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Miscarriage of Justice

As Ireland’s human rights review approaches, Simon Hall explores the problems and abuses the UN faces

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948, in the wake of the last world war. It represents the aim to rescue human dignity from centuries of religious bigotry, homophobia and sexism.

The declaration is, in this writer’s opinion, our defining document, the finest achievement of mankind working in unison and the rejection of man’s inhumanity to man. In subsequent years, many more related documents have been ratified, including those constituting the International Bill of Human Rights.

Regrettably, these rights lack enforcement. There is no international police force with a mandate to take action against abuses, such as the over-reliance on weapons of mass destruction to sanction the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein and sons.

In the absence of any prosecuting agency, the resulting inertia resulted in a body of international law with no élan vital. A rough analogy would be a guard dog, chained to a post, heavily sedated and with its teeth removed, but intermittently woken by noise.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), set up in 1946, was charged with monitoring abuses of human rights but has utterly discredited itself in its lifetime. One example of the commission’s failure to live up to its ideals was its granting Sudan full membership just as its government were intensifying the ethnic cleansing of Darfur.

In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the dissolution of the UNCHR and the establishment of its successor, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). This is a slight permutation of a simple acronym but a gigantic step in the right direction.

The UNHRC is responsible for overseeing the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of member states every four years, when the Council ensures a thorough investigation into human rights violations in all constituent countries. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) also have a contribution.

Nice as that is, unfortunately there is no mechanism for punishing member states. International criticism and condemnation will have to suffice, large measures of which will be brought to bear on the guilty party. In the past even this has not been possible, so it is progress of some kind.

The Irish people, as well as our government, are renowned for international agitations supporting the implementation of human rights and the policing of their abuses – Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, was also UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002 – but Ireland is not exempt from scrutiny. Our UPR hearing will take place at the United Nations Office in Geneva on October 6th.

Although we have a reputation for raising concern about human rights abuses abroad, it seems that we’re not so attentive at home. In advance of the Irish hearing, a seventeen-member coalition of Irish rights organisations and NGOs have compiled a detailed report criticising our human rights record. Chief among the grievances, certainly from this writer’s perspective, are the lack of religious freedom, the absence of abortion services, confusion over children’s rights and the non-recognition of travellers as an ethnic minority. Also of concern is the failure of the Irish state to ratify six important treaties, including the optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture.

The preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland, a secular state, opens “in the name of the Most Holy Trinity.” The preamble also acknowledges “all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ.” The oaths of presidential and judicial office demand that God direct and sustain said office. A ‘pious Jew’ would likely be uncomfortable with the preamble, and a conscientious atheist would effectively be barred from the office of President. The recent blasphemy law debate has also highlighted the conflicted tone of our founding document. This needs to change. All reference to Christianity and to God in our Constitution should be removed by referendum.

In recent months we have also witnessed huge so-called ‘rallies for life’, in opposition to the potential provision of abortion services in Ireland. This resurgence is largely due to developments in the law. The Irish Supreme Court has ruled in favour of women seeking an abortion when their life is in danger, in line with the constitution, but there is no legal framework for deciding when this is the case. And in 2005, in A. B. and C. vs. Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that, while abortion is not a fundamental right, the Irish statutory ambiguity needs rectifying.

There are two options: full legalisation, or full statutory clarification inclusive of abortion in the event of the mother’s life being in danger. On the one hand, Ryanair may go out of business, and on the other, women may have to continue to live with the psychological and emotional problems which accompany unwanted pregnancy. Either way, our government need to tackle this issue head-on.

Ireland considers itself a pioneering country for human rights, but there are numerous grave inconsistencies in our legislation that need to be addressed before we can truly consider ourselves a beacon of justice. We can only hope that this month’s hearing will lead towards the final implementation of true human rights.