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Damien Kiberd: So what if Kenny and Bruton didn’t lecture Middle East on human rights?

Were they not correct to put the business interests of Ireland first? And what about those other human rights abusers Ireland conveniently chooses to ignore?

Damien Kiberd

SHOULD ENDA KENNY and Richard Bruton have spent the last seven days lecturing their Saudi and Qatari hosts concerning human rights in the Middle East?

For once, Kenny might have spoken up with absolute moral force and good authority.

The state he leads is neutral and has always been neutral.

Furthermore, on each and every day since the foundation of the United Nations soldiers of that state have served on foreign fields working as peacekeepers.

Yet Kenny, true to form, remained silent. Bruton, the wimp at his right hand, muttered that there was a time and a place for everything.

Have they blown a big opportunity?

Or were they correct? As a matter of common courtesy why should you insult a host in his own house? Were Kenny and Bruton not putting the business interests of Ireland first?

And are the people who clamour most loudly for human rights not in many cases simply hypocrites who deploy their human rights ‘concerns’ merely to press home other political objectives?

Lee Kwan Yew, the dominant figure in Singapore’s politics since 1965, always ran a tight ship. Democratically elected and Cambridge educated, Lee has only survived by being as tough as his enemies. That means very tough indeed.

Singapore restricts press freedom and uses caning as a punishment for 84 offences, a practice it learned from the British.

Human rights imperialism

In one memorable speech Lee accused the West of imposing its own political principles on others, even when those principles were inappropriate and slowed down economic development. He referred to this imposition of ideas as ‘Human Rights Imperialism.’

A number of Marxist scholars concur, but for different reasons. They use precisely the same term – ‘Human Rights Imperialism’ – to describe the process whereby the US, NATO and the West arrogate to themselves the right to intervene, sometimes militarily, in the politics of others.

The US imprisons a greater proportion of its people than any other country. It eavesdrops on the conversations of business leaders in ‘friendly’ countries in order to secure commercial gain. Along with only Somalia and South Sudan it will not ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet it often uses ‘Human Rights’ ideology to justify its interventionist foreign and military policies.

Henry Kissinger put it most explicitly. He said that during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies human rights ideology was a vital part of America’s arsenal in defeating it enemies.

The problem is how to define ‘Human Rights.’  Maybe it is impossible to formulate a universally accepted definition.

Not the men for the job

Kenny and Bruton are not the men for the job when it comes to promoting Western-version human rights ideology in the Middle East. Yet parts of the Dublin media and even Fianna Fail were last week suggesting that both should take time out from their trade talks to convince the Saudis to allow driving licences be issued to women and force the Qatari royals to pay union rates to tradesmen working on stadia for the 2022 World Cup.

Eamon Gilmore, a former Workers Party functionary who would know more than most about human rights in Eastern Europe, insisted (in his capacity as foreign minister) that we never miss an opportunity to promote human rights. But it’s not very likely that he was burning down the phone lines to Saudi Arabia and the UAE last week to add to the pressure on his bewildered FG allies in government to start pushing for improved standards.

There is no satisfactory answer to demands for action on rights in other peoples’ countries. Not just in Saudi Arabia and Qatar but in North Korea and China as well.

Take a look at the smartphone in your pocket

If you don’t see the consequences of all this then take a look at the smartphone in your pocket and ask yourself where it came from.

The New York Times published a series of articles in 2012 describing how migrant workers living in cramped dormitories in Shenzen in China were routinely woken at 4am when ‘urgent’ orders arrived from Cupertino in California for more top of the range Apple iPhones.

Wiping sleep from their eyes the workers were led to their workstations and began working 12-hour shifts, six days a week ‘fitting glass to bevelled frames’, quickly lifting production to 10,000 iphones per day.

Apple is not alone in sub-contracting work to suppliers in southern Chinese cities. Others such as Dell, HP, Sony, Samsung and Motorola have joined the rush. The financial news service Bloomberg claimed in 2010 that terrible conditions had driven large numbers of workers to black despair. One of China’s biggest sub-supply companies Foxconn had asked 450,000 of its workers to sign ‘no suicide’ pledges. Nets were being erected below factory roofs to catch falling bodies.

In his recent book ‘Chinese Whispers’ the British business writer Ben Chu quotes Jin Liqun, a spokesman for the China Investment Corporation (CIC), boasting that China lacks Europe’s ‘sloth inducing labour laws’. The CIC is now the biggest source of global investment capital.

Chu notes drily that China is providing precisely what big multinationals want. The actual workers in many of these plants have also entered into a sort of Faustian pact with the factory owners. They are tired and overworked, says Chu, but they often want longer hours and better pay so that they can meet their family goals on education and housing. Human rights are not top of their ‘to do’ lists.

Tackling China’s princelings on their visits here?

Ireland has rolled out the red carpet for various princelings from the People’s Republic in recent times including the now most powerful comrade Xi Jinping. Our ruling wimps never mentioned human rights in their presence either. Last week a major report on Irish food processing merely stressed the urgent need for Irish beef to re-enter the Chinese market.

Dig a little and you’ll find that almost all the multinationals that feature on the IDA’s list of prestige investors in Ireland are also deeply involved in outsourcing production to southern China. Whether we like it or not we are part of the same sub-supply chains.

Chu’s well-researched book says that until very recently students at China’s top universities were obliged to spend 15% of their time learning Marxist dialectics. They now study Marxist economic history. One of the central tenets of Marxism is that the lower you drive down real wages, the higher the rate of profit. Marxists hold that profit maximisation must inevitably drive hourly wages towards subsistence.

What this means is that China’s decision to ignore western norms on human rights is part of a deliberate, mechanistic policy. Some 200m rural Chinese have been asked to make the transition from feudalism to capitalism in three decades. The Chinese economic miracle is built largely on cheap labour and a parallel application of surplus capital in fairly crude programmes of state investment.

Yet Ireland views China as one its key business partners of the future.

We are aligning ourselves with a command economy in which there are no trade unions and in which the degree to which workers are abused and exploited is calibrated in advance as part of a national economic plan.

Will Ireland ever speak up on this and other issues? It seems unlikely.

In recent weeks we have remained more or less silent on other important issues.

Latvia, 34% of whose people are ethnic Russians, has just become a member of the eurozone. Lithuania is waiting in the wings. Neither country has much in common with Ireland or with western Europe.

None of our political leaders has explained how the decision to expand the currency zone again was taken, despite recent monetary chaos. It seems as important as expanding the Eurovision song contest.

Was the decision to admit Latvia taken by the former Finnish county councillor Olli Rehn? Or by the ex-Portugese Maoist Jose Manuel Barrosso? Or by the Italian banker Mario Draghi who has strong historic links to Goldman Sachs? Will we ever be told?

The human rights issues which aren’t being discussed on Taoiseach’s Gulf visit>
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