Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern T.D. on the Adjournment concerning matters proposed for consideration-Dáil Éireann, 24 November 2004
I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. I welcome the opportunity to share with the House the information to hand at this stage and the approach I am taking.
I want to place on the record of the House my gratitude to Deputy Sean Haughey, and subsequently to Minister of State Lenihan who made the initial contacts with me late last Friday evening which allowed us begin our initial enquiries on behalf of the Chernobyl Children's Project..
There have been some indications in the past week that the Belarusian Authorities may introduce restrictions on travel abroad by children for rest and recuperation, including children suffering from the Chernobyl disaster.
On 17 November, the Belarusian President Mr. Lukashenko made a wide - ranging address to the Belarusian Parliament. The occasion was an official ceremony to sign into law the constitutional amendment allowing the President to seek a third term of office at the next Presidential elections in 2006. The President highlighted popular support for his rule and stated that there would be no strategic change in the policy of Belarus.
Under a heading "Chernobyl children affected by Western consumerism", the President said Belarus had to put an end to the lack of control over the recuperation of its children abroad. The organisation of children's trips abroad for recuperation should be the prerogative of the State, he said, adding that if NGOs and religious groups wanted to provide assistance to Belarus, "let them transfer funds and have spending controlled from Belarus." He affirmed that modern medical equipment and good doctors who will perform operations are what is needed.
This House is well aware that Ireland is among the States which have taken a lead in rendering humanitarian aid to Belarusian children in order to relieve the after- effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident . We are all familiar with the exceptional work of the Chernobyl Children's Project. Indeed, having taken one of these children into my own home for the past nine years, I have some personal experience of the very real needs of these children and of the benefits which rest and recuperation brings to their lives.
The House will share the Government's deep concern about the implications of President Lukashenko's announcement for the continuation of this admirable and constructive engagement with the people of Belarus.
In the discussion of Belarus at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 22 November, I took the opportunity to raise the issue of Chernobyl children continuing to be able to travel abroad for rest and recuperation.
I shared with my colleagues my strong concern about this development and pointed out that, if implemented, the new regulations would add a new and worrying dimension to the isolation of Belarus from the rest of Europe. I asked High Representative Solana and my Ministerial colleagues to share any information that might come to light in order to assist Ireland's efforts to clarify what exactly the new regulations will involve in practice. I emphasised that this is an issue which Ireland would wish to see pursued by the EU with the Belarusian authorities on humanitarian grounds, with a view to encouraging them to modify their position.
In addition to raising the matter at EU level, I and my Department are taking all possible steps to pursue it through bilateral channels. On my instructions, the Irish Ambassador in Moscow, who is accredited to Belarus, will meet tomorrow with the Ambassador of Belarus in Moscow to seek clarification of my concerns. The Irish Ambassador in London is arranging to meet with the Ambassador - Designate of Belarus to Ireland . The Ambassador - Designate will be presenting his credentials as Ambassador to Ireland to the President next month. This offers a further opportunity to communicate our concerns and to press Belarus to modify its proposed position. On all occasions, we will be expressing the hope that the Belarusian Authorities, who have previously thanked the Irish Government and people "for providing substantial assistance in minimising the after-effects of the Chernobyl NNP accident", will, on humanitarian grounds, continue to allow the Chernobyl children to travel abroad for rest and recuperation.
I will also ensure that there is close ongoing liaison on this issue between my Department and the Chernobyl Children's Project.
A Cheann Comhairle, Deputies,
I have indicated that I regard this development as adding a new and worrying dimension to the isolation of Belarus from the rest of Europe. I wish to expand on this aspect. It is important that the House is aware of the broader context in which the matter under discussion has arisen and must be pursued.
Belarus is a European country of considerable potential which, tragically, has become increasingly isolated from the European mainstream. The policies pursued by the Government of Belarus, notably the lack of progress towards democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, have prevented Belarus from taking up its rightful place among European democratic countries. Since 1997, the EU has restricted Ministerial level contacts with Belarus. With the exception of humanitarian or regional projects or those which directly support the democratisation process, Community technical assistance programmes to Belarus have been halted.
The conduct and outcome of the Parliamentary elections and referendum of 17 October in Belarus were another missed opportunity for Belarus. Having made very clear in advance that an unfair election would not be without consequences for its policy towards Belarus, the Union duly reviewed its policy. It achieved in my view an outcome which strikes a good balance and which highlights once again the willingness of the Union to deepen its relationship with Belarus once the Belarusian authorities clearly demonstrate their willingness to respect democratic values and the rule of law.
As it borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Belarus is now an immediate neighbour of the European Union. As such, it has the opportunity to be an active partner of the Union in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy, provided it reverses its present policies and embarks on fundamental democratic and economic reforms to bring the country closer to European common values. This, in a nutshell, is the EU's approach to Belarus and it is clearly restated in the latest Conclusions on Belarus adopted on Monday by the General Affairs and External Relations Council.
At the same time, the Union is prepared to continue to intensify its efforts to assist Belarus to meet challenges arising from its self - isolation. Community and MS' assistance programmes will directly support democratisation and democratic forces in Belarus, notably by humanitarian, regional and cross-border cooperation. To coordinate this assistance, the Commission will organise a workshop in Lithuania with the participation of Member States, other interested countries, NGOs and other relevant actors. At the GAERC on 22 November, I recommended that the Chernobyl Children's Project whose experience and expertise equip it to make a very valuable contribution, should be invited to participate in this workshop.
As I have stated, this issue is of utmost concern to the Government and my Department will continue to monitor developments closely and to pursue the matter through all appropriate channels.