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Invitation lecture by the Tánaiste to the Irish Human Rights Commission

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to begin by thanking the Irish Human Rights Commission, and particularly its President, Dr Manning, and Chief Executive, Éamonn Mac Aodha, for inviting me to deliver the Fifth Annual Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) Human Rights Lecture.

It is an honour to follow in the footsteps of those who have previously delivered this Lecture, including, in recent years, the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney.  It is also a great pleasure to do so in the beautiful surroundings of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

I am aware that this College maintains and preserves a wonderful collection of paintings and statues, furniture, silverware, glassware and printed books.  The items in this collection are a testament to the possibility of human endeavour and to the capacity of the individual to create, to educate and to inspire.

I am reminded of the centrality of the individual in the realm of human rights; in particular the huge courage and personal sacrifice of individual human rights defenders, who serve as a powerful injunction to fight injustice in all its forms, both at home and abroad. It is, however, through collective approaches involving a variety of actors that the rights of the individual are most effectively protected. 

I would like to recall the enormous contribution to the promotion, protection and development of human rights and fundamental freedoms globally, in Ireland and in South Africa, made by the late Kader Asmal, a human rights champion, who sadly passed away last week.

Kader was a principled giant among men, a courageous politician, a truly remarkable South African and, I am proud to say, Irishman, who campaigned effectively against apartheid, founded the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, taught constitutional law in Trinity College Dublin, helped found the Irish Council for Civil liberties, returned to his homeland to become a Minister in two Governments, and who, to the end, stood for integrity in public life.  He was also an important contributor to the peace process on the island of Ireland. We all owe him a great deal.

In this Lecture I want to focus on collaboration and cooperation between different parties in protecting human rights, from the historic origins of international norms and standards to the evolution of Ireland’s human rights policies.

I will examine Ireland’s role at the United Nations (UN), including our participation in the UN Human Rights Council and the forthcoming review of our domestic human rights provisions under the Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. 

I will also outline how human rights principles have influenced Ireland’s programme of assistance to developing countries, as well as other areas of our foreign policy including our forthcoming Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2012. 

The state and its citizens – an evolving dynamic

The Irish Human Rights Commission was established a decade ago to promote and protect the human rights of everyone in Ireland.  I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Commission on its admirable work in fostering a culture of respect for human rights in Irish society, and its valuable assistance to successive Irish Governments in providing observations and recommendations on the human rights implications of new policies.

The Commission has carried out valuable work in considering and providing critiques of legislation published including in the area of immigration, refugees and asylum. 

In addition, I would like to convey my appreciation to the Commission for its publication last year of a Human Rights Guide for the Civil and Public Service, which will greatly contribute towards ensuring that a culture and ethos of respect for human rights permeates all organs of the State. 

I speak to you this evening in a global context that has changed beyond recognition in the last few years. The international economic crisis has profoundly changed the climate in which Governments make decisions on public policy.  In a crisis we are forced to examine our priorities, to identify our core values and to make difficult decisions.    

The first half of the twentieth century saw states battle it out over competing national claims, and wage war on their own citizens in the name of violent and authoritarian ideologies.

In the absence of internationally agreed standards and norms of conduct, the individual was left powerless during these years, alone, with no higher court of appeal.

Having sunk to its lowest point after two World Wars and a Holocaust, humanity responded by loudly and ambitiously proclaiming the dignity of men and women, and articulating their fundamental rights and freedoms.

The adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 represented at its core a stubborn refusal to sacrifice the dignity of the individual human being on the altar of unfettered state sovereignty.

The universal nature of the Declaration means that the indivisible, interdependent and equally valuable human rights it contains apply to everybody, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, age or sexual orientation. In the Declaration, states of vastly different traditions, religious beliefs and philosophies came together and agreed on a single concept of human dignity.

In the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, stunted economic and social development, as well as systematic human rights violations have given rise to a turbulent six months there, demonstrating how deeply the need for respect for that dignity runs. 

