Dáil Éireann - Volume 460 - 31 January, 1996

Adjournment Debate. - Ill-treatment of Chinese Children.

Ms F. Fitzgerald: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. Once again, the vulnerability of children throughout the world has been brought home to us through the shocking revelations and images of the film “Return to the Dying Rooms” on the ill-treatment of children in orphanages in China. Amnesty International is greatly concerned by the growing body of credible evidence, including eye witness accounts, film footage, Chinese press coverage, orphanage workers' testimony and officially published statistics and records of internal investigations. The Chinese Government should answer fully these [2054] allegations of children being deliberately left to die, sexual and physical abuse, denial of medical care and serious neglect. Investigation is needed into these matters.

Representatives of the Chinese Government here as in other countries have categorically denied the allegations, but as the body of evidence becomes increasingly compelling blanket denials or failure to provide evidence to disprove specific detailed allegations do little to counter the concerns raised by these disturbing reports. Such denials can only lead to the inference that the abuses in question may be officially condoned.

I am also very concerned about reports of the arrest and detention of relatives of those who have raised these concerns in China. We must continue to force children's rights to the top of political, economic and social agendas. This is not about China-bashing; it is about putting children's interests centre stage. It is also about Ireland acting at national and international levels to promote the welfare of children and raise awareness worldwide about children's rights and high standards of child care for the most vulnerable.

At the United Nations conference in Beijing one of the key issues clearly documented and discussed in upsetting detail was the need to protect the rights of the girl child around the world. There are unique problems with the issue of the girl child in many countries, including the consequences for the girl child of the one child policy in China and other countries because of the low status of women, which leads to a lack of protection for baby girls, young girls being kidnapped in many parts of the world and sold to sex tourism and sex slavery, putting their lives at risk. It is important that we communicate to China our concern about its children and the consequences of its policy. More investigations in this regard are necessary.

Many countries, including China, have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There has never been a better opportunity to raise the [2055] issues that so adversely affect the lives of children. There is now an opportunity and responsibility for Ireland to use its international voice. I welcome the action already taken by the Ministers of State, Deputies Gay Mitchell and Burton. I ask the Minister here tonight to ensure a thorough, impartial investigation into these allegations in an open and systematic way. There should be an international investigation of these abuses. We should raise the issue again and again within the EU, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. We have an opportunity to raise this issue as one of international human rights.

I congratulate the Department of Foreign Affairs on its work on this issue to date in the international arena. I ask that the Hague Convention on Adoption be considered to see if it can be acted upon by the appropriate Department here. The Chinese authorities must demonstrate that existing legislative protection of the rights of children in care is effective in practice. The findings of an investigation into this issue should be published in full. Ironically, the rights of the girl child throughout the world should be firmly on the international political agenda as a result of the work done in the Beijing conference. Isolating China is not the answer; working with the Chinese on this issue and raising it at an international level is the way forward.

We have on obligation to raise the standards of care for our most vulnerable children. We are not immune from scandal in regard to children, including children in care. As we come to the end of this decade it is clear that the education and protection of children has become one of the centrepieces of international development and human rights. The principle that education brings empowerment and, with it, the opportunities to transform life has been affirmed strongly by the global conferences at Cairo, Copenhagen and Beijing. This makes the future for children [2056] a realm of optimism rather than a crucible of despair, as is stated in the UNICEF report.

The UNICEF State of the World Children's Report, 1996, is a stunning report which highlights the devastating impact of global change and war on the most vulnerable members of society. The suffering of children around the world is horrifying. The UNICEF report states that for complex reasons spanning 50 years it is now possible, in spite of the wars and poverty, to believe that ultimately the world will not abandon or marginalise children. It has been a long struggle to have the lives of children taken seriously. They are now at the centre of the human rights agenda. The response of Irish people to “Return to the Dying Rooms” and other scandals has shown that Irish people want to put the rights of children centre stage.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms Burton): I am grateful to the Deputy for raising this matter. I am pleased that RTE will show the programme “Return to the Dying Rooms” next week and I recommend that those who have not had an opportunity to see it should watch it and ponder on the horrifying episodes outlined in it. The Government is conscious of the deep public concern following screening of the programme on Channel 4 and release of the report by Human Rights Watch/Asia alleging a nationwide practice of allowing China's unwanted children to die of starvation and suffer abuse in State-run orphanages. The Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell, and I have been actively concerned at the content and implications of the programme and the report. The Tánaiste wrote to the Chinese Ambassador on 22 January asking her to convey to her authorities the sense of outrage which the programme and report evoked among the Irish people. He indicated that while he was aware that the initial reaction of the Chinese authorities to the allegations had been that they were a fabrication, nevertheless he appealed to them for [2057] complete transparency and openness in respect of the allegations, for the benefit of all.

