Thursday, 30 May 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
7. Ms O'Donnell asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps, if any, the Government will take to raise the issue of human rights abuses in Myanmar (Burma): whether the matter has been raised at UN level; if so, the outcome; the action, if any, the international community can take to respond to the human rights abuses by the State Law and Order Restoration Council as documented by Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11267/96]
53. Ms F. Fitzgerald asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps, if any, the Government intends taking regarding the recent allegations in a Channel 4 television documentary in relation to civil rights in Myanmar (Burma). [11300/96]
54. Mr. Broughan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the further measures, if any, he will take during Ireland's forthcoming Presidency of the EU to assist in the transition to democracy of Myanmar (Burma) and to secure the urgent release of Aung San Sui Kyi, the democratically elected leader of that country. [11333/96]
As I indicated to the House earlier this week in reply to written Question No. 57 on 28 May 1996, the Government continues to be very concerned at the deplorable human rights situation which has obtained in Burma since the assumption of power by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC, in 1988. The recent Pilger report on Channel 4 and the detention of an estimated 240 of the successful candidates in the democratic elections in 1990 and a number of their supporters in advance of the Congress of the National League for Democracy at the beginning of this week leave no room for any doubt about the repressive nature of the SLORC regime.
On Monday last I issued a statement, on behalf of the Government, appealing to the SLORC to release all those who had been detained, to allow the democratic opposition to operate without hindrance, and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. I also emphasised the need for a genuine dialogue to commence without delay between SLORC and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy as being the only possible credible way forward from the present impasse.
Developments in Burma are followed very closely within the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU and action taken accordingly. Since 1988 the EU has suspended all but humanitarian aid to Burma, including the discontinuation or limitation of aid through UN agencies. A policy of international isolation has been applied strictly, blocking even World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank Funds for projects in or loans to Burma.
In December 1995, on the occasion of  the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, to which SLORC leaders had been invited, the European Union issued a statement which, while welcoming the release of opposition leader and Nobel Prize Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, urged SLORC to start a true and meaningful dialogue with the opposition.
At United Nations level Ireland has taken an active role in co-sponsoring resolutions on the human rights situation in Burma, both at the UN General Assembly and at the UN Commission on Human Rights, UNCHR. On 24 April 1996, the UNCHR adopted a resolution, co-sponsored by Ireland, which deplored the continuing serious violations of human rights in Burma and the fact that many political leaders, including leaders and elected representatives of the National League for Democracy, are being deprived of their freedom and their fundamental rights. The resolution also called on the Government of Burma to take all necessary measures to establish a democratic state in full accordance with the will of the people, as expressed in the democratic elections held in 1990. At the UNCHR, the EU urged the SLORC to release immediately and unconditionally all detained political leaders and political and ethnic groups and the establishment of multi-party democracy.
Ireland, during its forthcoming EU Presidency will seek to advance the process of democratisation and respect for human rights in Burma, and, to this end, will consider the development of a progressive critical dialogue with this country.
Mr. M. McDowell: Will the Minister agree that one of the most disturbing features concerning the recent publicity about the abuse of human rights in Burma, Myanmar, is the use of slave labour by the SLORC army and the use of children to construct a railway? In that context, will he use his good offices with the French Government to exercise some influence over the Total oil company, on behalf of which and for whose purposes this railway is being built using  child slave labour in the most horrific circumstances? Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, might be able to assist the Minister in getting the message across to France that its company, Total, is having a railway constructed in Burma by children aged eight to 12, many of whom die in the course of its constructing and many of whose parents are shot for failing to work quickly enough on it.
Mr. Spring: I am aware of the revelations on the Channel 4 programme by John Pilger, who has done tremendous work in exposing the type of activity taking place in Burma. This matter will be raised at the next General Affairs Council meeting. I would have no hesitation in having discussions with my French colleague, as suggested by Deputy McDowell.
Mr. R. Burke: Will the Minister agree that the protestations of the EU at the ASEAN Summit meeting and elsewhere would have far greater meaning and credibility if when protesting about human rights incidents, such as the constructions of this railway for the Total oil company, some member states of the EU which compete to sell arms did not proceed to sell them to that regime?
Mr. R. Burke: Has the Minister had any success? It is not sufficient merely to have good intentions in regard to this matter and to express them in this House. Can the Minister give examples of occasions he raised these issues at Foreign Affairs Council meetings and where he strongly made those views, concerning the behaviour of fellow member states of the EU, known to them? In many cases the equivalent of semi-State bodies are selling arms to  that regime which is building that railway with child labour. It is all very well to utter protestations and to express a stated view in the House, but what is being done about this abuse of human rights?
