Friday 20 September 2019

Attack on UN rights body just doesn't bear scrutiny

Noeline Blackwell, Liam Herrick and Mark Kelly

David Quinn's question, 'How dare the UN take us to task over our human rights record?' (Irish Independent, July 18), is grounded in a series of misrepresentations regarding Ireland's appearance before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva last week.

The task of the UN Human Rights Committee is to monitor the progress of states under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966.

One hundred and sixty-one states worldwide have signed up to this international treaty, which protects a wide range of civil and political rights, including the right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, the right to liberty and security, the right for detained persons to be treated with humanity and the right to a fair trial.

The Human Rights Committee itself is a group of 18 international human rights experts elected by representatives of the states that have signed up to the ICCPR, rather than the "unaccountable and unelected body" to which David Quinn refers. Its members, which include a highly-distinguished Irishman, Professor Michael O'Flaherty, serve in their individual capacities, not as "representatives from countries that are serial human rights abusers", as suggested by Mr Quinn.

States which sign up to the ICCPR voluntarily agree to report periodically to the Human Rights Committee on their own progress in improving respect for civil and political rights. Ireland opted into the covenant in 1989, through a resolution of Dail Eireann, rather than through any "fantastically undemocratic ... massive transfer of power", as Mr Quinn infers.

The State has already reported to the Human Rights Committee on two previous occasions, in 1993 and 2000. In preparation for its third scheduled hearing in Geneva this year, Ireland produced a 116-page report, provided further written information in response to a "list of issues" raised by the committee, and consulted with non-governmental organisations.

The Human Rights Committee not only reviews state reports, but also takes account of 'shadow reports' from non-governmental organisations and other independent bodies. Our three organisations, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) and the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) have produced their own 141-page shadow report, which draws upon our consultations with vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. The report has been endorsed by a broad range of non-governmental organisations, religious and educational institutions. Those groups hold a wide variety of different political and moral viewpoints; however, they share a conviction that this international covenant provides a valuable set of benchmarks against which Ireland's human rights performance can be monitored.

Shadow reports do not have a political or moral purpose; their role is to highlight gaps between existing law and practice and the international human rights obligations that Ireland has freely undertaken. Were our shadow report to be merely the "classic left-wing interpretation of human rights" David Quinn suggests, we doubt that it would have been acknowledged as "excellent" by the Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee last week.

Far from Ireland being the recipient of unwelcome scrutiny from a politically motivated supra-national body, the State and civil society organisations have voluntarily played their respective parts in a well established and globally respected United Nations human rights monitoring process.

So, in the absence of a rational basis to object to Ireland's engagement with the UN Human Rights Committee, what else might possibly account for the apparent depth of David Quinn's ire?

Perhaps a clue lies in his highly selective choice of a handful of issues from the several dozen human rights themes raised in the state and shadow reports?

For example, David Quinn makes special reference to what he describes as "the right of a child to a mother and a father", an issue on which he has campaigned vociferously as Director of the Iona Institute, an organisation dedicated to making the case for marriage and religious practice. Much of the Iona Institute's advocacy on this particular issue has been predicated on appeals to science by one of its patrons, Professor Patricia Casey. However, Professor Casey's scientific claims have been publicly disowned by the very academics and international organisations she has cited in her support -- most recently, by Anna Sarkadi from the Department of Women's and Children's Health, Uppsala University, Sweden (Irish Times, Letters, March 18, 2008) and Melanie Verwoerd, Executive Director of Unicef Ireland (Irish Times, Letters, April 17 2008).

To paraphrase Mr Quinn's misapprehension regarding the nature of "human rights", who could possibly be against "science", until you discover that what is being foisted upon you is actually a very particular moral vision of the world?

David Quinn also chooses to align himself with another predictably controversial columnist, Kevin Myers, whose recent anti-African diatribe he defends on the grounds of freedom of expression. According to the well-established case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the right to freedom of expression does indeed protect not only "information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb". However, this right must be balanced against the rights of others, and the State is entitled to interfere with the right to freedom of expression if it is likely to undermine the security of minority groups within society by inciting hatred.

Most tellingly of all, neither the Iona Institute nor Mr Quinn chose to test the validity of their views by making a submission of their own to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Perhaps Mr Quinn's deepest fear is that the positions that he promotes simply would not withstand the depth of scrutiny to which both the State and civil society organisations voluntarily subjected themselves in Geneva last week?

Copies of the State and shadow reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee can be downloaded from

Noeline Blackwell is Director General of the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC); Liam Herrick is Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT); and Mark Kelly is Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)

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