Human Rights body abandoned by a year of inaction

The Human Rights and Equality Commission must have a robust independence, writes Katherine Zappone

THE establishment of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has taken too long. It has been the best part of two years since a merger between the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority was announced — an entire year since the draft legislation for this body was published — yet a functional organisation has still not been formed.

In that time, various people in Ireland have essentially been abandoned — they should have had a potentially powerful body like the IHREC able to take on their concerns, and in so doing maintaining and setting standards. They haven’t.

For those vulnerable children and older people who suffer at the hands of their carers, a year of government inaction is too long.

Every day, the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries have to wait for an independent inquiry to be established is too long. Transgender people still even wait for legal recognition, as Ireland is nearly six years in breach of international human rights laws.

In addition, government policies of austerity urgently need to be framed in light of the human rights and equality of the ‘new poor’ (those in negative equity or jobless as a result of the economic crisis), as well as the generational poor, whose rights to a basic standard of living, rights to housing, health, education, and other opportunities have been lost or incrementally limited.

Among many others, it is these people who are taking the hit of government inaction — they are carrying the cost of the lack of an independent and powerful human rights and equality protectorate.

It is to be welcomed that duly qualified Commissioner-designates have been appointed, albeit to a non-existent body. But the heads of bill produced last year contain a lacklustre vision of what the actual scope of IHREC’s remit will be, what its powers are, where it reports to, and how it can effectively exercise its powers.

The new IHREC should be designed around two central principles if the costs of delay are not to translate into the costs of ineffectiveness.

Firstly, the new body must be able to protect and promote human rights in such a way that real, substantive equality will be the outcome. As such, this new institution needs to maintain a robust vision — one that recognises that to respect all people in an equal manner will require law, policies, and cultural practices that protect and promote human rights in different ways for different people.

Secondly, the new body will need the vision and be adequately empowered to promote and protect all rights (economic, social, and cultural rights, and civil and political) in an equal manner without giving primacy to one at the expense of the other. The principles of the indivisibility and inter-relatedness of rights need to be forefronted so this new body can focus on ensuring genuine realisation of economic and social rights — something that currently lacks.

Within the context of global economic systems that have failed and have still not yet been fixed, this is urgently required if the State is not to trample indiscriminately on the rights of the vulnerable, and further regress human rights gains under current austerity policies.

The impact, influence, and independence of the new IHREC are directly related to its leadership, which needs to have the ability to meld the two cultures of the two existing bodies, and to engage robustly and substantively with stakeholders in civil society. At the same time, that leadership must stake out its own independent impact and be an authoritative public voice for human rights and equality in Ireland, albeit at times critical, that is heeded.

Although progress to date appears stalled, it is thus absolutely essential to recruit and hire the chief commissioner as soon as possible to drive the strategic vision and implementation of the new body’s plan and powers.

Further, in order to satisfy the crucial criteria of independence, the new body must be able to appoint its own staff. Currently, for reasons unclear, the draft legislation goes against this. There has been no indication that the Government will change this — let us hope that it does. The independence and human rights and equality focus of the expert staff of the new IHREC is as critical as the independence and vision of its chief and commissioners.

It is positive that the newly appointed commissioners of the (as yet non-existent) IHREC have already engaged with the Oireachtas. This should be standard practice moving forward.

The Government has been repeatedly advised that this new body should not be responsible to the Department of Justice, but to the Oireachtas — this is the international good practice standard. Again, it is hard to identify the reasons why they have not agreed to this approach.

When the Government finally does produce the legislation, the architecture of the scheme will indicate the level of non-protection we, as a country, are prepared to expose the vulnerable, the violated and the poor to, and what the cost of that is on them, and on society.

*Senator Katherine Zappone is an independent senator; a member of the Oireachtas Justice Committee; and former commissioner on the Irish Human Rights Commission.

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