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Simon Coveney asks MEPs to delay EU resolution condemning Irishman's detention in China

Richard OHalloran has been prevented from leaving China since February 2019.

unnamed (2) Source: O'Halloran Family

IRISH MEPS HAVE been asked by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to delay tabling a resolution condemning the detainment of Dublin businessman Richard O’Halloran in China.

MEPs Barry Andrews and Sean Kelly, who have coordinated their approach on O’Halloran’s case, were asked by Coveney to hold off on bringing the motion to the March plenary session of the European Parliament as “extensive engagement at senior political and diplomatic level” continues with Chinese authorities.

Father-of-four Richard O’Halloran has been prevented from leaving China since February 2019 when he travelled to Shanghai to resolve an ongoing commercial and legal issue involving the Chinese owner of the firm he works for – Dublin-based aircraft leasing company China International Aviation Leasing Service (CALS Ireland).

There are no allegations of wrongdoing against O’Halloran, but Chinese authorities have refused to let the 45-year-old leave the country. The Chinese PSB (Public Security Bureau) told O’Halloran last month that the exit ban which had been placed on him had been lifted; however, when he tried to board a flight at Shanghai Airport on 10 January, he was turned back by authorities. 

Andrews and Kelly agreed to postpone their motion following the request from Coveney. The next opportunity for them to raise O’Halloran’s case at an EU level will be during the next plenary session in mid-April. Andrews told TheJournal.ie that he and Kelly are standing by to do whatever is in the best interest of the O’Halloran family

“I’ll be advised at all times by the family and what they think is in their best interest. If they want this matter to be escalated to the European level, we’ll go with that,” he said.

In the same vein, a Seanad debate on the fate of O’Halloran was postponed for two weeks on 15 February after Minister Coveney contacted Independent Senator Michael McDowell to say negotiations were at a “delicate stage” and that a debate on the matter might “set the process back”.

McDowell told the Seanad he was giving the “benefit of the doubt” to the department in not having the House debate the matter but that he would move ahead with the motion in two weeks’ time if O’Halloran’s release had not been secured in the meantime.

Andrews said the wording of the resolution for April’s session has yet to be drafted but his priority will be to highlight “the illegality in international law of the practice of hostage diplomacy” and to consider sanctions against Chinese authorities. 

‘Unrelated issues’ 

The proposed resolution comes at a particularly sensitive time for EU-China relations, as MEPs are set to be the final hurdle in the ratification of the EU’s contentious investment agreement with Beijing.  

“Trade is important and there are benefits to European businesses in this draft agreement but we’re parliamentarians, we have to have trade policies based on values, respect for human rights, for labour rights, and respect for the individual,” Andrews said of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that was agreed in principle on 30 December. 

The opinion of MEPs is important as they will need to approve the investment deal, though the vote is not expected until the end of the year at the earliest.

The EU moved ahead with the CAI deal despite concerns about China’s human rights record, including its mass incarceration of at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims, according to human rights groups. Both Canada and the US have labelled Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as genocide.

Human Rights Watch says that China has dramatically increased its prosecution of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang through the formal court system, handing out long prison terms for charges such as “picking quarrels” and giving gifts to overseas relatives.

Last month MEPs overwhelmingly passed a resolution that broadly condemned the crackdown on Hong Kong activists by the central government in China.

The resolution called for “targeted sanctions” against Chinese and Hong Kong officials held responsible for the police action.

EU lawmakers said they “regret” the handling of the investment deal and said that talks over the deal should have been seized “as a leverage tool aimed at preserving Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, as well as its basic rights and freedoms”.

In response to the resolution on Hong Kong, Beijing urged EU lawmakers to “face up to the reality that Hong Kong has returned to China”. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at the time that the resolution showed that some MEPs had “confused right and wrong” and engaged in “gross interference in the affairs of China’s Hong Kong”. She said the EU Parliament should “stop any form of meddling”.

As part of a new trade strategy, the EU said it would set up mechanisms to ensure that companies do not use forced labour, with the European Parliament vocal about its keenness for Beijing to sign on to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) ban on the use of forced labour.

Andrews believes there is a “very small chance” that China will address the wider issue of forced labour to the satisfaction of parliamentarians by the end of the year.

