Asking for the public’s views on human rights July 4, 2011Posted by Tomboktu in Employment Rights, Human Rights, Justice, Rights.
The Government’s Report on Human Rights for the Universal Periodic Review was published today. It’s a tad long, so I haven’t attempted to read it this evening. (But I am sure that some of the NGOs like the Irish Council for Civil Liberties will scrutinise it so that they can tell the UN’s Human Rights Council if our Government is telling any porkies or making key sins of ommission. And I think it is unusual in that it has been completed on time, which is unusual with Irish Government submissions to human rights monitoring bodies.)
Published with it are notes from seven public meetings the Department held as part of its consultation procedure before preparing the report. (Not published, peculiarly, are the written submissions the Department received. I hope the Department does publish them, because the data the Department has made available on the great public’s views at the meetings suggests we are a weird lot.)
It is clear from the notes of the public meetings that they were not particuarly useful in helping the Department of Justice prepare a complete report to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. And they probably were not meant to be. The vast bulk of the points were on issues the protagonist wants changed or retained. For example, at the Cork meeting, one of the contributions ardued “Section 37 of the Equality and Employment Act should be repealed, as it allows discrimination in the workplace”. I happen to agree with that call (the correct reference is the Employment Equality Act), but I don’t know if there is a basis for claiming that this change needs to be made on foot of Ireland’s commitments under any of the UN human rights conventions it has ratified. There are other reasons for seeking a change to that law, but the meetings were not about those reasons.
In contrast, one of the labour-rights speakers at the Ballymun meeting knew what the UN’s UPR process was about when they said
The National Report should acknowledge the damage done to workers in Ireland by the State’s failure to oblige companies to engage with unions.
And of course, when you see how well the workers’ friend at that meeting understood and invoked the technical detail of the Human Rights Council’s UPR, you immediately see how pointless the process of a domestic consultation by the Department of Justice is — at least when that consultation is held before they have drafted their report.
it is not just cynics who would hold that Governments — whether of the permanent civil service sort or the temporary political sort — are not in the business of confessing their sins in public, unless it is to mitigate criticism by saying “we will shortly cease sinning (and we’re not all that bad anyway)” (which the State’s report does in the case of the rights of transgender people). But suppose for the moment that the cynics are wrong, that governments are willing to use documents like their submission to the UPR to acknowledge shortcomings. Now ask yourself: how can you best engage the public in a consultation on that process? Well, throwing them a blank sheet of paper, and very technical guidelines is not a way to go. But that is precisely what the Department of Justice did on its website for the UPR. And those Techincal Guidelines the Department referred people to weren’t even written for Ireland. If you plough through them, you find that the relevant standards include
Human rights instruments to which the State is party; Voluntary pledges and commitments, including (where relevant) those undertaken when presenting candidature for election to the HRC; and Applicable international humanitarian law
Not the kind of items that members of the public are familiar with, I think.
In the end, somebody was clearly pushing every opportunity to make their case when they raised this point:
• Closure of fire stations in Offaly
I suppose that shows that if there are people who are determined to get their issue onto the table, then no amount of proposer briefing and support for a public consultation process will weed out the duds. But it could help the non-expert who is willing to focus correctly if the Department provided guidance intended for the general public.
On the positive, the views offered did start out well from a Left perspective, with the following point being made at the first Dublin meeting on 16 May:
Trade unions & right to collective bargaining – 2 speakers said that Ireland is not compliant with international standards in that there is no legislation obliging an employer to engage with trade unions. As a result, companies that engage with unions in other countries do not engage with unions here, because there is no legal compulsion to do so.
The issue was also raised on 20 May in Kilkenny. On 23 May in Limerick, two speakers expanded with another point about employment rights and who it affects:
workers in Ireland are being denied the right to organise and to bargain collectively. Multinationals who engage with trade unions in other countries refuse to do so here because the law does not oblige them to. employment situation in Ireland is deteriorating, especially for vulnerable, migrant workers. Those on work permits are scared to seek membership with unions as their employers could withdraw their work permits. Ireland lags far behind the UK, where workers’ rights are protected by legislation. The problem is not just with multinationals but also domestic companies
Whoever spoke on employment rights at the final meeting, in Ballymun on 30 May, seems more familar with human rights law and the UPR procedure.
