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Minister Sherlock Addresses the 8th Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

Human Rights, Ireland, MoS Sean Sherlock, Speech, Ireland, 2015

Keynote Address by Mr Seán Sherlock TD, Minister of State for Development, Trade Promotion and
North-South Co-operation at the Eighth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders
Wednesday 4 November 2015

Your Excellencies, EU Special Representative Mr Stavros Lambrinidis, UN Special Rapporteur Mr Michel Forst, Front Line Defenders Executive Director Ms Mary Lawlor, distinguished Human Rights Defenders, ladies and gentlemen.

On behalf of the Government of Ireland I am delighted to welcome you to Dublin Castle. It is a great privilege to address you this morning on the occasion of Front Line Defenders’ Eighth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders and to recognise the incredible and deeply moving work you undertake.

I would like to take this opportunity to salute the work of an Irish international NGO, Front Line Defenders, which has over the years gained a well–deserved reputation as a global leader in the cause of Human Rights Defenders. The vital work of Front Line Defenders is highly valued in my own Department and supported by a longstanding relationship with Irish Aid.

Front Line’s support for Defenders over the last fourteen years has made an important and sometimes life-changing difference to the lives of so many Defenders around the world. This Platform is an important part of Front Line’s work in bringing Defenders together to share their experiences and learn from each other. The Platform provides an opportunity to acknowledge, appreciate and renew our commitment to those who work for the promotion and protection of human rights.

I hope the Human Rights Defenders gathered here today take encouragement and inspiration from those who aim to support your efforts and from your peers. I hope that you will take comfort in the fellowship of others, sharing and receiving in equal measure, to harness the greatest possible benefit from this occasion. I can only begin to imagine the difficult and oppressive circumstances in which you work and the impact this has on you, your families, friends and communities.

The Platform can provide a space for much needed calm, learning and reflection, which is essential for the continued success of your respective struggles.

This Platform also provides us with an opportunity to raise our voices and speak out against injustices faced in the world today. I would like to endorse the Joint Statement issued by the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, on Saturday 31 October. They warn against the rising price paid by civilians in conflict situations and the paralysis of the international community in responding to these crises. Instability is spreading. Suffering is growing. No country can remain untouched in our efforts to ease the plight of civilians and hold perpetrators to account.

I am deeply concerned by the threats facing Human Rights Defenders today. The work and very existence of Defenders is under threat from some governments, which through laws, policies and practices are restricting the promotion and protection of human rights.

Increased threats, harassment and attacks against Human Rights Defenders demand international attention and action. Even at the United Nations level, deplorable acts of intimidation and reprisals intended to prevent Defenders from cooperating with the UN and other international bodies have become a serious and disturbing issue. It is also worrying that the UN Secretary General’s most recent report on reprisals suggests that such acts are often perpetrated by representatives of the State. The most at risk groups, including women, indigenous and LGBTI Defenders, face an increased danger where they are targeted not only because of their activities, but also because of their very identity.

Front Line and other human rights groups, backed by the valuable reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mr Michel Forst, have helped bring the scale and significance of this trend to international attention. We must work together to identify the steps necessary to ensure the protection of those who dedicate their lives for the protection and promotion of human rights for all.

While the traditional human rights mechanisms, such as the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies and the work of the Special Procedures, continue to play an important role in addressing the challenges faced by Defenders, we need to look at new ways to support their work and ensure their protection.

Developments in information and computer technologies that allow Defenders to carry out their work, free from fear of reprisals and over reaching surveillance systems, need to be continued and encouraged through further research and investment.

We need to continue to promote and support efforts by States to take measures to create and maintain a safe and enabling environment in which Defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity. This is particularly important in States where there is little appreciation or understanding about Defenders or the work that they do. Positive recognition of Defenders is vital to their empowerment and protection. Positive recognition is not only important to the physical security of Defenders, but also to the overall health of society. The work of Defenders in monitoring, investigating and reporting violations and abuses is essential to assisting governments in improving the human rights situation at local and national level.

We must remind ourselves that the protection of Human Rights Defenders does not represent new or additional demands on governments. Defenders have the same rights as every other individual. However, they are denied these rights specifically because of the work they carry out. We hear governments insisting on the need for Defenders to be responsible, and for Defenders to be accountable, when justifying restrictions or repression. In doing so, they fail to remember one of the most fundamental principles of democracy; that the State is accountable to its citizens and that the primary responsibility to promote and protect human rights lies with the State.