Historians, philosophers, political scientists and economists will no doubt argue for decades over why and how a 26-year-old street vendor’s public self-immolation in central Tunisia several months set an entire region alight, sparking a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and inspiring an ‘Arab Spring’. 

The timing behind the extraordinary events shaking and shaping the countries of North Africa and the Middle East – the – “why now” – question – can be explored in universities, media centres, think-tanks and policy hubs. But to truly understand what has driven thousands of men, women and children to take to the streets in cities, towns and villages across the region, we need only listen to their demands and take them at their word.

Their desire is simple.  Their desire is for dignity; to read and write, to say and listen to what they want; to live without fear of the midnight knock; to enjoy respect for their basic human rights; to live in a society in which justice and the rule of law prevail; and to have a say in how their countries are run.

A state’s responsibility to its citizens as regards human rights is not discharged merely by adopting a ‘hands-off’ approach.  Although states are not the source of human rights, they are nevertheless their primary defender.

States have a duty to safeguard the rights of the individual against interference from others, and a positive obligation to adopt measures that will ensure the realisation of the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

With the current global economic downturn and the consequent budgetary constraints, governments are forced to focus on the key priorities they need to deliver on with fewer resources. 

The challenge of the next decade – and perhaps beyond – will be for states to continue upholding human rights, both at home and abroad, in the context of shrinking resources and streamlined structures and organisations.

Effective human rights protection, both domestically and internationally, depends on an effective State, and on effective state institutions.  Ensuring that the statutory mechanisms that help guarantee the promotion and protection of human rights in Ireland have the resources they need to carry out their invaluable work will not be easy.  Budgets have unfortunately had to be cut and very painful decisions have to be taken.

But even through these difficult times, the objective of promoting and protecting human rights can and must be realised.

I wish to pay tribute at this point to the vitality of Ireland’s civil society and to the strength of the contribution made by Irish human rights NGOs to the promotion of human rights both in Ireland and abroad.

Ireland and Human Rights

Ireland is committed to having human rights both at the heart of its foreign policy, and of our development at home.  Our own history as a nation that fought for its freedom and recognition of the dignity of its people has made us particularly sympathetic to the cause of human rights.  Our Constitution, although pre-dating almost all international human rights law, contains strong provisions on rights. 

However, while there is much to be valued in the 1937 Constitution, as a charter for the rights and obligations of citizens, the rules that bind us, and the architecture that governs us, it is very much a product of its time.  A time when the State had a special relationship with one Church, and when women were effectively regarded as second class citizens.  When the kinds of social and ethical challenges we face, in a century transformed by technology, by science and by changing values, were simply unimaginable.

I believe that it is time for a national conversation about those values, those challenges, and those rules. 

This Government is committed to holding a Constitutional Convention, a people’s convention, to make proposals for a new Constitution – a new blueprint for the kind of Ireland we want to live in, and to pass on to our children.

There is a second reason for asking ourselves, as a people, about how our institutions are designed – the checks and balances that should apply, and the kind of democracy we want.

The events leading up to our current economic crisis – a crisis that has undermined the very sovereignty of our State – were a product of our political system, and of our system of governance, as much as the dysfunction of global financial markets. 

If we want to say ‘never again’ – never again will our country be brought to the brink of ruin – then it is time to address the capacity of our State, and its institutions, to protect the long-term interests of our people.  This capacity is fundamental to realising the economic, social and political rights of our own citizens, now and into the future.

We should never doubt our ability to change, to adapt and to progress, and to do it together, in the national interest.  Arguably our most significant achievement to date, as a nation and this generation, has been the Good Friday Agreement.  It is the product of many years of collective work and the blueprint for our future work in ensuring peace and reconciliation on this island.

Human rights principles and practice are at the core of the Agreement and are found, in word and spirit, throughout the text.  There are also some very important specific provisions which I want to recall.  A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland remains a significant piece of unfinished work in this area.  I want to reiterate here today that this is not a question of British rights, Irish rights, or even Northern Irish rights.  Still less is it about Orange rights or Green rights. 

