Darragh Obrien: While we are talking about diplomatic relations, will the Minister advise the House on how Ireland voted on the United Nations commission of the status of women? Did Ireland support Saudi Arabia in its ascension to that committee? I do not accept the responses that have come from the Minister’s Department. The Dáil is entitled to know, and I am certain the Irish people are entitled to know.

I find it incredible that Saudi Arabia, with it track record on women’s rights and equal rights should be sitting on a commission in the UN looking at the future status of women. I hope Ireland played no part in facilitating that position. The Minister mentioned it has been practice that these votes are not made public, which may be the reason why conspiracy theories abound about bodies like the United Nations. This is not a policy issue; it was a vote about the composition of a committee. The Minister, on behalf of Ireland, abstained in a UN vote on a commission of inquiry into Gaza and that was made public.

I have been looking through UN documents and websites today and in particular, the 61st session on women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work. One can see all the contributions from the various countries. Why is it we in Ireland are not trusted with that information? It is fundamental. Does our Government, through the Minister, deem it appropriate that Saudi Arabia should sit on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women? I do not. Is it a question of trade ahead of human rights? Is that the decision that was made? I have proposed a debate in the foreign affairs committee on the operation of voting at the UN and when it is appropriate for those to be made public. I am not being irresponsible about votes being kept private because of national security or other reasons like that. This is about a composition of a commission on human rights, effectively. How can people understand there is an issue in letting the Irish people know how our Government voted?

From reports, it appears five European states supported Saudi Arabia and were part of the 47 votes it received. Belgium was one of those five. The Belgian Prime Minister has already apologised and said it will not happen again. I want to know what our Government did. What did our officials do in the UN? Did they support Saudi Arabia in getting a position on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women? We deserve that answer. While it is fine to pass technical legislation on improving diplomatic relations, I do not accept the statements that have come from the Department since early this morning that we have no right to know. We have a right to know. We live in a republic. We live in a modern democracy. While people can hide behind statements and say it is not normal diplomatic practice, people are very concerned about this. Did the Department believe this would just go away with a hope no one would notice? If Ireland did not support Saudi Arabia, the Minister should say so. He should answer people.

I am suspicious of the fact the Minister will not give an answer. It leads me and many others to believe we supported the Saudis. If we did, it is reprehensible. It is akin to letting the fox into the hen house.

Any person in their right mind who looks at the track record of how women are treated in Saudi Arabia would find it disgusting that the Irish State would support Saudi Arabia in its endeavour to sit on a UN commission on the rights of women. They would find it reprehensible. If the Minister did, will he explain why he supported it? If he did not, he should tell us that. Perhaps there is a reason I cannot think of. Perhaps it is purely because of trade we can set aside our morals and human rights. I do not think we should. I hope the Minister will use the time in this debate to answer those questions. I have also tabled it at the foreign affairs committee.

I want to use this opportunity and this Bill to put those points to the Minister. People deserve to know. They have a right to know. We do not live in Soviet Russia. The Minister can trust the people with the truth. He should tell the people and me, as an elected representative to the Dáil, what our Government and representatives at the United Nations did in that vote. How did they vote and why? We deserve to know that. I implore the Minister to stop hiding behind statements from Iveagh House and answer the questions. The Minister is answerable to the Dáil. He should answer those questions.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Saudi Arabia has been elected to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The UN describes this commission as the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The executive director of Geneva-based UN Watch has stated that electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist the town fire chief. It called the appointment “absurd.”

We know five European countries voted for Saudi Arabia and we specifically know Belgium voted for Saudi Arabia due to a leaked cable. In the Minister’s statement today, he indicated that Ireland has a very strong record in promoting the rights of women and girls at the United Nations, commanding trust and respect across the UN membership. It is an interesting statement given that last year the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s laws prohibiting and criminalising abortion violated the human rights of Ms Amanda Mellet. The committee ruled that Ms Mellet was subjected to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment due to Ireland’s abortion laws. The same committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women has called for an independent investigation into Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries, saying that victims should get appropriate compensation and official apologies.

We are probably not the best to be throwing stones at anyone but Saudi Arabia is in a different league to all of us. One would struggle to find any country in the world where women are treated so poorly. Given the Minister’s statement, the majority of people in Ireland would believe that diplomacy and trade interests have won out and human rights have lost. Perhaps that is not true but it would be good if the Minister could clarify the issue so we could know the truth.

