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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 26 October, 2014

Column: What is the role of human rights and foreign policy in a changing world?

The Tanaiste will have the opportunity to discuss this country’s red line for human rights abuses – past which Ireland will not tolerate. I urge him to take it, writes Mary Lawlor.

Mary Lawlor

THERE HAS BEEN an understandable switch in emphasis in Irish Foreign Policy over the last few years. We now have a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and it rightly gives priority to Ireland’s economic interests. One could argue that this would have been important even without the crash.

The challenge, though, is how to do this and sustain that “Ireland ‘s foreign policy is shaped by our values and by the external environment to which we relate them.” Human rights has been a cornerstone of Irish Foreign Policy, but how do we give meaning to this in a changing world?

In the context of the announced review of Ireland’s foreign policy and external relations, the 13th Annual DFAT-NGO Forum will take place in Dublin Castle on 13 November 2013.

On the policy level, this country has been committed to the protection of human rights defenders since Irish-based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders was founded in 2001, escalating this commitment through championing the adoption of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders under the Irish Presidency in 2004. Last week at the UNGA Ireland reiterated that, “the protection of human rights defenders remains a key commitment of Ireland”.

The safety of human rights defenders

In January 2013, Ireland led the negotiation for the EU on the first substantive resolution on Human Rights Defenders in three years – which was adopted by consensus in March of this year – challenging legislation, policies and practices which operated to hinder the work and endanger the safety of human rights defenders.

Also this year, at the Human Rights Council, Ireland took the lead in presenting and negotiating a resolution entitled “Civil society space: Creating and maintaining, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment” along with Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia. This also showed how Ireland, as a small country which was never a coloniser, can break the divide between the West and the rest.

The resolution underlines the need for “recognising the crucial importance of active involvement of civil society, at all levels, in processes of governance and in promoting good governance, including through transparency and accountability, at all levels, which is indispensable for building peaceful, prosperous and democratic societies.”

All of the work at the UN and other inter-governmental mechanisms shapes the discourse around Human Rights Defenders, and is essential in order to progress the recognition of HRDs and their right to carry out their legitimate work without fear of persecution.

Ireland’s track record in human rights protection

However, the track record of Ireland in terms of protection of human rights defenders at the country level has been more patchy. There have been some good examples of Irish diplomats taking practical steps in support of individuals at imminent risk because of their human rights work. However, there is a growing tendency to hide behind the EU delegation in terms of bilateral relations whilst at the same time the EU Delegations insist that their role is coordination and that they cannot act without consensus amongst the 28 member states.

Diplomats often say that raising sensitive human rights cases risks to jeopardise relations but there are few examples where this has been the case for any country. On the other hand there are many ways in which diplomats can utilise soft power to make a real difference: making a call to ask questions informally when a human rights defender is detained; inviting human rights defenders to embassy events or attending events they organise; observing trials; including human rights defenders in consultations about development projects. Such measures can demonstrate the value Ireland places on legitimate and peaceful activism in support of human rights.

Human rights defenders in most countries around the world believe that such visible demonstrations of international interest increases the political cost of attacks against them. It is not a guarantee of security but it does often mean they will be less severely treated if they are detained.

In countries where HRDs are targeted and where there is an Irish Aid programme, why is the leverage that this brings in negotiation with the government not applied in an effective way to protect HRDs? The specific targeting of human rights defenders and independent civil society in a number of the programme countries – including Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi and Vietnam – comes to mind.

Prioritising support for free media

Although the discourse around aid effectiveness has focused on the importance of accountability, partnership and participation, there seems to be a disconnect between this rhetoric and practical steps to encourage respect for freedom of expression and association, or space for an independent civil society. There is a need to recognise in practice the crucial importance of agency on the part of local people if development is to be effective.

Without space for critical voices, terms such as ‘accountability’, ‘partnership’ and ‘participation’ are meaningless – and effective anti-corruption strategies are impossible. Irish Aid should develop an explicit strategy to prioritise support for free media and an independent civil society over and above collaborative approaches with Government institutions.

I would urge the Tanaiste and the Department of Foreign Affairs not to go into the review with a “business as usual attitude” but to really question what is the red line beneath which Ireland will not go when there is a perceived conflict with maintaining good relations.

Mary Lawlor is the founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

The 13th NGO Forum on Human Rights organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade takes place Wednesday 13 November 2013, on the theme “Ideals and Interests:The place of Human Rights in Foreign Policy“.

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