Liam Herrick: Immediate steps that could transform our civil liberties

Liam Herrick lists eight stumbling blocks to ensuring human rights and equal treatment can become a reality here and how they can be easily fixed

Liam Herrick: Immediate steps that could transform our civil liberties

"If you're not running a campaign based on fundamental human rights, what are you running a campaign on?”

This was overheard on the doorsteps in Dublin Bay South the other night.

Elections matter and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) takes our democratic processes very seriously.

We have seen how governments, political parties and individual politicians can make a real difference to the protection of human rights in our society through laws and policies that advance justice, equality and democratic freedoms.

That is why during the election campaign we asked all parties and candidates running to make a commitment to implement eight concrete steps to advance the cause of human rights in Ireland.

In identifying the eight asks, we focused on key stumbling blocks to ensuring human rights and equal treatment for everyone which can be easily fixed.

We identified areas where Ireland is lagging behind our European counterparts when it comes to rights — or where international bodies have already recommended the steps we need to take.

Crucially, we picked issues which can all be resolved within a reasonable time frame. We wanted to make sure that politicians would actually be able to implement the changes we asked for.

Our eight asks are not, of course, definitive — ICCL has a broader agenda of change that covers law reform and institutional change in areas such as due process rights, discrimination, privacy and freedom of expression.

There are also many broader rights problems facing our country, such as climate change, poverty, homelessness and access to healthcare. But we believe these eight asks provide a good measurement of parties’ commitment to human rights — and we also are confident that they enjoy the overwhelming support of the public.

ICCL’s eight asks are:

Safe Access Zones to allow safe, private and dignified access to healthcare

Last year, the vast majority of us compassionately voted to allow women and pregnant people make their own health decisions, in safety, privacy and with dignity. The outgoing government committed to safe zones but didn’t deliver. This is an area where legislators have an opportunity to ensure equal access to healthcare.

Hate crime legislation

Ireland is one of the only European countries which doesn’t take hateful motivations into account when looking at crime. Fear of being targeted and victimised because of who you are is a real impediment equality and integration.

Hate crime legislation would deal with attacks which target people of colour; migrants and asylum seekers; women; Travellers; the LGBTQI+ community; and disabled people.

Legislation on image-based sexual abuse

Similarly, there are no specific laws to deal with image-based sexual abuse, commonly but incorrectly referred to as “revenge porn”, in Ireland.

The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act could easily be amended to outlaw the creation and/or sharing of private sexual images without consent. The act should be amended so that a pattern of harassment does not have to be shown and single instances can be prosecuted.

Abolish the public services card

Even after the Data Protection Commissioner told them key aspects of the card were illegal, the last government continued to roll it out in flagrant violation of the law. We now have an illegal system of surveillance being maintained which continues to expose us all to security breaches and illegal processing of sensitive personal information. This must stop.

Establish an independent Police Ombudsman

Last year, the Commission on the Future of Policing recommended that a new Independent Office of the Police Ombudsman should replace the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

Effective independent oversight of policing is central to the whole Garda reform process. It’s past time for a new, fully independent, Ombudsman.

Establish an Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

Victims of crime should also be able to access a quick, clear and independent complaints procedure if they feel that they have been let down by our criminal justice agencies. We are legally bound by the EU Victims Directive to put in place an Ombudsman for Victims’ Rights within the justice system.

Monitor for and prevent torture

Ireland is one of the only European countries which doesn’t have independent inspections of all places of detention. Allowing independent inspections all places of detention, including places like nursing homes and direct provision centres, would help protect some of the most vulnerable in our society from human rights violations and mistreatment.

Strengthen and protect civil society

The ability to form or join a community or civil society organisation is fundamental to our democracy.

In recent years, civil society organisations such as charities and residents’ associations have been threatened with prosecution because laws on political funding are being inappropriately applied to them.

We need to support and encourage community participation and amend badly drafted regulations on financing the sector.

We are greatly encouraged that already most major parties taking part in the election have committed to all or most of these asks. We are confident they can all be included in a Programme for Government following the election.

Ireland is at a crucial moment in our history. In this election, we face real threats from far-right voices who would seek to set Ireland back.

We can continue down the road to human rights and equality which has so greatly enriched our society in recent decades; or we can listen to those voices of division which have become so dominant and strident in Britain and elsewhere?

- Liam Herrick is executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)

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