What is needed is a statement of universal rights specific to the present and historical context of Northern Ireland.  Such a Bill of Rights is necessary to underpin the foundations of mutual respect and parity of esteem which are essential to stability and progress in Northern Ireland.

The Irish Government, as co-guarantor of the Agreement, will continue to work to ensure that this and all other outstanding provisions from the Agreement are fully and effectively implemented.

While there are major issues outstanding, and while events in East Belfast remind us there is further yet to travel, we must also acknowledge the significant progress which has been achieved. The creation of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, both children of the Agreement, represents a transformation of the human rights architecture on this island.

I would like at this point to express my deep appreciation to the outgoing Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Monica McWilliams, for the important contribution that she and her fellow Commissioners have made during their term in office.  I wish them every success in their future endeavours.

The joint work of the two Commissions on the island is of increasing significance.  In a world where challenges are increasingly globalised, all-island cooperation on combating exploitation and abuse in areas such as human trafficking is crucial. 

The Joint Committee, which brings together the two Commissions, has now completed its extremely valuable work on the all-island Charter of Rights, which the Agreement envisages as “open to signature by all democratic political parties, reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland.”

I welcome the publication of the advice of the Joint Committee on an all-island Charter of Rights yesterday. The advice will be given deep consideration and will no doubt be of great value in moving forward the process towards a Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland.

UN Human Rights Council

Internationally, Ireland has long championed the critical role of the United Nations in the promotion and protection of human rights.

As the main human rights body of the UN, the Human Rights Council is the primary international forum to advance respect for human rights.  The Council is far from perfect.  Important issues are debated but not always confronted, such as the human rights situations in Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe.  However, there have been a number of significant developments this year, including the suspension of Libya’s membership of the Council.

Ireland remains committed to a strong and effective Human Rights Council.  As a small state it is our responsibility to foster a positive and constructive environment at the Council, where countries can learn from each other, as befits a real partnership. 

We have consistently worked with others in the Council to share knowledge and achieve the best possible outcome for human rights in a number of areas, including human rights defenders, gender equality (including combating violence against women), freedom of religion and belief, issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity and addressing situations of violations of human rights in particular countries.

I would like to briefly expand upon two of the areas that I have just mentioned.  First, the right and freedom to practice and profess one’s religion or belief. Second, the protection of the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people.

Ireland actively defends and promotes the freedom of religion, including support for Resolutions on the elimination of religious intolerance at the UN Human Rights Council and at the UN General Assembly.  As President McAleese said in a speech in the Irish College in Rome earlier this month: “Freedom of religion or belief is a critical component of the ideal of freedom as a whole. The ideal of freedom underpins the dignity of humankind. It is the cornerstone of justice, equality, democracy – of the just society. “

I was delighted to see the adoption of a historic Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this month.  This was the first time that a UN resolution explicitly acknowledged human rights protection as covering sexual orientation and demonstrates the increasing commitment across the international community to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Ireland particularly appreciates the constructive role played by South Africa, which presented the resolution.  We co-sponsored the resolution and I’m proud that the Irish delegation in Geneva was part of a cross-regional group of states that has been working in support of this and other similar initiatives at the Human Rights Council.

For Ireland to contribute further to a culture of cooperation, conciliation and collaboration in the field of human rights, we need to be at the very heart of the Human Rights Council.  We have therefore decided to seek election to the Council for the period 2012-2015, to coincide with our Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2013. 

Edmund Burke once said, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.  If the Human Rights Council is to promote and protect the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it has to confront the reality of human rights abuses head on, drawing attention to situations where international human rights standards are being systematically violated or neglected.

Should Ireland become a member of the Human Rights Council, we plan to adopt a conciliatory and cooperative role which will aim to achieve effective solutions to human rights issues while accommodating the views of other countries.  

Promoting and protecting human rights is not simply a matter for states.  Ireland on the Human Rights Council would endeavour to promote the valuable role of NGOs and civil society at both state and international level. 

