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Opinion: What has the State done to protect citizens' human rights?

It’s important to understand the experience of the people affected by our six-year recession and impacted by harsh austerity measures.

Noeline Blackwell Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

HUMAN RIGHTS ARE useful things. They allow us to name the issues that affect our personal dignity, our relations with each other and our ability to function in the world as an equal and free person. Each person should be able to exercise and enjoy their rights regardless of circumstance and our government has committed itself in international law to protecting, respecting and fulfilling them.

But what happens when human rights are ignored or are violated in Ireland? Who is best placed to recognise it? Surely it must be the person whose rights are violated. Even when people don’t label something as a human rights failure, they know that the government has somehow failed in its duty to protect them.

Direct, lived experience

That is why it is so vital to hear the voice of the people of Ireland when our government reports to various international agencies on its human rights record. The government gives its perspective on how the State is meeting its obligations to promote human rights and to make them effective. However, we in FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) and many other organisations working on the ground feel there is a need for a more independent, personal view of how rights are being respected in Ireland.

It is a question of accountability and of accuracy. The truth is, a State report can never substitute the voice of the people who experience first-hand what it is like not to be able to live a life of dignity because of a failure to respect human rights. This direct, lived experience must form part of the true picture of human rights in Ireland.

What has Ireland done to protect human rights?

Later this year, the United Nation’s Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights will decide what questions to ask based on Ireland’s own report on its progress in ensuring the rights of the people of Ireland to such basics of life as housing, education, health, social security, protection of the family, cultural life and decent working conditions. The Irish State’s report presents its version of what it has been doing to ensure rights in these areas are being protected, respected and fulfilled, given economic constraints. The last report, due in 2007, was finally submitted to the Committee in 2012 and makes for interesting reading.

It is our belief that no State report can provide a full account or understanding of what economic, social and cultural rights are like in Ireland today without that strong input from those affected first-hand by this terrible recession and the groups who work with them. In addition, such voices can ask important questions about State policy and practice. For example, can the State truly claim that it is using its available resources in a way that best upholds basic human rights principles? Unless it first properly assesses – not just ‘considers’ – the impact on human rights of all its policy and legislative proposals, as well as the budgetary decisions it makes, the answer has to be no.

The people’s evidence

While we in FLAC know part of the story from our work providing general legal information and advice as well as advocating and campaigning on specific legal areas, we do not have the full picture. For this reason, FLAC has started gathering what we might call ‘the people’s evidence’ for an alternative report – a ‘shadow’ report, which delivers the direct voice of the people who live in this state on how they feel their rights are recognised and realised. We hope to collect experiences of where the state has done a good job as well as where it has failed.

We have been talking to groups around the country in May, holding consultations in Galway, Cork and Dublin, as well as two specific thematic discussions on the right to housing and the right to social security. But we know that many groups on the ground who could not make it to these meetings may still want to tell their stories. So we are asking them to send written submissions to our research team by 30 May 2014 (email: icescr@flac.ie).

Telling the true story

The submissions don’t need to be very fancy or long – and there are some fantastic resources available. Amnesty Ireland has prepared an excellent toolkit for people who want to make submissions on ICESCR. The Irish Human Rights Commission recently held a conference on economic, social and cultural rights and has some first-rate presentations on a range of issues. And for people who want to contribute to the Shadow Report, FLAC has prepared a questionnaire that helps guide you through the issues.

It is 12 years since Ireland was last examined on how it is meeting its duties under international law to respect these basic human rights. It will be particularly important to reflect the experience of the many who have been affected by our six-year recession and impacted by harsh austerity measures. FLAC hopes individuals and groups around Ireland can join us: together we can make sure the true story is told.

Follow the campaign on Twitter: @RealRightsIRL. More information on the FLAC website: www.flac.ie

Noeline Blackwell is Director General of FLAC, an independent legal rights organisation dedicated to equal access to justice for all.

About the author:

Noeline Blackwell  / Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

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