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We must maintain a minimum threshold of decency and human rights

20 June 2018

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Remarks by Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin on the Dáil motion condemning US immigration policy, 20 June 2018

At least 50 million people died in the Second World War.

Entire towns and cities were reduced to rubble.

Millions of people across Europe and elsewhere were displaced.

But out of the ashes of this terrible conflagration, a new international order was built.

Under the guiding hand of one remarkable woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written.

And that Declaration has been a beacon of light and hope for oppressed people across the world ever since.

For sixty years, national governments and non-governmental organisations have been engaged in a painstakingly process of building up a durable system of international law and human rights protection.

The international system is far from perfect.

In foreign affairs, we do have to engage in diplomacy.

Sometimes, our ambassadors or government ministers have to bite their tongues as they deal with rulers from oppressive regimes.

But we engage with authoritarian countries for a purpose.

Which is the hope, over time, of bringing them along with us into a global system that respects human rights.

And while engaging in respectful diplomacy, we do also criticise abuses and put what pressure we can on regimes to comply with international norms.

The UN's human rights system, despite its flaws, has provided guidance and moral authority to help bring more countries towards stable rule of law, international co-operation and respect for human rights.

Increasing numbers of countries hold genuinely democratic elections, and when democracy becomes imbedded, we see that elected governments do tend to be more responsive to the needs and concerns of their peoples.

Advancing human rights and international law is a long-term project.

It requires optimism.

It requires vision of a better future.

And it requires commitment, to honour the principles of human rights, and to play by the rules, even when the going is tough.

But yesterday, in the 60th year since the Universal Declaration was signed;

the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called the UN Human Rights Council a “cesspool of political bias”.

And the United States of America has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council.

This hugely regrettable and short-sighted move provides the context for a number of policies of the current US presidential regime.

The immigration policy we see playing out along the border between the United States and Mexico in a prime example of that failure of vision, and failure to adhere to prior commitments.

And the commitment to human rights is not something to be thrown away lightly.

Despite all of the human rights setbacks over the last 60 years, one thing we have learned is that, there is no alternative on offer.

There is no other international order than that which is represented by a rules-based, and ethically-based international system.

I have personally been very saddened to see some of our partner countries in the European Union erecting barriers to migrants and asylum seekers.

Including those who are fleeing war, torture and persecution, from Syria and elsewhere.

For 2017, the Missing Migrants Project estimates that 3,116 people are dead or missing in their attempt to reach Europe. Most of these deaths are from desperate people seeking to cross the Mediterranean.

Where compared to the number of people who arrived in Europe, this means that one person has died or gone missing for every sixty that arrive in Europe.

One chance in sixty of dying on route?

On a leaky boat that is charging you your life savings?

The people fleeing to Europe are desperate.

And yes, some of them are so-called "economic migrants", who are desperate for a better life.

Some migrants may ultimately be sent home.

But, at all times, we must maintain a minimum threshold of decency.

We must maintain a minimum standard of behaviour in how people are treated when they take these hazardous journeys.

That minimum standard is called human rights.

This is our responsibility, as Irish legislators and as Europeans, and indeed as human beings.

That is why, by the way, Ireland should abolish its failed and discredited system of Direct Provision, and allow asylum seekers here to work, and to cook their own meals, as a basic recognition of their human rights.

These human rights standards apply equally to the United States of America in how they should treat migrants.

For a country, whose economic dominance on the world stage is built so obviously and so hugely upon the efforts of migrants, it is unconscionable that they are breaking the most basic laws of human decency by taking children away from their parents in an attempt to deter people from seeking to cross that border in the first place.

The US is not alone in facing the challenge of mass migration.

We understand that challenge all too well, both as a nation who has sent its own people to the far corners of the world, and as a country that has seen unprecedented levels of in-migration over the last twenty years.

And Ireland has benefitted enormously from the contributions made by the migrant communities who have made Ireland their home.

As has the United States of America.

In engaging in this so-called "zero tolerance" policy against migrants on its southern border, the US is not just creating trauma for hundreds of children and their parents.

But it is working against the spirit and the letter of the law of the international  human rights system.

And what is their alternative?

Are the nations of the world to pull up the drawbridge and ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters from around the world?

The Labour Party is a proud member of the Party of European Socialists, and of the Socialist International.

We are committed to a global system that recognises the human rights of every person and works towards the fulfilment of those rights.

And as part of that, we recognise that many of the problems from which people are fleeing... whether it is war, or drought due to global warming, or economic ruin... can be traced by to the failures and inequalities of the global economic system.

The solution to mass migration is not for us to fortify our borders, but for us to work with local people to accelerate the social and economic development of all countries around the world,

In line with the world's Sustainable Development Goals,

In line with human rights norms and commitments.

It is for this reason, of preserving the basic decency of the world's human rights' system, that Labour endorses the Motion condemning the abhorrent border policy of the current US presidency.