Ireland will also continue to work to preserve the independent status of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  We will also work for the protection of human rights defenders, through intensification of support for the role of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Another important objective will be supporting greater coherence between the role of the UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies, such as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

Ireland, as you will be aware, is to be examined under the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 6 October 2011.  We will be engaging wholeheartedly in this process and are looking forward to it. 

The preparatory process is being led by the Department of Justice and Equality.  They have been taking the lead on the compilation of Ireland’s National Report, due to be submitted to the UN by the Government by 4 July 2011, and they have also been managing the consultation process with all interested stakeholders in the preparation of this report.

The UPR provides a unique opportunity to focus attention on the domestic human rights situation in these countries. By assessing to what extent states respect their obligations under the UN Charter and a variety of international instruments and undertakings, the UPR process aims to address human rights violations and improve the human rights situation in every country.

The great innovation of the UPR compared to other UN processes is that it provides for significant engagement with non-state stakeholders, including civil society and national human rights institutions. The IHRC has submitted its own report to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and has provided speakers during the Government’s public consultation process in the preparation of its own National Report.  

Irish Aid

The Government’s aid programme, which is managed by Irish Aid in the Department of Foreign Affairs, is central to our foreign policy, and to our values as a people.  It plays an important role in the advancement of our commitment to human rights. 

Ireland has a proud and strong record of providing assistance to developing countries, even in the most difficult of times.  The new Government is committed to the development programme.  The truth is that Ireland has one of the most effective aid programmes in the world.  I saw for myself the impact of this work when I visited Tanzania earlier this month. While there, I also met with the US Secretary of State to review progress on a joint US-Irish initiative on hunger and nutrition. 

Over the coming twelve months, we will review the 2006 White Paper on Irish Aid. We will consult widely at home, and with our partners abroad, to ensure that our development programme responds effectively to the new international environment and its impact on the lives of people in poor communities. 

We have a firm commitment to support state institutions and independent organisations that promote human rights, governance, and democracy in developing countries, particularly in our Programme Countries. 

The realisation of human rights and the building of good governance are central to the work of Irish Aid.  We firmly believe that without a strong culture of human rights and good governance, long-term sustainable development is not possible.

We recognise the vital role played by civil society.  Ireland channels a higher proportion of its development assistance through civil society organisations than any other international donor. 

A special emphasis is being placed by my Department on human rights work in three vital areas.  The first is the protection of human rights defenders, the second is the prevention of gender-based violence, and the third is support for the participation of poor and marginalised people in the UN human rights system.

In our nine priority countries, our Embassies engage directly with Governments and other partners in a constructive and critical dialogue on governance and human rights issues.     We help to strengthen governance by supporting initiatives to build democratic systems of government and effective, accountable institutions for service delivery.

This was clearly shown recently when, as many of you will be aware, a draft anti-homosexuality bill was put forward in the Ugandan Parliament.  Ireland used its influence, together with our EU partners and civil society organisations in Uganda, to ensure that the bill was not adopted.

Through our Ambassador in Kampala, Ireland has been very active over the past year in highlighting the human rights implications of the draft anti-homosexuality bill and we applied strong political pressure for the bill to be withdrawn. 

Ireland consistently emphasised that adherence to international human rights standards was the foundation of Ireland’s relationship with Uganda.

We also continue to support national human rights institutions, such as the Ugandan Human Rights Commission which visited Dublin last year, in carrying out their mandate in an impartial and effective manner, free from hindrance or interference.  In recent years, Irish Aid has collaborated more closely with Irish Human Rights Commission in that regard.

Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairmanship in Office 2012

Ireland’s own experience in the area of conflict resolution will be an important asset when we take on the Chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2012.

The OSCE considers that true security can only be achieved if individuals can fully exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms and if governments are truly accountable to their citizens.  In this, the OSCE’s vision coincides with what has been a long-standing focus of Irish foreign policy:  to promote peace and security through respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Ireland has always attached a particular importance to the Human Dimension of the OSCE.  The Human Dimension commitments encompass a large set of human rights norms and standards which reflect traditional human rights principles enshrined in key international treaties and declarations. 

