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Ireland will be grilled on its human rights record at the UN today - and it might not be pretty

We’re likely to receive a hammering on issues including abortion, disabilities, Traveller rights, education and homelessness.

Image: Shutterstock/BrendanDias

THIS AFTERNOON, TÁNAISTE and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will face a grilling from the United Nations in Geneva on Ireland’s human rights record.

Chances are, we’re going to come in for a fair bit of criticism on how we’ve performed in recent  years.

Over the course of four hours, Fitzgerald will have the unenviable task of answering dozens of questions on human rights issues Ireland is perceived to be falling behind on.

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She’s expected to be asked to outline the government’s plans to address issues including access to abortion, education, homelessness, the rights of Travellers and treatment of people with disabilities, among other things.

She’ll also need to explain why Ireland has yet to ratify some pretty important UN conventions.

Known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), it was set up in 2006 to allow UN countries to examine each other’s human rights record. Ireland has faced it once before – in 2011 – when then Justice Minister Alan Shatter appeared on behalf of the Irish government.

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A lot of the same issues that Ireland was questioned on nearly five years ago are expected to re-emerge.

Of the 125 recommendations made in 2011, Ireland accepted – or partially accepted – 106 of them, but it rejected 19 including recommendations on abortion and ending religious discrimination in schools.

According to Mark Kelly, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the UPR is “a judgment of Ireland by a jury of its peers”.

“There will be tough questions and there will be tough recommendations,” Kelly told TheJournal.ie.

This is an acid test for the new government to see what commitments are made and how they implement those recommendations.

So all rise for Ireland’s human rights trial.

Here are some of the issues expected to come up:

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Access to abortion

So far, nine countries have submitted advance questions and of these, six have queried Ireland’s status on access to abortion. Germany and Sweden in particular ask pointed questions as to what is going to be done at a constitutional level by the new government.

While the government is broadly expected to hold a citizen’s assembly to decide on a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, it will be interesting to hear what specifics the minister has to offer.

Kelly claims that the amendment is “an ongoing and outrageous violation of the state’s human rights obligations” and says “the government has a case to answer”.

We are very concerned by the fact that Ireland is still very much out of kilter with peer countries, with the vast majority of countries in the EU providing safe and legal access to abortion.
Clearly from the advance questions, that’s a preoccupation that’s shared by our near neighbours.

However, Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign said the UN’s focus on Ireland’s abortion laws doesn’t take into account the rights of the unborn child.

“In recent years the Irish Government has deferentially and passively rolled over when challenged by UN representatives on abortion,” she said in a statement.

It’s time our government challenged the UN’s now predictable line pushing abortion and asked the UN representatives in question what right they have to gloss over and ignore, for example, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that the child is entitled to appropriate legal protection ‘before as well as after birth’.

Travellers

In 2011, Alan Shatter told the UPR he would give serious consideration to the recommendation that Travellers be recognised as an ethnic group - something that Traveller groups have been seeking for years.

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Former minister of state, Aodhán Ó Riordáin, made some advancements, but nothing concrete has occurred to date.

“This is a simple and straightforward step the government could take,” says Kelly.

Education

In 2011, the UPR recommended Ireland eliminate discrimination in schools on religious grounds. This recommendation was rejected by the government.

Since then, the government has moved to introduce a few more non-denominational schools into the system, but this is unlikely to be enough for the UN.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD)

Ireland signed the CPRD back in 2007 but is one of just two EU member states yet to ratify it. (The other state is Finland, which is on the verge of doing so).

The CPRD provides the framework to promote, protect and ensure the rights of all people with disabilities. In practical terms, it allows for a mechanism to be set up to monitor the treatment of people with disabilities at a national level.

This week, newly-appointed minister of state with responsibility for disabilities, Finian McGrath, said the convention will be ratified within six months.

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All eyes will be on Fitzgerald to see she repeats that commitment.

Which brings us to:

The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT)

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This is another commitment we signed in 2007, but have yet to ratify. (It should be noted most countries ratify within a few years of signing.)

Within one year of ratifying OPCAT, Ireland needs to set up a detention monitoring body. This includes prisoners, people being detained in Garda stations and residents in institutions like Áras Attracta.

This issue is directly in Fitzgerald’s jurisdiction, so she’s likely to be pressed pretty hard on why Ireland has made no meaningful progress in preparing for ratification nearly a decade after we signed up to it.

Other issues expected to be raised include homelessness and housing, the historical abuse of women and children, immigration and asylum issues and access to adequate healthcare.

Read: Ireland continues to fail girls and young women – and the world is watching

Read: ‘People with disabilities should have a say in tracking UN Convention’

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