News Analysis

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Great honour from UN, but do we care about human rights?

Published 15/11/2012 | 17:00

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THIS week Ireland has got one of the three seats in the United Nations' new Human Rights Council, beating off strong competition. This is a tribute to the lobbying and good work of our diplomats, and also to the efforts of Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore despite the other considerable claims on his time.

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The Irish Ambassador to the UN in New York, Anne Anderson, even pulled in Bono to give a compelling eulogy on Ireland and its (official) support for human rights.

But is this shared by the broader Irish public? A year ago there was relative silence from the Irish public about the growing crisis in Syria. It has since become a full-scale civil war with a staggering 30,000 dead and an estimated 2.5 million people displaced. And still the silence of the Irish human rights lobby.

Likewise on Iran, a country with widespread human rights abuses, but which has, per capita, one of its largest European embassies in Ireland, out in leafy Blackrock and utterly untroubled by protesters.

The only issue we do seem to get exercised about is Israel, almost obsessively, a contrast which is striking precisely because of our comparative silence on other offending countries (Russia? China?). Yes, we give generously in overseas aid, but this is quite a different matter than actual human rights abuses. Mary Robinson can speak all she wants about these, but it seems that the economically preoccupied Irish public just doesn't share this international concern.

And was ever thus. The Irish public is selective about its causes. It used to be driven by the similar Catholic culture of oppressed peoples elsewhere. Thus, Ireland had a unique campaign going for the East Timorese, who were Catholic, fighting for their rights against a majority Muslim population. It was the same during the Communist era with Irish grannies writing protest letters about the treatment of Catholic prelates in Eastern Europe such as Hungary's Cardinal Mindszenty.

But in recent years, we have been relatively silent, most notoriously on the disgraceful situation in Bosnia, where we went along with the hands-off policy of the British.

So this honour is well deserved, but it is not one shared by the general public, who quite simply don't want to know, which is perhaps fair enough since right now they have enough on their plate. Anyway, our diplomats usually inhabit a parallel world. In the 1950s, Ireland was at the forefront of a campaign for nuclear disarmament, but little about this was known to the wider home public.

Such indifference makes it all the more impressive that Gilmore is giving valuable time to these responsibilities. At the outset of his tenure as Foreign Minister, there was puzzlement as to why he took a non-economic brief and then disappointment that he didn't appear to be focussed on his international duties. But he has played it well, leaving the EU business to his deputy Lucinda Creighton and the bruiser Michael Noonan. Meantime, he is off at the UN General Assembly in New York, with world leaders and foreign ministers.

But even then the main media and political pursuit of him was for more reaction about Roisin Shortall. Nothing about Ireland's 'role in the world'. Before that, Gilmore was in the Caucasus, as Ireland assumed the chair of the 56-member international body – the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The presidency of this is a major honour, but the news had little impact on the wider public. But that is not the point. Gilmore knows that Ireland's profile in world affairs must be maintained regardless of our current woes and indifference.

He has said repeatedly that enhancing this reputation will make up for the damage to our image by the banking crisis and our economic mismanagement. But, on this, surely he is wrong. The peoples of the wider world couldn't care less about our economic 'image' and do not link it to our foreign duties.

The people who really care about our economic virtue are the bean-counters in Brussels and they want economic action. They care even less about what we are doing on human rights, just like our long suffering public. But it is an activity worth doing regardless.

Irish Independent

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