FOR THOSE WHO work in human rights and for victims’ groups and others directly and indirectly impacted by the issues raised at this week’s hearing of Ireland before the UN Human Rights Committee, the responses of the State must have seemed both encouraging and depressingly familiar in equal measure. While there will doubtless be some feeling of welcome progress, at least in terms of a willingness to positively engage with the Committee, unfortunately the result appears to be the same: we have not made the changes Ireland was recommended to make four years ago.
The last time Ireland appeared before the Committee was in 2008. During that hearing, Ireland stated that the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was under consideration, but it could not be ratified until new legislation on mental capacity was introduced. This important Convention is still not ratified and the much-needed capacity legislation, which was published this day last year, is not yet enacted.
Overdue updates have still not been enacted
Also reportedly under consideration in 2008 was the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which would designate an independent mechanism with responsibility for visiting all places of detention in the country. This has not happened. The State also informed the Committee that the (then) new Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill would be compatible with human rights. This legislation, long-required in order to update our laws in this area, has not been enacted despite being published in 2008 and republished in 2010. And these are just a few of the examples.
It should be remembered that the issues that the Human Rights Committee raised with Ireland this week are not the only changes that need to be made to improve human rights in the country. In order to be efficient in the few hours they have to review the State every four years, the Committee makes a list of issues on which it will focus. But a review of the reports by the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) or the many Civil Society Organisation contributors highlights the much wider range of areas where Ireland is not keeping its international human rights obligations to the people of this State.
A depressingly familiar tune
Statements by Ireland to the UN that issues are under review or are about to be rectified are a depressingly familiar tune for those of us who follow Ireland’s hearings before the various UN human rights bodies that oversee the different treaties to which Ireland is party (including treaties on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Torture prevention, Racial Discrimination, Discrimination Against Women, and Children’s Rights). More often than not, the State attends these committees and tells them the same thing that it has told them years before. The attitude of the State may vary in being more or less accommodating to these committees, but the real issues remain largely unchanged.
A positive outcome of this week’s process, apart from having shone a light on some of the human rights challenges faced by people in Ireland, is that is provides the State with an opportunity to take action. The reports of the IHRC and Civil Society Groups, as well as the recommendations that the UN Committee itself will make, give a clear list to the Government of the changes that are needed. Many of these are not fundamental or major; they involve enacting legislation in line with human rights standards. But some of the changes will clearly require political willingness to engage on bigger issues. All of it however is for the improvement of the situation for all people in this country.
We need human rights to be overseen by independent bodies
From both this week’s hearings and from events that have taken place this year, including in relation to whisleblowers, it is also clear is that we need human rights to be overseen by more than just the Executive. We need strong, independent oversight bodies such as a properly funded independent Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission.
But there is also room for a greater role for the Oireachtas. As a crucial component of the State architecture, parliaments share a responsibility to protect, respect and fulfill the State’s international human rights obligations. In addition to this duty, parliaments are also ideally positioned to be leaders in ensuring that the State is not perpetrating human rights violations, that domestic law is not incompatible with human rights standards, and in ensuring that human rights protections are in place.
We are failing in many areas
The positive actions of the Seanad in holding a public consultation prior to the UN hearings in Geneva is just one example of how the Oireachtas can be more active in this area. But what is needed is a dedicated Oireachtas human rights mechanism, such as a Committee, with a clear purpose and goal that would help to promote and protect human rights in Ireland. Members of the Oireachtas should also take personal responsibility for the promotion of specific human rights issues, particularly those that are relevant to their constituents. For both an Oireachtas human rights committee and individual Members there must be engagement with independent oversight bodies in the State, as well as with Civil Society Organisations, victims’ groups and regional and international human rights organisations.
This week’s hearings in Geneva have again highlighted that we are failing in many areas of human rights protection. It should be used as an opportunity to make the changes that we know are needed so that when Ireland appears before the Committee in 2018 it will be with a list of real and substantial improvements.
Kirsten Roberts is a doctoral researcher at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London and co-investigator on the Project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights. From 2008-2013 she was Acting Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Research, Policy and Promotion at the Irish Human Rights Commission. She has been a visiting researcher at Harvard Law School and has worked for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.