- Workers in Ireland are being denied the right to organise and to bargain collectively. Despite having signed up to 6 core human rights treaties, right to collective bargaining elements have not been implemented. Government have failed to secure our rights.
- The National Report should acknowledge the damage done to workers in Ireland by the State’s failure to oblige companies to engage with unions.
That first meeting also saw another theme that came up at every meeting, and at length at every meeting:
Reproductive rights / abortion – conflicting points made
On that first evening evening in Dublin, the points made were as follows:
UN should not enforce laws on member States that are anathema to the people, such as abortion, which is opposed by a majority of the people in Ireland The unborn child should be included in all efforts to protect the right to life Pro-life representatives should be included in all official Government and international discussions and committees concerning the right to life The right to life of the unborn child is protected under Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. This right should be protected by the State and the UN. Abortion is also prohibited by UN language. (Several speakers). The Irish people do not want abortion. (Several speakers). Ireland needs a deep investigation into the concept of life and when it begins. The UN should lead campaign for a worldwide prohibition of abortion. (Several speakers.) The State should look after rights of the post-born, not just the unborn. It is wrong to dictate to people facing crisis pregnancies.
Nothing surprising there, given the strength of feeling on the issue raised. There was one dissenting voice that night:
Ireland should provide for increased reproductive justice and offer choice to people, including termination of pregnancy.
Some people might winder what exactly lies behind the next point on the abortion issue, made two days later at the public meeting in Athlone:
Pro-life volunteers are harassed and bullied. Female volunteers have been forcibly removed by Gardaí and detained under the guise of the Public Order Act. When they approached Amnesty Ireland for representation, they were turned down; selective approach to human rights
It was not until the final meeting, in Ballymun on 30 May that different views on the issue were aired for a second time:
We export our difficulties; many women whose lives are in jeopardy from crisis pregnancies are forced to leave the State for support and rely on European Courts. Their rights should be upheld. Irish women should have access to information on abortion. The State should uphold the rights of women to determine what happens with their own bodies. Expressed the view that pro-life groups were influenced by faith in a deity whose existence could not be proven. Lack of abortion rights in Ireland is a human rights abuse. Women’s right to choose needs to be properly acknowledged and taken on board in legislation.
Another point was not listed under the heading of abortion but was probably made with abortion in mind was the following:
NGOs should not be allowed to make submissions to the UN that contradict our Constitution.
On 27 May, in Cork, the contributions moved onto another plane altogether:
One speaker spoke of the pro-abortion lobby being funded by US Wiccans, who want the babies for use as sacrifices in satanic ceremonies.
I presume that this point has not been used for the report to the UN.
The list of other topics raised is too long to give them all the same treatment:
• Adopted people
• Children’s rights
• Criminal justice system
• Rights of people with disabilities
• Domestic violence against men
• Domestic violence against women
• Environmental issues
• Family issues/ Rights of the family (which included some calls for continuing the ban on same-sex marriage)
• Fathers’ rights
• Health services for children with disabilities
• Housing rights
• Human rights education
• Human rights infrastructure
• Judicial system: lack of transparency / bad practice in public life
• Magdalene Laundries
• Mental Capacity
• Mental health services
• Migrant / asylum issues
• Misuse of Irish airspace
• Older people
• Prisoners’ rights
• Right to no religion, blasphemy, non-/multi-denominational education
• Social and economic rights
• Stalking – protection and awareness
• Issues relating to dealing with State bodies / legal system
• Transgender issues
• Lack of transparency / bad practice in public life : policing and political systems
• Travellers’ rights
• Ireland’s relationship with UN and other international agencies
• Underrepresentation of women in political life
The Department of Justices’ note-taker put a peculiar heading on the following point:
Gender and right to privacy issues
The State should put in place a national strategy to combat homophobia in conjunction with suicide awareness, focussing on schools.