Priority Questions - Human Rights Issues

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 751 No. 4

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  31.  Deputy Mick Wallace  Information on Mick Wallace  Zoom on Mick Wallace   asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade  Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore   his views on the use of Shannon Airport as a stopover by US forces en route to Afghanistan, in view of the footage which emerged in recent days that appears to show US marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters and laughing; his views on the fact that the Guantánamo [761]Bay detention camp remains open despite President Barack Obama’s promise to the contrary; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2585/12]

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I fully share in the widespread revulsion at the images to which the Deputy refers. International humanitarian law obliges parties to an armed conflict to treat the dead with respect and dignity. The footage appears to show disgraceful acts which are in clear violation of these obligations.

The Deputy will be aware that the incident disclosed by the footage has been condemned in the strongest terms by senior figures in the US Administration, including the Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton, and the Secretary of Defence, Mr. Leon Panetta, and that the responsible US authorities have instituted an investigation into the matter.

The images in question are deeply upsetting and shameful. Assuming that the images are accurate, those responsible must be held fully accountable for their behaviour. They have betrayed not just their own country but the Afghan Government and people and all in the international community who have supported the international action to sustain the elected government in Kabul.

There are no plans to change the arrangements for the overflight and landing of US military aircraft, which have been continuously in place under successive Governments for over 50 years.

Under the Air Navigation (Foreign Military Aircraft) Order 1952, foreign military aircraft are not permitted to fly over or land in the State save on the express invitation or with the express permission of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The majority of US troops which pass through Shannon Airport are carried on commercial flights.

As for the Deputy’s reference to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Ireland has called for the closure of this centre and has urged that those detained there be brought to trial or released. I have discussed this issue personally with the US Secretary of State, Ms Clinton. We would, of course, hope to see the earliest possible fulfilment of the pledge made by President Obama in 2009 to close the centre. I am aware that the President’s efforts to do so have been frustrated by the absence of the necessary agreement on the part of the US Congress. I welcome his continuing political commitment to close the centre and I assure the Deputy that we will continue to press for this action to be taken with all possible speed.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace  Zoom on Mick Wallace  The fact that the US Government is looking into the matter does not give me much comfort. To take one example, Frank Wuterich, a US marine, was charged in 2005 with killing 24 Iraqis. He was commanding a group of soldiers who burst into the victims’ homes and shot men, women and children in their night clothes. This individual is accused of manslaughter.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt  Zoom on Michael Kitt  I remind the Deputy that this is Question Time.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace  Zoom on Mick Wallace  With regard to our involvement in these matters, Colm O’Gorman stated last week: “Ireland is not an innocent bystander. We have been complicit in kidnapping and torture by allowing Shannon airport to be used as a stop-over for rendition flights”. Last year, in its concluding observations on Ireland, the UN Committee against Torture highlighted allegations of complicity in rendition and the State’s failure to properly investigate these matters. The committee was concerned about the various reports of the State allegedly co-operating in a rendition programme under which rendition flights used the State’s airports and airspace. It was also concerned about the inadequate response by the State in terms of investigating these allegations. It recommended that the State should provide further infor[762]mation on the specific measures taken to investigate these allegations and asked for clarification on measures to ensure such cases are prevented in the future.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt  Zoom on Michael Kitt  I must call the Tánaiste. I will allow Deputy Wallace another opportunity.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace  Zoom on Mick Wallace  The UN is clearly unhappy with our performance.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I take seriously the strong condemnation by the US Secretary of State, Ms Clinton, and the US Secretary of Defence, Mr. Panetta, of the behaviour we saw on our television screens. This State is in no way complicit in providing comfort for torture, rendition or other actions which breach the human rights of anybody, irrespective of whether they are in this country or elsewhere. If specific allegations are made in this regard they will be investigated but the State does not give comfort or support to kidnapping, torture or mistreatment of individuals in custody or otherwise.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace  Zoom on Mick Wallace  The programme for Government states: “We will enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law”. I ask the Tánaiste to outline his plans to investigate the use of Shannon Airport as a stopover point by aircraft on the rendition circuit and to address any shortcomings in Irish law which permitted our territory to be used in this way, in breach of our obligations under international law. We can say what we like and we can say we are not in favour of this, that or the other, but whether we like it or not, if we continue to allow these planes to land in Shannon, there is blood on our hands too.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Our law is very robust in respect of the control of our airspace and airports by military aircraft. As I am the Minister with direct responsibility for approving flights, the Deputy can be assured that the use of our airspace and airports will comply with international law. There is no question of any doubt about that.