Deputy Clare Daly: I am slightly surprised the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has not stayed as he said on the airwaves that he wants to know how we cast our vote. It is utterly shocking if a Cabinet colleague does not know. In whose name and on whose authority was Ireland’s vote made? As Deputy Wallace states, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. A decision has been taken to allow Saudi Arabia to sit on that body. It is a country based on male guardianship that forbids women from obtaining a passport, marrying and travelling without the approval of a male relative; if they try to do so without approval, women can end up in prison and they cannot get out without permission from the same person. In 2002, Saudi morality police blocked a rescue in a girls’ school that was on fire because the girls were not wearing headscarves and black robes; 15 young women died. The Saudi Government enforces sex segregation in virtually all workplaces except hospitals and it fines businesses that do not comply. In food outlets men and women stand in separate lines and in many public buildings women are not even allowed to enter. In most places where there is segregation, women must sit down the back. As one Saudi woman has stated:

the decision to allow this oppressive regime to join a commission designed to empower women makes me feel personally violated and invisible. It is demoralising for us and sends a message that for the international community, Saudi wealth and power are more important than women’s lives.

The Minister cannot hide behind a spurious precedent. This issue is outrageous and people have a right to know how Ireland voted.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I am very conscious of the debate in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe about the outcome of last month’s election to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I am a strong believer in the equal rights of women and support the role of the commission in addressing questions of gender equality.

As set out in our foreign policy review, The Global Island, Ireland is committed to advancing gender equality. We played a key role in the establishment of UN Women, the UN body which promotes gender equality and which provides administrative support for the Commission on the Status of Women. Ireland took up a seat on the commission at the conclusion of this year’s session for a four-year period to 2021 and we will chair the annual sessions in 2018 and 2019. During its term on the commission, Ireland has pledged to work to strengthen the voice and functioning of the commission. Next year, the commission, under our leadership, will attach particular priority to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls in particular. In 2019 our priority will be to advance equality of access to public services. I want to secure agreement on these critical issues under the Irish chairmanship. To do this we will have to work closely with all UN member states and civil society to deliver the strongest possible outcome for women and girls. I also point out that Ireland has strongly supported equal opportunity across the United Nations. In this regard, the Government was very pleased that a member of the Defence Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Mary Carroll, was last year appointed the first Irish woman in command of an Irish contingent in the UN Disengagement Force in the Golan Heights.

With respect to UN elections, Ireland’s approach very much reflects those of other countries at the United Nations and it is an important part of how international relations are conducted. Since 1947, at the United Nations, the rules of procedure for general assembly elections provide that they are held by secret ballot. We do not publicly disclose our voting intentions or decisions. That is normal diplomatic practice and it is widely considered a fundamental aspect of the conduct of sensitive international relations. It would be very damaging to Ireland’s ability to conduct international relations successfully if we were to move away unilaterally from this established practice. 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.

This is not a practice that is specific to Ireland or to elections for the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It relates to elections to any UN body and I am not aware of any member state which, as a matter of practice, publicly reveals how it votes. It allows for the good functioning of the United Nations, which is made up of member states of very different views and political backgrounds. There are many countries in the world with which we have important policy differences, including in the area of human rights. The United Nations provides us with an important forum to discuss these differences. Our membership and leadership of the UN Commission on the Status of Women will provide us with such an opportunity. We will take that opportunity to very good effect. Ireland’s engagement on human rights at international level enables us to reaffirm our commitment to the universality, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights, to accountability for human rights violations and abuses and to the protection of those, including women and girls, who are most vulnerable and marginalised.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Saudi Arabia is engaged in genocide in Yemen and has caused a humanitarian disaster but we still continue to trade with the country, so the Minister might forgive us for suspecting that Ireland might have voted for its accession to the commission on this occasion. Only two weeks before the Irish trade delegation landed in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Abdullah bin Faisal al Saud, was asked if Saudi Arabia would continue to use cluster bombs in Yemen. His answer was short but conveyed quite a bit about the Saudi Administration. His response was, “This is like the question, will you stop beating your wife?”, before he let out a big belly laugh. Prince Abdullah compared Yemen to the wife of a Saudi man and seemed to find the idea preposterous that either should stop being punished. He was referring to physical abuse in the case of women and cluster bombs in the case of the people of Yemen. The Minister states that Ireland supports equality of opportunity but the people of Ireland would like to know if we supported the opposite on this occasion. Until the Minister tells us and there is openness about the decision making – this is not a normal issue – the people will like to know the truth.

Deputy Clare Daly: The Minister will not get away with this one and his answer has been wholly unacceptable. Irish people are absolutely outraged at a country that is infamous for the subjugation of women being given a position on this body. The Minister has history in this as he told us last year that he was delighted to go to Saudi Arabia to strengthen our economic, political and cultural ties with this “key” and “priority” market. It would appear from the Minister’s response that markets are more important than human rights. There was no precedent in Belgium’s case, and it is a small country that was able to acknowledge how it voted. The Minister’s remarks today tally with those of the Taoiseach when he spoke of this State applying “moderation” in the Gulf.

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