Human rights record: Minister has to defend indefensible

Given this country’s abysmal record on human rights, it is not surprising that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is facing a baptism of fire while a bevy of civil servants are subjected to a barrage of penetrating questions from members of the UN committee on human rights in Geneva.

As witnessed in the blood-soaked recent history of Northern Ireland, this island is no stranger to abuse of human, civil, and political rights. Yet another glaring example is to be seen in the plight of countless women in the Republic who found themselves subjected to appalling treatment in Magdalene laundries.

Against that backdrop, the UN committee is questioning Ireland’s policies towards women and children. Continuing today, it is the State’s fourth hearing before the committee, where a picture of a very backwards society is inevitably emerging.

Under relentless grilling, holes are being picked in issues ranging from abortion to the McAleese investigation of the Magdalene laundries outrage, symphysiotomy, child abuse and short sentences, trafficking, and the inferior status of women in the Constitution.

By any yardstick, the traumatic Magdalene experience is an open-and-shut case of how the rights of innocent women were trampled upon by a State which failed to protect them.

Ms Fitzgerald faces the difficult prospect of having to defend Ireland’s human rights record; doubtless that in the eyes of complainants, she is defending the indefensible. Reams of evidence have been submitted by the Irish Civil Society Group. Delegations include Amnesty International and an array of groups giving direct testimony to the committee on a range of other burning issues such as Traveller ethnicity, prison conditions, and the reproductive rights of women.

Ms Fitzgerald will find it hard to put up a convincing argument in a controversy widely expected to dominate proceedings, namely symphysiotomy, a barbaric practice, graphically described in a 50-page report submitted to the UN by victims of a surgeon who had broken their pelvis before, during, or after childbirth.

This abominable procedure continued at his hands long after Caesarean-section had become the norm. While the Government has offered to fund a €34m redress scheme for the 300 survivors of life-changing symphysiotomy, the women want the State to acknowledge responsibility for what happened. Most were in their 20s and having their first child, but spent the rest of their lives suffering chronic pain, incontinence, mobility difficulties, sexual problems, and other issues as a result.

In their document, survivors recount personal experiences of a truly savage childbirth operation which can only be called sadistic. As one victim, Philomena, put it: “I just remember being brought into a theatre and the place was packed with people. I wasn’t told what was happening... I was screaming and being restrained. I couldn’t see much except for them sawing. It was excruciating pain, I was just 27 and I was butchered.”

For Ms Fitzgerald, the grilling by the committee promises to be a bruising experience.


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