It is one of the roles of the Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE to focus and direct the Organisation as to what ought to be its key Human Dimension priorities.

Ireland will seek to have an ambitious Human Dimension programme for its Chairmanship year, and will focus on specific commitments where there is a need and possibility for real progress.   Three such areas are freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of expression.

The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE field missions do vital work in helping to strengthen civil society. We would like to see them continuing to provide participating states with advice and guidance on legislation and good practice relating to the work of NGOs, building the capacity for National Human Rights Institutions and human rights defenders to promote and monitor respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Ireland will work with the OSCE’s field operations and independent institutions, including the High Commissioner on National Minorities, to urge states to improve their implementation records.

The Council of Europe and the European Union

Ireland is also a strong promoter of the European Court of Human Rights and play an active role in ongoing efforts to improve and streamline its processes, with a view to more effective delivery of human rights to the individual.

First and foremost, this means ensuring that the obligations contained in the European Convention on Human Rights are fully complied with and that any judgment against the Government is implemented expeditiously.

The role of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner on Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, is a key mechanism for the protection of human rights in Europe, as is the Social Rights Committee, which operates under the European Social Charter mechanism. 

I must, of course, acknowledge the important role that the European Union plays in the promotion and protection of human rights.  Under an enabling provision of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is negotiating its accession to the European Convention on Human Rights.  Ireland was a strong supporter of this provision.  Once the Union has acceded to the Convention, we will have moved closer to achieving a truly shared human rights space on our continent. 

It is also worth pointing out that the Lisbon Treaty gives legal effect to the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is based on the dignitarian concept of human rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the post-Lisbon context, the time is right for the EU to clarify and deepen its commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.  I wait with interest the presentation by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, of the promised draft EU strategy on human rights. 

The Lisbon Treaty provides for the EU’s actions on the international scene to be guided by the principles and values that underpin the European construction: democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to name a few.

These principles are reflected in agreements that the EU concludes with third countries, particularly in the area of trade which is increasingly becoming a major factor that binds the Union to many of its partners.

Ireland firmly supports the use by the EU of its trade policy as a means of promoting human rights.  The incentive-based approach to trade negotiations that the EU has adopted works. It engages our trading partners in a cooperative process and encourages their compliance with international labour and human rights standards. 

The inclusion of a strong human rights clause in the proposed EU free trade agreement with Colombia, for example, is aimed at providing protection for trade union leaders and human rights defenders in that country.

United Nations Security Resolution 1325

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.  When adopted, this Resolution represented a momentous break from traditional views of warfare and its consequences.

Ireland is fully committed to the implementation of UNSCR 1325. To mark the tenth anniversary of the Resolution, Ireland presented the final report of an international cross-learning initiative on 1325 to the Executive Director of UN Women.  The initiative brought together participants from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Liberia and Timor-Leste to draw upon the experiences of those directly affected by conflict. 

Ireland has also been in the process of developing our National Action Plan on the implementation of Resolution 1325 which we hope to launch in the coming months. I consider an effective and comprehensive National Action Plan to be central to our approach to promoting gender equality in all aspects of our international relations.


Ladies and gentlemen, Ireland’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law is built on a solid foundation of partnership and cooperation.  While there is no doubt that significant challenges lie ahead, it is precisely at moments like these that we must be particularly vigilant, in standing up against human rights abuses abroad and in protecting the fundamental human dignity of our own citizens at home.  If we do not learn the lessons of the past, the danger is that history will repeat itself.

John Philpot Curran, in 1790, said that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”.  While Ireland can be rightly proud of its achievements, we can never become complacent.  It is a responsibility and a privilege to uphold Ireland’s tradition of respect for human rights, and to do so by building on the very collaboration and relationships that have made that tradition possible.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.