Ireland’s three year membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council will draw to a close at the end of next month. I am proud that Ireland has played a positive and substantive role in the business of the Human Rights Council.

The Council has been the primary platform for our international human rights advocacy. Our election was testament to the international reputation Ireland enjoys as a promoter of human rights. We have worked on the Council to try and shape the human rights discourse and strengthen the capacity of the international framework to respond to contemporary human rights challenges. Through the Council, we have worked to ensure an increased focus on the most vulnerable in society and those who champion the rights of others. We are committed to building on this experience through continued engagement and leadership in international human rights advocacy.

Improving the operating environment for civil society as a whole is a critical element in the protection of Human Rights Defenders. This led Ireland to introduce the importance of civil society as an issue in the Council and take the lead in drafting and negotiating two resolutions on civil society space in 2013 and 2014.

A key outcome from these landmark resolutions is a request for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a set of practical recommendations for the creation of a safe and enabling environment for civil society which will be presented to the Council in June 2016.

These resolutions address, for the first time at the Human Rights Council, the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern. They underline the importance of the contribution of civil society in so many aspects of our lives, and call on States to create and maintain, in law and practice, a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate effectively.

Ireland’s second nationally led initiative at the Human Rights Council focused on “Preventable mortality and morbidity of children under 5 years of age”. Each year, nearly 6 million children under the age of five die mainly from preventable and treatable causes. To address this, Ireland has led resolutions which focused on how and why States should take a human rights based approach to this issue. As a result, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights - together with the World Health Organisation - drew up guidance for national Ministries to help them act to reduce and eliminate preventable under-five mortality. We look forward to continuing work with partners in ensuring the most vulnerable in our society have a voice in the Council.

We have continued to raise human rights concerns at the Council of countries where conflict, the deterioration of the rule of law and oppressive governments have led to some of the biggest human rights crises in the world today. In Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Libya we have consistently called for governments to ensure access and safety for humanitarian agencies so that innocent civilians can receive the medical care, food and shelter they need.

Throughout our membership, we have also consistently worked to strengthen the UN human rights mechanisms. Over the last three years, Ireland has participated actively in the Universal Periodic Review process at the Council making interventions and recommendations on the human rights situation in over 70 different countries. Many of these recommendations have focused on the situation of Human Rights Defenders and holding Governments to account for the commitments they have made in the Council. We have also used our membership to raise important human rights concerns such as the use of the death penalty, freedom of religion or belief, gender equality and the rights of LGBTI persons.

We are strongly committed to the continued strengthening of the UN human rights mechanisms and we look forward to Ireland’s next review under Universal Periodic Review which will take place in May 2016.

We firmly believe that the Human Rights Council can play an important role in highlighting and responding to crises across the world, in identifying solutions capable of adapting to the ever changing human rights challenges we face in the 21st Century. We will continue to engage with the Council to ensure it realises its full potential in this regard.

One of the serious human rights challenges we face today is the increasing global insecurity of Human Rights Defenders. Allow me to take this opportunity to again renew our commitment to your work and your continued safety. All of us are indebted to your continued courage and conviction. It is unacceptable that you are subjected to great personal risk and danger for exercising your basic rights and freedoms and for trying to ensure the rights of all of us. Ireland will continue to use our voice to support your work and ensure your protection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet, William Butler Yeats. Much of Yeats’s life was dedicated to issues of individual freedom and the power of imagination; so much so, that he is often credited as having given expression to the spirit of a whole nation. In his poem, Ego Dominus Tuus, published in 1918, he speaks of who we are and who we aspire to be:

“That is our modern hope and by its light
We have lit upon the gentle, sensitive mind
And lost the old nonchalance of the hand
Whether we have chosen chisel, pen or brush”

Ladies and gentlemen.

Criticism cannot be seen as a crime. Governments should talk to Defenders, to be persuaded or persuade, without violence, instead of silencing them, punishing them, their families, and their communities. Those of us who dream of a world free from inequality and injustice must follow you in having the courage to make this collective dream a reality.

I hope over the coming days your discussions are fruitful, constructive and inspiring. I greatly welcome the opportunity the Platform affords us to thank you sincerely for your tireless work, sacrifice and dedication. Your commitment in the face of danger and adversity acts as a constant reminder of how much more needs to be done to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights for everyone.

Thank you.