If there are specific allegations that can be investigated, they will be investigated. We do not tolerate and will not tolerate the use of our airspace or airports for any illegal purpose — for torture, rendition or the unauthorised detainment of any individual — and we have no evidence that this has taken place.

  32.  Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl   asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade  Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore   the protest, if any, that he has made regarding the erosion of individual and press freedoms in Hungary; the discussions he has held with his EU counterparts on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2485/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Lucinda Creighton): Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  The Deputy is referring to the new Hungarian constitution, which came into force on 1 January, its associated cardinal laws and the media law adopted in 2010. While the stated aim of the new constitution — the consolidation of democracy in Hungary — is commendable, aspects of the new constitution and the cardinal laws have given rise to concerns expressed by many parties, including the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the United States. These include concerns about the impact of the laws on the fairness of the electoral system, and on the judiciary, the fiscal council and the national data protection authority. The media law was revised following discussions with the European Commission, and the Constitutional Court of Hungary ruled in December that a number of its provisions were unconstitutional. The modified version of the law remains, however, the subject of continuing concern.

[763]The medium for EU engagement with Hungary on this issue is the European Commission, as guardian of the treaties. The Commission has written to the Hungarian authorities about a number of concerns, including with regard to the judiciary. The Commission has noted that it stands ready to make full use of its prerogatives to ensure member states respect the obligations they have accepted as members of the European Union. The Hungarian foreign Minister, Mr. Martonyi, recently wrote to EU foreign Ministers and the European Commission on these issues.

While recognising the legitimate concerns that the new constitution and laws have prompted, I welcome the Minister’s intention to engage in discussion of these issues. I and the Government encourage Hungary to engage substantively with the European Commission. There has been a recent development in the last few minutes in this regard. The European Commission has just launched accelerated infringement proceedings against Hungary over the independence of the central bank and data protection authority and the measures affecting the judiciary. The first stage in those proceedings has just been initiated with the sending of three formal letters from the Commission to the Hungarian authorities.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  I thank the Minister of State for her response. Press freedom would appear to be under threat in Hungary and individual freedoms are being jeopardised by the erosion of the rule of law. The role of Parliament in providing oversight and scrutiny is also, it would appear, being steadily eroded. We have had comments in this regard from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who wrote to the Hungarian Government about her concerns.

I know the Minister met with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, in June. Did he have the opportunity to express any concerns about the direction he and the Fidesz party were taking? Maybe it was the Minister of State who met the Prime Minister. There was certainly a meeting in June as part of the——

Deputy Lucinda Creighton: Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  It was the Taoiseach.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Were any concerns raised at that point? I welcome the fact that infringement proceedings have been taken today, but is the Minister of State satisfied, given the serious nature and variety of issues that are giving rise to concern on the streets of Hungary, that the Commission has acted with sufficient expedition?

Deputy Lucinda Creighton: Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  To clarify, it was the Taoiseach, not the Tánaiste, who met with the prime minister. It is the norm that Heads of State would meet. The Tánaiste has had meetings on many occasions with his Hungarian counterpart, as indeed I have.

This issue came into particularly sharp focus in the autumn months. The media law was under scrutiny in the earlier part of last year, particularly during the Hungarian Presidency. It was well aired at that point and there was much discussion and analysis, with at least verbal intervention by other member states. That accelerated in the latter half of the year. The intervention of the Commission, among others, was timely. The Council of Europe was particularly vocal about the media laws, and the other aspects of constitutional change which came to the fore in the latter half of the year have been addressed by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, among others.

However, the role of the Commission has been expeditious and decisive. The important point is that while we demand high standards in terms of democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression in other parts of the world and from other partners, we must impose those same standards on ourselves within the European Union. That is necessary if we are to have any moral authority and credibility. I am pleased the Commission has intervened and that the [764]necessary accelerated infringement process has begun. It will send a clear signal to the Hungarian authorities.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  I will restrain myself from commenting on the fact that Fidesz has a two thirds majority in the parliament there and on the dangers of having governments with very large majorities.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton: Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  It must be handled responsibly.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl  Will the Minister of State outline her understanding of what can be done by the Commission through the infringement proceedings it is now invoking? What timeframe might be involved?

Deputy Lucinda Creighton: Information on Lucinda Creighton  Zoom on Lucinda Creighton  Article 258 of the treaty provides for a mechanism whereby the Commission, if it considers that a member state has failed to fulfil an obligation under the treaties, delivers a reasoned opinion on the matter, giving the state the opportunity to send back its observations. It is a two-way process. Obviously, there must be due process and Hungary will have to be afforded a reasonable opportunity to respond. I understand it can happen relatively quickly but I cannot give a precise timeframe at this stage.


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