Saturday 1 October 2016

David Quinn: Why Enda of Arabia raps church but not human rights abuses in Middle East

Published 10/01/2014 | 07:00

Taoiseach Enda Kenny during Ireland's four-country trade mission to the Middle East
Taoiseach Enda Kenny during Ireland's four-country trade mission to the Middle East

There is much blather in Ireland about human rights. We like to pride ourselves on being a great champion of human rights all over the world.

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We pride ourselves on how we opposed Apartheid, for instance, and there was massive coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela.

Some Irish people do indeed take human rights very seriously and are willing to make a genuine personal sacrifice for what they believe. One of the most shining examples was offered by the Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike in the 1980s in protest against the company selling South African produce.

As a result of their principled action Ireland became the first country to ban produce from South Africa in 1987. All over the world, Irish missionaries go to enormous lengths on behalf of human rights.

But what of our Government? Well, that is a completely different story. Enda Kenny had been in the Middle East this week, chiefly in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst abusers of human rights in the world.

The Amnesty International website reports that in the last year, the authorities "severely restricted freedom of expression, association and clamped down on dissent. Government critics and political activists were detained without trial or sentenced after grossly unfair trials.

"Women were discriminated against in law and practice and inadequately protected against domestic and other violence. Sentences of flogging were imposed and carried out".

Amnesty might have also mentioned the huge restrictions on freedom of religion. For example, it is illegal to so much as build a church in Saudi Arabia.

They might also have noted the fact that over the years the Kingdom has funnelled untold amounts of money into some of the most militant Islamist organisations in the world.

Our Taoiseach was in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for most of this week leading a trade delegation. Did Enda of Arabia take the opportunity to raise with his hosts the small matter of human rights abuses in their countries? No he did not.

When journalists asked him whether he raised the matter of women's rights with his hosts, Enda's answer was astonishingly glib. He said he had met a number of women who lectured in local universities. In other words, he didn't raise the matter at all and instead got away with an answer that was no answer.

Likewise when he was asked about human rights in general. He noted that Saudi Arabia had been elected to the UN's human rights council and said, "Ireland obviously will work with Saudi Arabia in terms of human rights and their participation in the council."

You would think from this reply that Saudi Arabia is a great defender of human rights. So we can see that our Taoiseach simply didn't take the opportunity to express any genuine concern about his hosts' human rights record.

He wants Saudi money and therefore he wasn't going to say anything to jeopardise that.

He's much more fortright when money isn't at stake. In his famous speech in response to the publication of the Cloyne report in July 2011, he accused the Vatican of "dysfunction", "elitism" and "narcissism".

There was a great deal wrong with that speech, but it came from the gut and expressed what a lot of Irish people felt.

The speech was praised as "brave". But whatever else it was, it wasn't that. What price did he pay for delivering it? What price was he ever going to pay? He had praise ringing in his ears for days after delivering it.

Attacking the Catholic Church today is about as brave as attacking the Austro-Hungarian empire.

But if any government is guilty of "dysfunction", "elitism" and "narcissism" it is the Saudi government.

When Enda Kenny attacked the Vatican he was defending the rights of Irish citizens. But our concern for human rights can't stop at our borders.

A few months after Enda delivered that speech, he played host to Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping. China is also one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. Xi Jinping has since become Chinese president and the crackdown on dissidents has grown worse. Recently he attacked "Western" dangers including universal values, press freedom, civil society and judicial independence.

Did our Government condemn Chinese human rights abuses when Xi was here? No. Instead Enda was at his backslapping best.

Did Richard Bruton condemn Chinese human rights abuses when he led a trade delegation to China in 2012? Again no.

It is probably unrealistic to expect our leaders to do what few other political leaders do, namely to condemn these countries unequivocally and probably destroy diplomatic relations with them.

But there is a spectrum running between total silence at one end and total condemnation at the other and we are far too close to the total silence end. We know why this is, of course. China and Saudi Arabia have lots of money and we want it. We want them to send their students here. We want them to buy Irish government bonds and we want them to buy our goods.

We will do nothing to endanger this. Money comes before human rights in the eyes of our Government and therefore it will only condemn human rights violations when there is no price to be paid.

This is why Enda of Arabia stayed schtum this week.

Irish Independent

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