IN GENEVA today, Children’s and Youth Affairs Minister James Reilly will appear before a UN committee to outline how the State has lived up to its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Dr Reilly’s appearance will be the latest in a series of similar trips taken by senior members of the Government to UN treaty committees in recent years.
Last year, junior minister Seán Sherlock defended the Government’s record before the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, while in 2014, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald accounted for the Government’s record on civil and political rights before the UN Human Rights Committee.
Her predecessor, Alan Shatter, appeared on Ireland’s behalf before the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 for Ireland’s Universal Periodic Review.
The renaissance of human rights after the Second World War came in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
This established a set of universal human-rights standards, paving the way for the acceptance by States of the principle of international monitoring.
A state’s obligations under UN treaties such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are legal obligations.
However, states can, and often do, fail to take these obligations seriously enough.
The high-level delegations sent by Ireland are a measure of the importance which the State has begun to attach to these forums, particularly when its compliance is appraised against internationally-agreed standards, in full view of the international community.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out a range of fundamental standards for the protection, promotion, and enhancement of the rights of children.
It affirms what have become known as the bedrock of children’s rights: The best interests principle and respect for the views of the child.
Interestingly since Ireland’s last appearance before this committee, these very principles have been and continue to be the two most contested by the Irish State.
Very recently we saw President Michael D Higgins convene the Council of State to consider the International Protection Bill because of concerns that included the best interests of children.
The evolution of children’s rights in any jurisdiction is always subject to the vagaries of politics, often the result of protracted and complex processes.
In this context, I am reminded of the joint committee on the constitutional amendment on the rights of the child and how it met on 62 occasions, and of the strong resistance by the officials in the departments of justice, health, and education to including the best interests principle in the constitutional amendment on children’s rights in 2012.
While there have been many domestic efforts, including those by the legislature, to give effect to the principles of best interests and views of the child, one cannot underestimate the power of international human-rights standards and attendant monitoring as a catalyst for the promotion and protection of human rights, in particular children’s rights in Ireland.
The combination of moral, legal, and political pressure brought to bear on the State by UN treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child has a real effect.
No state has an unblemished record where a human-rights treaty is concerned.
But the existence of the treaty, and the State’s commitment to abide by it, creates a firm, clear, and persuasive standard against which a state’s shortcomings can be measured independently, publically, and outside the cut-and-thrust of Ireland’s domestic political scene.
This is a spur to change, however gradual this change may be.
The effect of this process is as unmistakable as it is incomplete.
It is no coincidence that recent weeks have seen the swift completion of a number of important reforms and legislative tweaks in the area of children’s rights in advance of the state hearing.
The State’s Convention obligations have also driven and influenced more systemic reforms carried out under this Government, such as the establishment of the Children and Family Agency, the creation of a cabinet-level children’s minister, and the 2012 amendment to the Constitution on children’s rights.
Such reforms have all been crucial in a country coming to terms with a legacy of failures on the part of the State to protect and vindicate the rights of children in its care, and those children whose care was entrusted to voluntary, religious, and private institutions.
But as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, as well as Irish civil society groups, will make clear to the UN committee today that a great deal of work remains to be done.
In the areas of health, care work, immig-ration, and asylum, the State continues to outsource many of its functions to private contractors and non-state parties whose standards are not tested against Convention principles.
The inadequate response to what is now an unprecedented housing crisis is having a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of children.
There remains a vast cohort of Ireland’s children who, due to their immigration status, disability, socioeconomic status, or cultural identity continue to face exclusion, disadvantage, and risk in Ireland in 2016.
Today’s hearing in Geneva is an opportunity to cast a very public light on these gaps, and place them firmly on the reform agenda not only for Mr Reilly but for the next government.