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Tánaiste faces tough questions at UN over Ireland’s human rights record

  • 11 May 2016

Four states have lodged written questions about our ‘restrictive abortion regime’

Mark Kelly, Opinion,

The Irish Times, 11th May 2016

In Geneva today, Ireland’s freshly-minted minority Government faces the first international test of its leadership when Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald TD appears before the United Nations Human Rights Council.

This is the second time Ireland has appeared before the council to answer questions about its human rights record from fellow UN member states, under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

After the council heard from Alan Shatter in 2011, it made a total of 127 recommendations for improvements.

Today’s hearing will focus on what has been achieved in the meantime, a timeframe that matches the tenure of the previous government. This global audit of the State’s human rights performance during the 31st Dáil will also highlight the top outstanding issues.

Fitzgerald will be able to report some big wins, including a referendum leading to the introduction of full civil marriage for same sex couples, highly progressive transgender recognition legislation and a fully independent Human Rights and Equality Commission. However, she will face searching questions, including from our neighbours the Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Germany will ask Fitzgerald if the Government will review Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution in which, it observes, “the biological existence of a foetus is put on an equal basis with the right to life of a pregnant woman”.

International standards

The Czech Republic, Netherlands and Norway have lodged similar written questions about Ireland’s “restrictive abortion regime”. Sweden will ask “what measures is Ireland prepared to take to bring its legislation and medical practices in line at least with minimum international standards of sexual and reproductive health and rights?” Our European neighbours clearly understand that the failure to provide women with access to safe and legal abortion is an ongoing and outrageous violation of the State’s international human rights obligations.

Doubtless the Tánaiste will allude to the new Government’s commitment to convene a “citizens’ assembly” to make recommendations on repeal of the Eighth Amendment. But how soon will that happen and what guarantees can she offer the UN that those recommendations will be swiftly actioned?

Other headline issues for review include the State’s ongoing failure to create national monitoring mechanisms to oversee the treatment of people with disabilities and to independently inspect places of detention. Germany, Sweden and the UK will quiz the Tánaiste about why Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities nine years ago, but has yet to ratify it. The Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Norway and the UK have also noticed that it is nearly a decade since the State signed but did not action a detention-monitoring Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.

Hopefully the Tánaiste will repeat the commitment made on Monday by the new Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath that Ireland will ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities “within six months”. Our peer nations will expect similar clarity from Frances Fitzgerald about the Government’s intentions to introduce new arrangements to independently monitor all places of detention.

Traveller ethnicity

Other issues on which the Tánaiste will be questioned include the reasons why Travellers have yet to be recognised as a distinct ethnic group, how the Government ensures parents can access non-religious education and what steps are being taken to protect the rights of migrant workers.

Civil society has ensured our peer nations are well-informed about the situation in Ireland. The civil society UPR coalition Your Rights, Right Now, has held 36 meetings to inform missions and embassies about priority issues.

Now is the time for the Ministers in the 32nd Dáil to prove they can offer genuine human rights leadership at home as well as abroad.

Mark Kelly is executive director of the ICCL, which leads theYour Rights, Right Now coalition. See rightsnow.ie for a livestream of today’s proceedings in Geneva