Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bertie Ahern has been at his fearless best during his trip to Saudi Arabia.

The country has been visiting in the past two days is one of the most repressive, backward and corrupt in the world. It is also – unfortunately – one of the richest.

Here follows a small expression of its repression: Eighty four people were executed in Saudi Arabia last year, many of them beheaded in public. Public floggings are also commonplace. In August 2005, a court in Mekka confirmed the sentence of 8,000lashes for a woman who was convicted of abducting a child.

The majority of those who feel the brunt of Saudi’s idiosyncratic and cruel justice system are foreign workers who enjoy absolutely no meaningful rights there. More than 50% of executions are immigrants, though they comprise less than a third of the population.

Dissidents, journalists, even very modest reformers have been arbitrarily jailed, sometimes for tortuously long periods, for criticising the absolute monarchy or the all-powerful and fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam.

As for the sanctity of childhood, forget about it. Some 126 children under the age of 18 were on death row in January last year. A young boy, Admad D, was sentenced to death in July 2005 for killing another child when he was 13.

Though Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which forbids the death penalty for under 18s), Ahmad D was tried by the Court as an adult “based on its assessment of the coarseness of hi9s voice and the appearance of pubic hair.”

In another case a Saudi Court ordered the gouging out of the eye of an Indian Migrant worker, after he became involved with a fracas with a Saudi man at a garage. The punishment was the Sharia law equivalent of the Biblical ‘an eye for an eye’.

As for women? Zero rights. Banned from running from election. NO right to leave their homes without a male relative or written permission from their guardian. No right to education or to open a bank account without male permission.

No better politician to give it to them straight than Bertie Ahern. This is how he confronted the thorny issues of human rights and freedom of expression.

“More broadly, I am convinced that the principle of mutual respect must underpin all aspects of relations between our two regions, Europe and the Middle East, which are inextricably linked by geography, by history and by millennia of cultural and religious interchange.

“Ireland is a modern and pluralist State. We believe that fundamental human rights are inalienable. At the same time, we accept that it is most effectively through dialogue and co-operation that all States can over time meet the standards to which they have committed themselves as members of the United Nations.”

What? Come again? Yes, you have guessed it. A mixture of waffle and moral cowardice. The same kind of fudge he used when leading a similar trade mission to China two years ago. Then he said in a roundabout way that it would be dangerous for a Government of a country of one billion people to uphold human rights overnight because that might lead to a loss of control. The same scaredy-cat stuff that characterised Fianna Fail ministers, including Ahern and Brian Cowen, prostrating themselves to America’s every whim during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

No this trip is all about trade. The only thing that money shares with morality is that they both start with the letter ‘m’. One indistinct subclause of four speeches has been devoted to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights records and its inexcusable repression and cattle-prodding of human beings. And then phrased in such an opaque way that he would have been just as brave uttering it in Fagans of Drumcondara as he was in Riyadh. One thing for sure: he was never going to offend his hosts.

These trips all boil down mammon and lucre. Okay the places are dodgy and dicky, but hey, everybody else is dealing with them so pass me that long spoon.

There are acres and acres of words in which the Taoiseach extols the strong cultural and commercial ties between Ireland and Saudi Arabia as if they were the world’s best buddies.

“In the Gulf region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains Ireland's strongest market and here with us tonight are representatives of Irish companies who are determined to make that market even stronger.

The robust performance of Saudi Arabia's economy in recent years - which

looks set to continue well into the future - has brought fresh opportunities for collaboration between our two countries. These opportunities have not only been for enterprises but also for education providers, as shown by the large numbers from our education sector that have travelled here this week.”

OK. All European countries sup with the devil and we all depend on the Saudis oil. But the absence of any criticism of substance demonstrates a galling lack of backbone and sends out a message that condones rather than condemns the terrible things that happen there.

Jim Loughran, the Communications Manager of Amnesty International in Ireland describes Saudi Arabia’s regime as one of the most repressive in the Middle East.

Referring to the only references to human rights and to freedom of expression in Mr Ahern’s speech, he criticizes it and says it could have been stated in more robust terms.

The tenor of the visit seems to be economic development to the exclusion of everything else, he argues.

“Human rights are at the heart of Irish foreign policy,” he said. “These issues are firmly on our agenda.

“The Taoiseach should not be focusing solely on access to valuable economic markets while being silent in relation to (Saudi Arabia’s) terrible human rights record,” he said.

from the Irish Examiner

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