Speech on Ireland-China Relations Motion

8 October 2020

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the House and thank him for taking this motion. I commend Senators Mullen and McDowell on initiating the motion. I am glad to support it on behalf of the Labour Party Senators and, indeed, we co-signed the motion along with other colleagues across the House. It is important that we do so to show solidarity with the Uyghur people and make these calls on the Government both to condemn unreservedly the oppression of the Uyghur population and to call on China to bring to an immediate end the practices we have been reading and hearing about and to allow UN human rights monitors to access detention centres in the region.

I acknowledge that in his speech the Minister of State made extensive reference to what the Irish Government has done. It would be useful to get a copy of the speech. I was scribbling away so I want to try to ensure I have taken it all down. We need to do more as a nation, particularly as we now have a seat on the Security Council, which means we have a responsibility to speak up and seek to put pressure on China insofar as we can as a small nation but also within the EU where we have a significant voice.

I also pay tribute to the reporting we have seen, as other colleagues have mentioned, particularly that of Yvonne Murray, whose reports for RTÉ from inside the region and on how she was treated by authorities in China have been absolutely chilling.

I express my thanks to Chloe Manahan in my office who did a lot of research for this when we were looking at this motion and the debate. I am aware there has been a recent focus and I have spoken about Yvonne Murray's reporting and recent reports, but of course there is a long legacy or history to the treatment of the Uyghur people. Colleagues will be aware that in 2014, six years ago, the Chinese Government created a comprehensive so-called national security legal architecture to begin or continue an oppression of Uyghur Muslims who comprise approximately 45% of the population in the Xinjiang autonomous region in China. I have visited China a couple of times and I am aware of the human rights abuses, as we all are. It is, however, quite visible when one is in China to see the sort of treatment that goes on, particularly in areas that are more remote from the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai on the coast.

We know since 2014 that the process of the abuse of rights of the Uyghur population has intensified. A set of discriminatory regulations on de-extremification were adopted in 2017 which had a serious effect on the Uyghur population, and of course, since 2014 as far as we know, there has been the beginning of the mass detention camps that others have spoken about and that were the focus of the recent reports on RTÉ. The misnomer, which Senator McDowell spoke about, that in China they are called centres for transformation through education and various other titles really does not hide or camouflage that these are really concentration camps and detention camps. Again, we have little clear information.

As others have said, there is a denial by the Chinese Government that the camps even exist and a denial as to the numbers of persons detained in them. Certainly, estimates I have seen suggest huge numbers of up to one million detainees. As far as we can establish there is no legal basis for the detention facilities and certainly no substantial legal basis that would stand up in international law. Those detained have no access, it seems, to legal advice. We understand that periods of detention are open-ended and can last for years. Release dates are at the discretion of the authorities. We have had testimonies and Amnesty International, for example, heard from one individual who was sent to a detention camp following a visit to Kazakhstan. He told Amnesty International he was hooded, shackled and forced to stand in a fixed position for hours when first detained, and he reported that thousands of others were held in the same camp as he was.

The significance of this motion is to shine a light on a very dark and murky region that is deliberately being kept in the dark, as China has been so reluctant to allow any sort of international scrutiny by the media or non-governmental organisations of what is being perpetrated upon the Uyghur people.

As I have said, it is very important that motions like this are debated in parliaments across the democratic world and the behaviour of the Chinese is condemned. Detaining people for indeterminate amounts of time without trial, apparently on the basis of ethnic or religious identity and where no crime or recognisable offence has been committed, as well as exposure to torture we have heard about from testimonies, constitute multiple human rights violations. Those who are suspected of violations should be brought to trial and there should be major pressure put on the Chinese Government to ensure the practices of oppression of the Uyghur population are discontinued.

As I have also said, the Irish Government must play a very strong role in ensuring this can happen. We all ask the Minister of State to convey the strong wishes across the floor of the Seanad that this be done, particularly given that we now have a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Ireland has a proud history, which has been mentioned by others, of using our status as a neutral country and our "soft power" to stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples. We did it against apartheid in the 1980s and I remember well partaking in that action as a student. We also have a strong tradition of advocating for the rights of the Palestinian people. Like others, I was proud to support Senator Frances Black's Bill in that regard and I ask the Minister of State to see that the Bill is progressed in the lifetime of this Government. That Bill would ban imports from the occupied territories and defend the rights of Palestinians. The Labour Party was proud to stand up with solidarity on those matters and we continue to do it with this matter.

I have always called for a separation of church and state and secularism is an important principle in a democracy and republic. Those who use it as a weapon through which to deny others the exercise of basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, religion and association, as well as freedom from persecution, must be condemned outright. They use secularism as a weapon, which I condemn.