Tensions surface over Ireland's new foreign policy

Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, an umbrella group for development NGOs in Ireland. The group has expressed disappointment with the lack of clarity in Ireland’s white paper on the future of its foreign policy. Photo by: European Union

For the first time since 1996, the Irish government has released a white paper on the future of its foreign policy, one that raised concerns within the country’s nongovernmental organization community, particularly about its “inconsistent approach” to human rights.

With Ireland merging its foreign affairs and trade departments in 2011, the country’s approach to development and aid is covered alongside economics, trade, influence and European relations. And while campaigners are positive about the mention of coherence in the promotion of human rights, questions remain about how human rights concerns will be integrated into other policy areas, notably trade.

As international trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership and the EU-Colombia-Peru Free Trade Agreement are being negotiated on behalf of EU member states, campaigners are questioning how their continued calls for an emphasis on human rights are being put into practice on the ground.

Dóchas, the umbrella group for development NGOs in Ireland, has expressed disappointment with the lack of clarity, calling the paper a “missed opportunity.” The organization feels there is little evidence of a rights-based approach to development, nor any attempt to address issues of accountability and empowerment.

Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, told Devex that “trade promotion is mentioned time and again, but the key question of how we balance the short-term interests of trade promotion with the longer-term interests of creating a sustainable world goes unanswered.”

This sentiment was echoed by Eoghan Rice, communications and content officer for Trocaire, the Irish Catholic Church’s official overseas development agency. While Rice welcomed the emphasis the paper gives to human rights defenders, there was “an overwhelming focus on economic growth, investment, trade and exports, but no mention of human rights [in the economics section] and the importance of not compromising stated principles in the quest for investment.”

No clear vision, limited public engagement

NGOs have also found the policy paper wanting in specifics, especially when it comes to the future direction of Irish development aid. While the paper discusses in detail Ireland’s present role in development, it is distinctly less particular on future projections and specific goals.

Zomer pinned the imprecision on the government’s “long-established approach to foreign policy as being the art of the possible, as opposed to setting clear goals and being very accountable.” As it is, he said, the paper focuses on broad commitments and areas of engagement, without providing any substance on concrete actions that will be taken.

“Usually a policy should set a target. We need clarity on what these commitments actually mean,” he told Devex.

The Dóchas chief was also critical of the consultation process. In contrast to previous successful consultations run by Irish Aid, the process this time “had no clear questions for citizens to engage with, provided no feedback to contributors on how input was being used, took place within a short time frame and had no outreach element.” As part of the consultation process for One World, One Future — Ireland’s 2013 policy for international development — there was, in contrast, an in-depth consultation, including public meetings in the country’s three major cities, he added.

This lack of public engagement is perhaps surprising, given that the paper’s release coincided with the launch of the European Year for Development — an EU-led effort to inform citizens about development aid. Furthermore, with 2015 the year in which a follow-up framework to the Millennium Development Goals will be set, engaging with citizens on development is high on the agenda. Ireland has shown great commitment to this process and is co-facilitator, with Kenya, of the negotiations for the post-2015 development goals.

Aid to countries with questionable human rights policies

The Irish government has reaffirmed its commitment to human rights, gender equality, the rights of LGBTI individuals, freedom of religion, the right to education, and the eradication of hunger and poverty. That last commitment has been a cornerstone of Irish Aid, with 20 percent of its development budget spent on fighting hunger and malnutrition.

Ireland’s development aid budget for 2015 slightly exceeds 600 million euros ($683.8 million), of which about 25 percent is delivered through NGOs. Eighty countries benefit from Irish bilateral official development assistance, but almost half the bilateral ODA budget is spent on just nine key partner countries: Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, East Timor, Uganda, Vietnam and Zambia. This focus on a small number of least-developed countries has been lauded by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nonetheless, a number of these countries regularly come under fire for human rights abuses, including Uganda for homophobic legislation. The Irish government has expressed its commitment in the paper to “[promote] the rights of LGBTI individuals who continue to … face systemic discrimination in many countries” but has given little indication of how this commitment should be translated into practice in the field.

During the paper’s launch, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan said that he will be introducing “a series of initiatives to implement visions and goals set out in the [white paper],” with a review of progress at the end of 2015.

But for now, Dóchas told Devex that NGOs have little sense of what this paper will mean for them in practical terms.

How should Ireland strike a balance between developing trade links and protecting human rights? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

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    Elizabeth Hayes

    Elizabeth is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Dublin. She has worked in China, France and spent seven years in Belgium where she divided her time between academia and writing. Elizabeth is interested in the interaction between development and economics.