As Minister of State in charge of development co-operation I have sought to ensure that Ireland plays a significant role in promoting the welfare of children worldwide, to improve the condition of children in orphanages and to focus on issues such as child prostitution, land mines and child labour, areas where there are significant violations of the human rights of children.

I was shocked at the horrific images of the suffering children portrayed in the television programme, as anyone who watched it must have been. I made immediate contact with the executive director of UNICEF. I also contacted the Presidency of the European Union, the Commission and my fellow development co-operation Ministers to urge consideration of possible areas for technical co-operation and dialogue with the Chinese authorities, including for example the training of staff for orphanages. Our first response must be to seek to improve the conditions in which children are living in Chinese orphanages. The commission is pursuing this matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell, spoke with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on the matter and I am pleased to inform the House that UNICEF has reached agreement with the Chinese Government to start a programme aimed at improving the care of institutionalised orphans and disabled children. Similar programmes on children in Romanian orphanages resulted in a substantial improvement in that regard.

The European Union Troika, on which Ireland was represented, visited Beijing from 22-24 January for a meeting with the Chinese authorities on human rights. They raised the Human Rights Watch/Asia report and the television programme with the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Ministry responsible. Lengthy discussions took place on the [2058] position of orphans and disabled persons in China, from which it was clear that the Chinese took the allegations very seriously. As the Deputy said, the Chinese reject the allegations as a fabrication.

The authorities arranged for the Troika to visit the Beijing Children's Welfare Institute which houses 400 children, many of whom are mentally or physically disabled. One of my officials took part in the tour of that building. He saw 80 or more children who seemed to be well cared for and content although he reported that by western standards the conditions were austere.

The Chinese also arranged for a group of European Union consular officials, including a representative from the Irish Embassy in Beijing, to visit the No. 2 Social Welfare Institute on Chong Ming Island in Shanghai. The group reported that, relative to the objective Chinese standards, the conditions of the institute's premises were not inconsistent with those found elsewhere in China and that nothing they saw — I stress they saw a limited amount — indicated systematic ill-treatment or abuse of inmates. The Director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau pointed out that if cases of abuse, which is against Chinese law, were discovered, the culprits would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. Deputies will recall this was one of the institutions highlighted on the Channel 4 programme where particularly vile practices were alleged to have taken place. It is incumbent on the Chinese authorities to bring to justice those who are guilty of violating the human rights of children.

Our officials raised with the Chinese authorities ways in which it would be possible for Irish citizens and NGOs to contribute to the welfare of disadvantaged Chinese children. The response has been positive and this is being followed up. Irish Aid is also planning to provide assistance through international bodies and NGOs. I asked our ambassador in Beijing to initiate such steps last October. It is the Government's hope, and my own, that the deep interest and [2059] concern displayed for Chinese disabled and orphaned children can be channelled in such a way as to assist in the alleviation of suffering.

The issue of adoption has been raised. I advise interested parties to make contact with the Adoption Board in the first instance to ensure there is a full understanding of the requirements for adoption under Irish law in accordance with the Foreign Adoption Act, 1991.

I agree with Deputy Fitzgerald that the core of the problem in regard to able orphans relates to the status of the girl child. However, based on my experience of living in Africa, I am aware there is a tremendous problem world-wide regarding the institutional care of disabled and retarded children. China shares that problem. As this is the 50th anniversary of UNICEF it is an area we should seek to address collectively through institutions like UNICEF. In offering to share some of our experiences with the Chinese regarding improving conditions in the orphanages and staff training, a critical factor, we are conscious of our history in this area, having regard, in particular, to failings in our structures. We do not make such offers out of anti-Chinese sentiment, we make them, on behalf of the Irish people, wishing to assist children who are deprived, abused and in trouble, whether in China or other parts of the world.