The Irish Government is currently undertaking the latest in series of trade missions to the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The purpose is “to improve international linkages and boost trade and investment”. The problem is that these countries are amongst the world’s worst human rights abusers. In Saudi Arabia, as previously discussed on the blog, there are:
pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women and children, as well as for workers.
When it comes to Qatar, the abuse of workers’ rights in the construction industry is widely known, yet in the context of World Cup 2022, the country is seen as a ‘lucrative market’ for Irish firms to tap into. The United Arab Emirates has been on the radar of human rights organizations for many years, for violations including restrictions on freedom of expression and mistreatment of migrant workers. Paul Murphy MEP has dubbed the trade mission the “tour of dictatorships”.
In the official statement issued by the Government Press Office concerning the trade mission there is no mention of human rights. This is not an oversight, as human rights are clearly not on the official agenda. It seems that the mission is being run by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation – Minister Richard Bruton is accompanying the Taoiseach – not by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where there actually is a considerable degree of human rights expertise. The Government’s press release tells us that there are “109 senior executives from 87 Enterprise Ireland client companies” on this mission, but there is no mention of anyone from the human rights unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The Irish Government has previously made a luke warm commitment that in the area of economic development “engagement by Irish companies, is compatible with Ireland’s commitment to human rights”. It has also signaled its intention to abide by the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights. How is this to be implemented in practice if human rights are absent from such trade missions, at least overtly, and where there is no national implementation plan for the United Nations Guiding Principles.
When questions were put to the Government as to whether Taoiseach Enda Kenny would raise human rights in the context of this trade mission, it declined to answer, according to reports. However, the Irish Times is running a story with the title: ‘Taoiseach will work with Saudi Arabia on Human Rights’. This is misleading, as the article, in the few paragraphs where it even mentions human rights, reveals that Kenny merely congratulated the Crown Prince on Saudi Arabia’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is where he indicated such cooperation would take place. There is nothing in terms of human rights conditions being attached to trade agreements, or requiring that Irish businesses conduct themselves in accordance with human rights standards while operating in the Gulf (if that is even possible). Colm O’Gorman, of Amnesty International, has called on the Irish government to address these issues:
We always call on the Irish government to raise human rights issues in dialogue with other states. Indeed Ireland has a clear responsibility to do so and often that’s the case. So we would be urging the Taoiseach and indeed all Irish government ministers who are on missions to Gulf states to raise issues.
But he admits that they had been kept in the dark about this mission, and couldn’t raise their concerns in advance. Even then, how do we know that such concerns will be addressed in these diplomatic contexts where so much goes on behind closed doors. The Irish Government’s approach seems to be that some vague reference should be made to human rights, if at all, but ultimately politicians should drive home the mantra of jobs, trade, investment and economic growth, the seemingly magic words that it is hoped will make any ethical criticism of how and with whom the Irish government does business go away.