We are not a rogue state nor banana republic, so who is the UN to lecture us on our abortion law?
Published 17/06/2016 | 02:30
Hardly a week has gone by of late without one of a number of UN bodies castigating Ireland for its laws on abortion and seeming to compete with each other to do so in ever more indignant and inflammatory language.
Last week, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) declared that Ireland's protection of the equal right to life of women and their unborn children amounted to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" and instructed us to remove this provision from our Constitution. It also said the State should provide "financial assistance … for women who terminate pregnancies abroad".
Unfortunately, the Government has made no public attempt to defend Ireland against these extraordinary charges, let alone to query what legal basis or moral authority the UNHRC has to make them.
The UNHRC was established under the terms of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1966.
Its only role is to receive reports from states on their compliance with the covenant, to hear complaints from individuals about alleged breaches and to "forward its views to the state party concerned and to the individual".
The UNHRC is not a court or any kind of legislature. Under the covenant, it has no authority to decide what is or is not a human right, nor can it instruct states to change their laws.
In 2002, our own Supreme Court said that "the notion that the 'views' of the committee could prevail against... a properly constituted (Irish) court is patently unacceptable" and would violate our Constitution. It found that the covenant itself did not give "any binding effect to the views expressed by the committee" and that the UNHRC cannot give "any form of judgment or declare any entitlement to relief". And yet this is exactly what it sought to do in respect of Ireland last week.
If it were the case that other countries were pressuring Ireland to change its Constitution, then this would be reason enough for concern. However, according to its website, the UNHRC is made up of 18 members "who serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of states parties".
In other words, the pressure to amend our Constitution is coming not from the United Nations, but from 18 individuals representing their own personal views.
This entirely strips the UNHRC report of any legitimacy whatsoever.
In spite of all this, the Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, has said that the UNHRC report must be taken "very seriously". Why?
The only body competent to determine what is or is not a human right is the 193 member states of the United Nations, acting through the UN General Assembly.
By the same token, the only body with the right to demand changes to our laws or Constitution is the Irish electorate, acting through their elected representatives in the Oireachtas.
At a time when our health service faces serious resourcing problems, the notion that Irish taxpayers should pay for procedures carried out abroad which are illegal here in Ireland should be treated with scorn. And yet the Health Minister Simon Harris has said that his department will "take seriously…the policy and legal implications of the report". Once again, why?
Amnesty International has branded Ireland as a "rogue nation" on foot of the report, a term which international diplomacy reserves for dictatorships and states guilty of genocide and financing terrorism.
Another pro-choice group, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, attended a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. While Ireland's human rights record was being attacked by a body whose members include noted bastions of human rights protection such as Russia, Bolivia and Ethiopia, the ICCL issued press releases praising its findings, while its staff members beamed with pride and posed for photographs with Frances Fitzgerald.
On what other issue would our Government stay silent as NGOs actively encourage the trashing of our national pride as if we were some kind of banana republic whose laws are a danger to its citizens?
It is high time that our ministers, TDs and Senators had the courage and the sense of leadership to stand over our record as a society that respects the right to life and which provides a standard of care for mothers and their babies which is second to none in the developed world.
Barry Walsh is a member of the Fine Gael Executive Council and was president of Young Fine Gael from 2007-2010. He writes here in a personal capacity