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Tánaiste's Address to Front Line’s sixth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

Human Rights, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Ireland, 2011

Address by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Eamon Gilmore T.D., to Front Line’s sixth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

Dublin Castle

16 September 2011

Your Excellencies, distinguished human rights defenders, Ms. Mary Lawlor, Director of Front Line, Mr. Maina Kiai,  ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to have the honour of addressing you on the final day of the Front Line’s Sixth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders.  I am conscious that you are a unique audience.  I know that gathered here today are men and women of real determination.  Some of you have put your lives on the line for what you believe in.  You represent a combination of practical idealism and courage which is an inspiration - both in your own countries but also internationally.  Over the last two days, you have had the opportunity to share your experiences, your challenges and most importantly your hopes for the future.

You all come from remarkably different backgrounds, political systems and face different issues. What binds you together as a collective is your tireless work to seek to vindicate the rights of others and your dedication to championing human rights. I am proud to welcome you to Ireland on behalf of the Irish people and I hope that your time here has given you the opportunity to learn from others and for some much needed respite. Your work, and ongoing commitment, is invaluable in the realisation of human rights for all people across the world.

The work of Front Line must also be commended. It is just ten years since the organization was founded. In that time, it has made impressive progress in highlighting the plight of human rights defenders and working on your behalf.  Front Line is a vital resource for human rights defenders, as a campaigner for human rights causes and a provider of emergency assistance to human rights defenders at risk.  It promotes strengthened international and regional measures to protect human rights defenders, including through support for the work of the UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders. It seeks to promote respect for the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Furthermore, it has Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and Observer Status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Human rights defenders often work alone, isolated from other defenders and separate from the wider struggle globally. Front Line works on behalf of all of you to ensure that your voice, your worries, your concerns are heard at the highest international political levels. Its continued advocacy helps to ensure that you have access to international human rights mechanisms like the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review mechanism and to treaty monitoring bodies. 

In particular, I would like to pay tribute to Mary Lawlor, Director of Front Line and Denis O’Brien, Chairperson of Front Line, and their team for all of their efforts. 

My Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has developed a close working relationship with Front Line since its foundation. I am proud that Front Line has chosen Ireland as its base. It is an expression of the deeply rooted respect and concern that Irish people have for protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable and those who are least able to advocate for themselves.  

My Department has supported Front Line since its foundation 10 years ago and has provided over €3 million in funding during this time.  This funding directly supports the protection of the people at this conference; it may even have helped some of you directly. The programme of work supported by Irish Aid is the “protection programme”.  It aims to provide rapid and effective support to human rights defenders at risk through a range of activities which includes the provision of field protection officers at a regional level, a small grants programme, Human Rights Defenders fellowships, the Humanitarian Visa Programme and stress management programmes for Human Rights Defenders. 

EU guidelines on Human Rights Defenders

In 2004, Ireland was honoured to hold the Presidency of the European Union.  Together with our EU partners, and with the benefit of close cooperation with Front Line, we formulated a set of EU Guidelines for the protection of Human Rights Defenders. Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union gave us a unique opportunity to bring the issue centre stage.  We did so out of our belief that tolerance of dissenting voices, and a willingness to see human rights abuses or deficiencies exposed, is fundamentally healthy and positive for society, and for democracy.  We know that, without brave and determined human rights defenders, many of the darkest problems in the world would never receive international attention.  

The EU guidelines were first and foremost a provision for intervention by the European Union on behalf of Human Rights Defenders. They help ensure that EU Missions outside the EU will monitor, report and assess their situation. They outline the steps required to ensure that pressure on the relevant authorities, where necessary, remains high.

Since 2004, the European Union has kept the guidelines under close review.   In addition, the European External Action Service and the local Embassies of European Union member States have implemented local action plans on human rights defenders. Furthermore, Ireland is currently a member of the European Council Human Rights Working Group’s Task Force on Human Rights Defenders, which looks at practical ways of implementing the Guidelines and making them more effective. Front Line is a valuable partner in these efforts.

Guidelines for Irish Embassies and Missions on Human Rights Defenders

Ireland has also drawn up, on a national basis, guidelines for its Embassies and Missions in relation to Human Rights Defenders.  These guidelines provide an overview of Ireland’s work in supporting human rights defenders and outline practical steps for Embassies and Missions in supporting human rights defenders. 

The guidelines ensure that Irish Embassies establish and maintain contacts with Human Rights Defenders.  Irish embassies will also publicise the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and play an active role in their implementation, and they will take action to support Human Rights Defenders at risk and raise the issue of Human Rights Defenders widely.

Our development cooperation programme, Irish Aid, also provides important support for human rights defenders.  It focuses on the most vulnerable of human rights defenders such as women, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists and human rights defenders facing acute risks in our programme countries.

Ireland also has a dedicated humanitarian visa scheme for human rights defenders.  The aim of the scheme is to provide a quick response to facilitate recognised human rights defenders to travel to Ireland for short stays for the purpose of respite, and because of temporary acute threats to their safety.  This further underlines the commitment of the Irish people to supporting human rights defenders.

Human Rights Council

Ladies and Gentlemen

Internationally, Ireland has long championed the vital 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.  However, as you will be aware, 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.  But I am happy to note that have been a number of significant developments this year, including the suspension of Libya’s membership of the Council.

Among the honoured guests here today is Mr. Maina Kiai the newly appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. His mandate is renewed as part of the work of the Human Rights Council.