Mr. Spring: The Government makes its views known at General Affairs Council meetings. Our position on the sale and transfer of arms is very clear and consistent with the position taken by previous Governments and we will continue to hold that position. The Deputy is seeking examples, but the question of success or failure in this regard is a matter of measurement. We will continue to put forward our views in terms of the formulation of EU Common Foreign and Security Policy on disarmament, sale of arms and otherwise in the hope that eventually our European Union partners will realise that in the long-term the Union must adopt a common policy which will prohibit the sale of arms, particularly to such countries and regimes.
Mr. E. Ryan: I welcome what the Minister said, it sounded good and I am not saying he is not committed to addressing this issue. The French are building a railway and the British Embassy is actively helping British businessmen to trade in Burma. As my colleague Deputy Burke said, well meaning motions are passed at various committees, but the reality is that this issue is not being addressed. In a recent interview Aung San Suu Kyi said the will of the people and world opinion will bring about democracy in Burma. Real pressure must be brought to bear on the Burmese Government. How can real pressure that will have bite be exerted on the regime in Burma?
Mr. Spring: There has been a new awareness of the situation in Burma following the Pilger documentary and, in fairness, Deputy Harney tabled the first question on this matter for written reply  a number of days ago, to which I responded.
Mr. Spring: Responses to new revelations about Burma will be raised at the General Affairs Council and the matter will also be discussed at the Development Co-operation Council and we can see what progress can be made. All political parties must work together in expressing opinions at various fora on which we have representation, be it at the Council of Europe or the United Nations, and the Government is highlighting the issue through the European Union.
Mr. D. Wallace: Is the Tánaiste concerned about how ineffective the United Nations has become in the eyes of the world, and about the lack of respect and hope in so many states about the performance of the United Nations in Rwanda, Somalia, etc.? There is widespread concern about the direction in which the UN is going, given the genocide and atrocities in Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, etc. We are very proud of the contribution our Defence Forces have made abroad, but there is genuine concern throughout the world that a body such as the United Nations which was always held in such high regard is becoming totally ineffective. Could the Tánaiste indicate whether he has any proposals or has articulated any views at the United Nations or at any other level about arresting this situation so that the hope people had in the United Nations can be re-established as quickly as possible?
Mr. Spring: I can understand the Deputy's frustration about the activities of the United Nations. On many occasions in this House we have discussed the role of and the success or otherwise of the United Nations. Little  attention is given to its successful missions; we always hear about its failures. The Deputy is probably aware the United Nations is effectively a bankrupt organisation because of the failure of a number of sovereign states to pay their contributions. I have raised my concern about that at a number of private meetings with the Secretary General of the United Nations. I have also spoken about it at the General Assembly during the last three years.
I am sure the Deputy is also aware that a major debate is taking place within the United Nations on the reform of the United Nations, the reform of the Security Council, the reform of the General Assembly and the relationship between the General Assembly and the Security Council, and we are contributing to that debate. It is a very serious problem facing the United Nations. I also believe the UN has been “tasked” far beyond its capacity from peace-keeping and peace-making, to humanitarian tasks and other roles it is playing in the context of children and refugees. We have seen that in many of the various theatres of the world in the past few years. As the Deputy has rightly said, we have a very proud record of serving and contributing to the United Nations. We are one of the countries that always pays its contributions on time every year. Successive Governments have insisted and ensured that we have done so. We will continue to do so. I firmly believe in the UN but we must be careful to have an organisation that is capable, that has the capacity and the resources. That involves both personnel and financial resources to carry out the tasks which we commission.
Mr. D. Wallace: Is there any forum within the United Nations that makes decision-makers accountable for their mistakes? Major mistakes have been made in the past 18 months which I do not have time to go into now. Here a Garda sergeant was removed from his position because he copied the wrong document or disposed of a document that he should have retained. Is there  any forum within the United Nations where glaring mistakes can be dealt with? Will the Tánaiste indicate if there is any mechanism whereby these people are accountable to somebody because at the moment it seems they are not.
Mr. Spring: I would be quite happy for the Deputy to supply me with details of the cases to which he is referring. I am aware the Carlton Group is currently looking at the question of accountability within the United Nations. It is obviously a huge organisation. Peace-keeping is only one aspect of its work, that with which we are most familiar in Ireland for obvious reasons. Part of the whole question of reform of the organisation is to ensure that there is maximum accountability. Also, one has to attempt to have some understanding of the scale of the missions and the difficult tasks which have been given to the United Nations and which will continue. The Deputy mentioned the situations in Rwanda and elsewhere. These involve difficult and complex missions. Traditionally the United Nations was best where it was invited in by various Governments as peace-keeper. In more recent years it has had other missions. The mandates have not been exactly clear, and in the confusion there have been some difficulties and some failures but, overall, the United Nations has been successful since its foundation.
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