I’m just back from two days in Geneva at Ireland’s hearing before the UN Human Rights Committee. I was there as part of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (designate) delegation, and, as with other members of civil society attending, had the opportunity to meet with UN Committee members in the café, corridors and meeting rooms of Palais Wilson.
The Committee Rapporteur for Ireland is Professor Yuval Shany, and twitter followers, as well as those who viewed the web-cast, will have heard his sharp questioning of the Irish delegation, on matters ranging from non-discrimination of religious minorities and aetheists in education, abortion, symphsiotomy, and limited access to effective remedies at domestic level, including the failure of the State to incorporate the ICCPR into domestic law.
The Committee’s challenging questions on Ireland’s failings on women’s rights, and on reproductive and sexual health in particular, were remarkable both in tone and substance. The ill-fated attempt by the Irish Govt delegation to invoke Article 25 ICCPR, the right to participation in public life (normally associated with free and fair elections), provoked a strong reaction from Committee members, with Prof Yuval Shany calling on the Govt to withdraw its comments. The suggestion that majority views were determinative of the content and scope of human rights norms, and of the State’s human rights commitments, was shocking to those who listened to the Govt’s responses, and with some time for reflection, Minster Frances Fitzgerald quickly accepted the Committee’s criticism.
Committee member, Flintermann (formerly of CEDAW), challenged the Government as to whether the electorate had ever been given the opportunity to vote on expanded access to abortion. The answer, as I’m sure he knew, was no. Minister Fitzgerald commented only that the most recent referendum, held in 2002, sought to limit the impact of the X case judgment and remove access to abortion in situations of suicide. Flinterman also linked – as noted subsequently by Rodley – access to abortion with the ICCPR’s non-discrimination guarantee.
While the exchanges on women’s reproductive rights provoked the strongest words from the Committee, there was also sharp questioning on the State’s continued failure to recognise Traveller ethnicity, as well as on the prolonged stays of children and families in Direct Provision accommodation. The continuing failure of the State to introduce an independent immigration appeals system or a statutory framework to vindicate the rights of trafficked persons was noted with some frustration by Committee members. On Direct Provision, the Government’s response, presented by RIA representative, Mr Noel Dowling, cited ‘value for money’ and need to avoid ‘pull factors’ as justifications for continued reliance on DP without time limits or exceptions for families with children. The notion of ‘rights as trumps’ clearly overlooked already in the Government’s invocation of Article 25 ICCPR, was again ignored by RIA. The lack of disaggregated data on domestic violence, the habitual residence condition and its impact on migrant women experiencing domestic violence, as well as the €300 charge imposed for those seeking to access immigration permission, were all raised by Committee members.
The wrap up comments from Nigel Rodley, brought together the continuing impunity for gendered historic abuses, including symphsiotomy, with the current law’s treatment of women as ‘vessels’. Failing to provide access to abortion where there existed a risk to health imposed conditions of life on women, that as Flinterman had also noted, violated not only article 6 ICCPR , but also Article 3’s guarantees of non-discrimination. On symphsiotomy, Rodley was even more categorical in his statements. Although a former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the information brought to light on the practice of symphsiotomy in Ireland had, he said, been keeping him awake at night. Rather than commenting further, he simply re-stated the Covenant’s prohibition of medical experimentation without consent (art 7 (2)). Clearly, he said, the practice of symphsiotomy fell within the prohibitions of Article 7 – a core non-derogable human rights norm.
Uniting the State’s record on historical abuses, from the Magdalene Laundries, to Symphsiotomy, child abuse and the Mother and Baby homes, was, he said, an absence of accountability, a failing in human rights protection that that he suggested was due to ‘dominant institutional belief systems’ that prevailed within the State — I guess he was talking about the intersections of law, gender and religion here? Strong words from a human rights lawyer not given to emotive outbursts.
The quality of civil society engagement clearly informed the Committee’s scrutiny, and no doubt prompted the need for a high level Govt delegation to respond. Concluding Obs will issue next week. They are likely to be much more muted than the robust exchanges witnessed in Geneva. Let’s hope however for clear signals on the need for urgent reforms, not least on accountability mechanisms for past abuses.