently implement eight recommendations made by the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination related to Xinjiang and to uphold its international obligations and respect human rights in Xinjiang.

 

We have supported calls for immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers because we believe that such a development would be in the interests of all parties. It would allow us to better understand what is happening in Xinjiang through reporting by neutral and non-partisan observers. The reports from Xinjiang carried by RTE last week were a fair attempt to present unbiased information to the Irish public.  However, it was clear from those reports that Xinjiang is a very difficult location to access information. A more cooperative approach from the Chinese authorities might have helped allay some of our concerns.  In contrast, the closed attitude and clear surveillance of the reporter only served to underline them.

 

Ireland and the many other countries who feel strongly about Xinjiang will continue to raise the matter with China and will seek further opportunities to improve the situation of the Uighurs.

 

A Cathaoirleach, the motion before the house includes a call for the Government to use all available trade and diplomatic channels to insist on the observance of basic human rights protections for the Uyghur Muslim population.  I believe I have shown that this government is indeed using all available diplomatic channels to advance this issue. 

 

However as members will know, particularly given the recent extensive coverage of Brexit, external trade falls under the EU’s common commercial policy and is an exclusive competence of the European Commission, not Member States. It is not within the Irish Government’s power to prohibit or sanction the importation of goods and services at Member State level. To introduce such measures on an EU-wide basis would require consensus among EU Member States, and I do not believe that the political will for such a policy currently exists.

 

Additionally, we must be realistic about what trade measures can achieve, even if introduced at an EU level. Accordingly, I must dissociate the government from that element of the motion before us that calls upon the Government to use all available trade channels in this matter.

 

I believe that continued engagement, constructive but frank, is the best approach to raising our concerns, and effecting real change.  We must build upon the considerable common ground in the growing relationship between Ireland and China as I set out earlier in my contribution.

 

A Cathaoirleach, a Sheanadóirí, this Government takes the plight of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang seriously, we are concerned, and we regularly express this concern to our Chinese counterparts in both bilateral and multilateral fora. Ireland has a wide-ranging relationship with China, which covers political, economic, cultural, and people-to-people links. We share strong links in a number of areas, but there are nevertheless a number of differences in our relationship. This is one. The protection and promotion of human rights remains a core pillar of Ireland’s foreign policy. In our bilateral relations with China and through our participation in multilateral organisations, Ireland will continue to pursue this matter and seek better protection of their human rights for the Uyghur people.

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