In September 2010, we co-sponsored the resolution which established Mr. Kiai’s mandate on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. The events this spring have shown the importance of allowing all people to gather peacefully, and to associate freely without fear of reprisal or monitoring. I look forward to Mr. Kiai’s first report. Ireland will continue to welcome visits by all United Nations Special Rapporteurs.

Ireland has extended a standing invitation to all Special Procedure mandate holders and was very pleased to facilitate the request made by Ms. Sepúlveda Carmona, the United Nations Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, and to welcome her to Ireland in January of this year.  We stand ready to engage in further cooperation with the Independent Expert, and would welcome a follow up visit.

The work of special mandate holders like Mr. Kiai and Ms. Sepulveda underlines the value of the Human Rights 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, Ireland’s support internationally for human rights defenders.  Second, the protection of the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people.

Ireland actively promotes the work of Human Rights Defenders at the Human Rights Council. We have acted as burden sharer on behalf of the European Union to secure the renewal of the special procedures mandate for Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and on resolutions which ensure that the spirit of the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is adhered to. Human Rights Defenders are ordinary people who stand up for their neighbours, they are lawyers who work to ensure that the law protects people, they are journalists who write about peoples struggles, they are the doctors who care for their communities, they are the politicians who raise difficult questions. Ireland will continue to defend a broad definition of human rights defender to ensure that the rights of the most vulnerable are protected.

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 in June 2011.  This was the first time that a UN resolution explicitly acknowledged human rights protection as covering sexual orientation.  It 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 2013-2015, to coincide with our Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2013. 

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, civil society and Human Rights Defenders at both national 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, like the group gathered for this event, through intensification of support for Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders who unfortunately could not attend this event.

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. I believe that a strengthened treaty monitoring body process is essential to advance human rights globally.

Some of you will have had the opportunity to attend and participate in your own country’s reporting to treaty monitoring bodies and will have seen the effect that your words and shadow reports have on the Committees. I believe that it is vital that civil society plays an active role in advancing human rights in their own country by participating in this system.

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. Irish civil society has played an extremely active role in raising awareness about the Universal Periodic  Review and helping to educate communities about how to use this mechanism to advocate for their rights. 

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.

Ireland’s Chairmanship-in-Office of the OSCE

Looking forward to the year ahead, a major undertaking for Ireland will be our chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2012. With 56 participating States, covering most of the northern hemisphere, and a combined population of 1 billion people, the OSCE is the world’s largest inter-governmental regional security organisation, dealing with a wide range of issues in the areas of conflict prevention, democratisation, human rights, arms control and environmental security.  Many of you will be familiar with its work, and may even have benefited at first hand from its standard-setting role in the area of election observation, or its activities in support of fundamental freedoms such as freedoms of association, assembly and expression, fair trials and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.

As Chair, Ireland will have an unprecedented opportunity to set the OSCE’s agenda, provide fresh impetus and leadership and bring our distinctive experience and values to bear. The OSCE considers security to be more than the mere absence of war.   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 respect, the OSCE’s vision coincides with what has been a long-standing core focus of Irish foreign policy: to promote peace and security through the respect for human rights and the rule of law. 

While we remain conscious of the limitations imposed by consensus-based decision-making, Ireland is committed to pursuing an ambitious and forward-looking agenda in the human dimension of the OSCE, and, in this context, will seek to advance the protection of human rights defenders in the OSCE region.  While it is too early to enter into specific details, I assure you that we are acutely conscious of the challenges facing human rights defenders in the OSCE region and are examining specific initiatives which could help to expand the activities of the OSCE in this area.  I am confident that the staff in my Department, the wider civil service and civil society in this country will all play their part to help ensure that our Chairmanship meets the high expectations placed upon it. 

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen

I know that there have been powerful personal testimonies over the past couple of days from individual participants.  I am glad that it has been possible to create an atmosphere here that allows you to share your experiences.  An envirnoment which many of you do not enjoy at home.  I have also been impressed by recent winners of the Front Line award such as the Joint Mobil Group from Russia who are investigating torture, killings and disappearances in Chechnya. The 2010 winner was Dr. Soraya  Rahim Sobhrang  who is the Commissioner responsible for Women's Rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. The recognition that this international award gives these defenders is an acknowledgement of their work and sacrifices and the international attention paid to their work also gives them protection by raising their profile. Regrettably, not all human rights defenders are as fortunate. More human rights defenders than I could possibly name have been injured, suffered hardships and have been killed since the last Dublin Platform. I recall, in particular, the completely unjust life sentence passed on Front Line’s former coordinator in Bahrain, Abdulhadi Al Khajawa, last June for merely exercising his right to peacefully protest and demand change in Bahrain. The Arab Spring and the process of democratic transformation now underway in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa has posed many dangers, as well as welcome advances, for human rights defenders and activists in those countries. They are remembered by the communities that they worked in, the people whose rights they sought to vindicate, and will never be forgotten.

You will all go forward from here today and return to your work. You all do so with the help and support of Ireland and of Front Line. Ireland recognises the work that you do and the challenges that you face, in your darkest hours Front Line can give you advice and support. More importantly, know that we remember you. Seamus Heaney’s much quoted poem ‘Republic of Conscience’ has been mentioned at nearly all of the Platforms held in the last decade. I urge you all to take strength from his words and to consider yourself a representative of the Republic of Conscience. You will speak on behalf of the weak, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised and, while at times you will be alone and isolated, I assure you that your work will be known and appreciated through the efforts of Front Line and others, and that the debt we all owe you will never be forgotten.

Thank you.