Friday 28 July 2017

First we need the full facts, then we can decide for ourselves - that is called democracy

Political storm: Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel Picture: AFP
Political storm: Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel Picture: AFP
John Downing

John Downing

Let's try to put some fairness into the equation. There is a sense in which Charlie Flanagan would be seen as doing the "wrong thing" whatever he did.

If he says, "OK. We backed Saudi Arabia as the pragmatic course of action", human rights activists will hit the ceiling. Their perfectly valid arguments will be augmented by Opposition politicians who will also have other motives, and sometimes less than pristine records on human rights issues.

If the minister says, "No. We did not back the Saudi Arabian candidature because of its women's rights record", the trade and economic brigade will hit the ceiling. Their admittedly more venal arguments will be augmented by an uncertain world of Brexit and Trump, and the reality that someone else will trade with the oil-rich Saudis.

But the real problem for the Foreign Affairs Minister is that he is hiding behind the UN secret ballot on this one. He has insisted it would be irresponsible and damaging to confirm whether Ireland backed Saudi Arabia's successful bid for a seat on a United Nations Commission on women's rights.

Mr Flanagan is rightly facing harsh criticism for refusing to divulge how Ireland voted in the secret UN ballot.

Mr Flanagan and his colleague Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald have said Ireland observes the key UN conventions including secrecy around elections. "It is my strong view that it would be very damaging to Ireland's ability to conduct international relations successfully if we moved away from this established practice," Mr Flanagan said.

The Foreign Affairs Minister has added that it would be "irresponsible" to abandon a practice that has been observed by all previous governments. He said it was grounded on protecting and promoting the values of small countries on the world stage.

The latter is surely code for protecting the small UN member states from being "bullied" by all the bigger ones - especially those who like to regularly veto initiatives. But it is pretty limp stuff.

Many big UN votes are taken in public session. At all events foreign policy for a country like Ireland has to be conducted almost completely in plain view.

Ireland's decisions should be placed face-up on the table and defended accordingly.

This UN Commission on the Status of Women is worthy of respect and support. It was set up in 1946 and is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality.

For many brave and beleaguered defenders of women's rights it is among the few sources of solace.

It does vital work documenting the reality of women's lives throughout the world.

The global campaign group Human Rights Watch acknowledges "marginal improvements" on women's rights in Saudi Arabia in recent years. But men continue to control female relatives' lives and women in Saudi Arabia could not vote until two years ago.

It is very likely that Ireland backed its candidature. Dublin officials insist it is not linked to a current campaign by Ireland to secure a temporary seat on the UN's controlling security council.

Neither will they link it with lucrative Saudi trade prospects, but their discomfiture is real. A similar controversy erupted in Belgium, where its Prime Minister Charles Michel said his government would have voted differently if given another chance.

Mr Flanagan is on firmer ground arguing Ireland does raise human rights concerns when it can. He also argues that "quiet diplomacy" has a better chance than public admonishment.

It is also a bit rich of Fianna Fáil to be suddenly paragons of transparency in this matter. Its party leader, Micheál Martin, was foreign affairs minister from 2008 until 2011. Did he reveal Ireland's past votes in such elections? "I don't know - but he never voted for Saudi Arabia to join a women's rights commission," his spokesman replied.

Irish Independent

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