Thursday 17 August 2017

Flanagan's silence on UN women's rights role for Saudis splits Cabinet

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. Photo: PA
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. Photo: PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

A Cabinet split has emerged as Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan refuses to reveal whether Ireland voted to help Saudi Arabia get a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Mr Flanagan has said it would be "very damaging to Ireland's ability to conduct international relations" if he revealed the Government's voting preference.

However, sources in the Independent Alliance suggested that it could be damaging for Government relations if he does not reassure the public.

The Irish Independent understands that the vote was never discussed at Cabinet - and other ministers were unaware that it was even taking place.

But Transport Minister Shane Ross and Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath both intend to raise the issue during the Government meeting next week.

Mr Ross said it would be "preferable" if the public knew where the Government stood on the issue.

Darragh O'Brien Picture: Damien Eagers
Darragh O'Brien Picture: Damien Eagers

Their colleague John Halligan went further, saying there was "no question" in his mind that the rights of women are being violated in countries like Saudi Arabia.

"We should not tolerate that," he said.

However, a spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Dublin said that "incorrect and untrue information" was being spread. He said the embassy would not confirm whether it had lobbied for an Irish vote.

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

The spokesman told this newspaper its "candidacy for membership of the Commission between 2018 and 2020 comes from the Kingdom's leading role in strengthening the role of women".

Saudi Arabia secured 47 votes last month, at least five of which are believed to have come from European countries.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has already made a public apology for supporting the Saudis - but other countries, including Norway and Sweden, are taking a similar non-disclosure approach to Ireland.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women is an intergovernmental body "exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women".

Amid growing pressure last night, Mr Flanagan told the Dáil: "It would be irresponsible to abandon a practice that has been in place for over six decades, observed by all previous governments and that is grounded on protecting and promoting the values of small countries on the world stage."

He said all UN member states kept election votes secret in order to maintain diplomatic relationships.

Read More: This is the world of realpolitik, where deals are done with shady regimes to keep peace

"This is not a practice that is specific to Ireland or to elections for the Commission on the Status of Women," he said.

Fianna Fáil's foreign affairs spokesman Darragh O'Brien said Saudi women "are essentially treated as second class citizens, with their ability to carry out everyday tasks severely limited through a system of male guardianship and discriminatory policies".

"The idea that this regime would now contribute to policy discussions on the status of women sends out a very negative signal to those campaigning for equal rights in Saudi Arabia and around the world," he said.

The spokesman for the Saudi Embassy rebuffed any criticism, saying its country has taken "great steps in promoting the rights of women, guaranteed by Islamic laws before the existence of international conventions, which aim at empowering women as fundamental and active members of society".

"Women in the Kingdom occupy a prominent position in various fields encouraged by government support," he said.

10 questions the minister won’t answer

1. Was Ireland lobbied to support Saudi Arabia securing a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women?

2. Did Ireland vote in favour of Saudi Arabia securing a seat on the Commission?

3. If so, why?

4. If not, who did Ireland vote for?

5. Regardless of how Ireland voted, does the Foreign Affairs Minister believe that Saudi Arabia is a suitable country to be part of an agency that is “exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women”?

6. Has Ireland sought support from Saudi Arabia for elections to other United Nations bodies, such as the Security Council?

7. When is the last time the minister met with representatives of the Saudi Arabian government in Ireland?

8. What was the purpose of these meetings?

9. At any point was the issue of women’s rights raised?

10. At any point was the UN Commission on the Status of Women discussed?

Irish Independent

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