The agreement says that the Chinese will make sustained efforts to ratify the ILO conventions of forced labour. I think the European Parliament would expect that to be stronger. We would expect to see not only ratification of the conventions, but also implementation. The Chinese have ratified lots of things that they haven’t actually implemented in law.

He added: “We have to acknowledge as well the limits of trade policy to achieve all of these goals. If we did that, we wouldn’t trade with anybody really.”

Ec5WiYfXYAIHjMc Tara and Richard O'Halloran. Source: Save Richard Now Twitter

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, Chinese Ambassador to Ireland He Xiangdong said MEPs should not hold the CAI trade deal “hostage” over “unrelated issues”. 

“First of all, I will say that such a kind of accusation is incorrect. A lot of them are just totally ungrounded. And the second thing is that we needed to separate those two things,” Ambassador He said.

“We cannot try to hold the agreement as a kind of hostage to unrelated issues… The benefits of this agreement are neutrally beneficial. It is good for China and is good for member states of the EU.

“At the end, it’s up to them to make their own decision if they would like to kill an excellent agreement for China and the EU, including Ireland.”

When asked about O’Halloran’s case in the context of the CAI and the future of Irish business in China he said: “Exceptional individual cases happen from time to time.

“There are thousands of Irish business people in China…They’re in a better position than me,” he said.

On China’s human rights record and treatment of Uyghur Muslims, the Chinese Embassy said “allegations of genocide and forced labour are lies of the century”.

“If those accusing China truly wish to know the real Xinjiang, they are most welcome to visit the region, talk with the residents and see for themselves. That being said, we are firmly against the so-called investigation based on presumption of guilt.”

ireland-dublin-chinese-ambassador-credential President Michael D. Higgins receiving the letter of credence from the newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Ireland He Xiangdong in 2019. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald said that following January’s resolution on Hong Kong, parliament will carefully scrutinise the CAI trade deal, including its provision on labour rights.

“We want to live in a world where human rights are respected and we want to do trade deals,” Fitzgerald said.

“We equally have to have them in the context of human rights and labour rights. And those are the points that we’ll be making as we progress this in the parliament.”

Fitzgerald said that if there is no action from Chinese officials on the issues of labour and human rights by the time voting takes place to ratify the CAI deal “it’s going to be damaging for China”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin wrote to his Chinese counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang, asking him to review O’Halloran’s case on “compassionate grounds”.

“There has been regular constructive diplomatic contact between Ireland and China on the case,” a government spokesperson said. 

EU authorities first intervened in O’Halloran’s case when the chairman of the European Parliament’s China delegation, Reinhard Bütikofer, wrote to the head of the Chinese mission to the EU, Ambassador Zhang Ming, expressing concern about O’Halloran’s detention.

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The intervention followed a letter sent by Fitzgerald, a member of the delegation, to Bütikofer and to Zhang, asking them both to help resolve the case.

Fitzgerald said O’Halloran’s case is going on for “far too long” and the impact on his family is “utterly unacceptable”.

“We’re on a journey at present, I won’t say anything to inflate it but we’ll be watching very carefully to see how this case progresses,” she said, adding that should O’Halloran still be detained in China when the CAI vote comes around it will factor “in all Irish MEPs decision making”.

Likewise, Andrews said O’Halloran’s release is “critical” for him and “not something I could look past frankly”.

Andrews said he has gotten to know the O’Halloran family personally, after speaking about the case with both Richard and his wife Tara on numerous occasions. 

“It’s not just his case, there are other cases where China has held individuals against their will from leaving the country as part of investment disputes. It’s a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said.

Like several other nations, the Department of Foreign Affairs has issued a travel advisory for Ireland on China, highlighting the risk of exit bans.

“They are linked to the resolution of the legal process in question and it is not always evident that you are the subject of an exit ban until you try to leave the country,” the advisory notes.

A Canada-led declaration against arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations, signed by 58 foreign ministers, was unveiled on 16 February.

“This illegal and immoral practice puts citizens of all countries at risk and it undermines the rule of law,” said Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau.

The declaration did not single out any country by name but Canada has frequently drawn attention to the case of two Canadians it says are being held in “arbitrary detention” in China.

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Adam Daly

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