Slowly and forensically, layer by granular layer, the human rights treaty bodies have been building a three-dimensional model of Ireland’s compliance with its international obligations, writes Mark Kelly.
Every successive European and global monitoring process has added further grains of truth, until the contours of our State’s respect for human rights have become clear.
Viewed from any angle, the shadows are deep and dark: The barbaric surgical practice of symphysiotomy; the treatment of survivors of the Magdalene laundries; the absence of safe and lawful abortion. Key parts are missing completely: There’s still no independent monitoring of conditions in garda stations or of the treatment of people with disabilities; economic, social, and cultural rights remain absent from our Constitution.
Ireland has been a full member of the UN Human Rights Council since 2013, a position it will continue to hold until the end of this year. In that capacity, it has provided important leadership abroad, but that has not been matched by sufficient improvements in our human rights record at home. Together with its partners, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has been tracking the State’s progress in implementing domestically the standards that it has been promoting internationally during its tenure on the Human Rights Council.
When we look across the range of recommendations that have been directed at Ireland in recent years, some overarching implementation deficits become apparent.
This is not a state in which the autonomy and bodily integrity of women is respected. When flagrant evidence of past abuse has been uncovered, the State’s reflex has been to protect vested interests rather than secure justice and provide redress. Contrary to recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee, 80-year-old survivors of symphysiotomy have been forced to choose between indemnifying their abusers in exchange for cash and fighting High Court actions to vindicate their rights.
The voices of the few surviving former residents of the Magdalene laundries have been stifled, and repeated calls by the UN Committee Against Torture for an independent inquiry into their treatment ignored. From the moment that a woman in Ireland becomes pregnant, our laws decree that she relinquishes the right to determine whether she will carry that pregnancy to term.
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Ireland is not enthusiastic about the creation of effective accountability mechanisms. Two key UN treaties, on monitoring ill-treatment in places of detention and on the rights of people with disabilities, were accepted in principle by Ireland in 2007, but neither has yet been given the force of law. Both treaties would create independent monitoring mechanisms at national level that would reinforce international scrutiny with action on the ground.
The main reasons for Ireland’s sluggish human rights performance have also emerged. Nigel Rodley referred elliptically to one of them in his summing-up after Ireland’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Committee last summer. After listing “the Magdalene laundries, the mother-and-baby homes, the child abuse, the symphysiotomy”, he said: “It’s quite a collection and it’s a collection that has carried on [for a] period that it’s hard to imagine any state party tolerating. And I guess I can’t prevent myself from observing that [they] are not disconnected from the institutional belief system that has predominated in the state party.”
Religion aside, our system of legal education has failed to provide a thorough grounding in international human right standards to a whole generation of lawyers who now occupy positions of power and influence. The nature and extent of Ireland’s international obligations is too often glibly (and wrongly) dismissed by practitioners and judges in favour of the comfort blanket of constitutional law principles absorbed decades ago.
Most fundamentally, though, it is improbable that Ireland’s human rights record will improve significantly until operational responsibility for the implementation of treaty body recommendations is clearly assigned.
Here, at least, there is cause for some optimism as Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan recently announced his intention to “bring greater focus and coherence” to Ireland’s work on human rights by establishing an interdepartmental committee on human rights, chaired by a junior minister. If it is given a strong mandate and includes senior representatives from all relevant operational departments, it could play a significant role in ensuring Ireland can be prouder of the legacy of its membership of the UN Human Rights Council.
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