Ireland is often lauded for its human rights and development work abroad and has included human rights and accountability as a priority area for action in its new international development policy. When it comes to human rights at home, how is Ireland’s record tracked against its international human rights commitments and to what extent does the State engage with the monitoring system it has signed up to?
Where Ireland’s international human rights obligations come from
Over the past 70 years, the international community, through the UN, has agreed on nine core United Nations international human rights treaties and nine Optional Protocols, which are open to ratification and domestic implementation by all States. These treaties cover:
On ratifying these treaties, States commit to partaking in a review process, whereby their compliance with and implementation of the treaties is monitored on a periodic basis by UN committees, called treaty bodies. Though nominated by his or her own State, a committee member sits on a treaty body as an independent expert. Two such committees have benefited from the expertise of Irish members: current Chief Human Rights Commissioner for Northern Ireland, Michael O’Flaherty who sat on the UN Human Rights Committee and the Head of Applied Social Studies at NUI Maynooth, Anastasia Crickley, who was recently re-elected to the UN Committee against Racial Discrimination.
The treaty bodies engage with States on their compliance with the treaties in both written format and through dialogue and make recommendations to each State (called Concluding Observations) as to how to further the full implementation of the relevant convention at national level. Each State submits a common core document which outlines the basic legal, economic, social and human rights infrastructure of the State as well as demographic and other basic information. Ireland’s common core document is currently in draft and is expected to be submitted to the OHCHR by the end of the summer.
Placing an international spotlight on national issues can be an important means of highlighting a violation of human rights. A good example of this is 2011 review of Ireland by the UN Committee against Torture which recommended that the Irish State conduct an investigation into the abuses at the Magdalene laundries. This international condemnation, together with a hard-fought campaign, helped to put the issue on the political agenda back home. NGOs have an important place within the system and have the opportunity to submit alternative reports and make representations to the treaty bodies. This allows the treaty bodies to receive an additional perspective to that of the State on the situation in a given country as well as highlighting issues that have not been addressed in a State Report. NGOs play a key role in educating the public about their human rights as well as disseminating the recommendations of the treaty bodies in their countries.
In many ways, having an international consensus on what is essentially the lowest common denominator of human rights, consolidated into international law, is nothing short of a remarkable feat. Many of the treaties entered into force decades ago and while the system is not without its problems, and represents many compromises, one cannot help but wonder whether similar attempts to find consensus on such agreements would be successful today.
The treaty body system today – reform on the way?
After three years of consultations, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has proposed amendments in an effort to strengthen the treaty body system. The process of reform is politically charged – some see it as a means of necessarily improving a system built for earlier times while many see it as a useful opportunity to put manners on the treaty bodies themselves. Among the key issues faced by the system is that with 10 separate treaty bodies (including the Sub-Committee on Prevention of Torture, each has different procedures and reporting structures, leaving many States feeling overburdened by their duties to report. States that have ratified a large number of treaties, such as Ireland, feel the heavy burden of having to report to the various treaty bodies well as other fora such as the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Process and regional bodies such as the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture. These have a major impact on the timeliness and quality of reports.
From the perspective of the committees, because of the large number of States involved, and the proliferation of treaties and optional protocols, they faced challenges in their capacity to deal with reviewing States in a timely manner, particularly as they generally meet just a handful of times each year. For example, all but three of the 193 UN Member States have ratified the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, who not only monitor the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but also two Optional Protocols to the Convention relating to the sale of children and children in armed conflict. A third Optional Protocol, providing for a complaints mechanism under the Convention opened for signature February 2012 and will enter into force, also coming under that Committee’s remit, once it has been ratified by ten countries. In order to get through the high number of reports it receives, the Committee has taken the approach of dividing itself to sit in dual chamber.
There is the prospect of a resolution between States on a number of basic reform proposals put forward by the High Commissioner. These include the use of new technologies such as webcasting of public meetings and translation costs. Other suggestions have been less well-received such as the High Commissioner’s proposal to adopt a calendar to coordinate the reporting obligations of the States across the treaty bodies to ensure they are evenly spread out and adding a degree of predictability to the process. The issue of the costs of reform has also not garnered agreement. Other proposals from the High Commissioner include increased consistency in the jurisprudence of the treaty bodies in individual communications; more simplified and aligned reporting with a focused set of questions by the treaty bodies on particular areas of concern rather than the traditional practice of reviewing each article under the convention in question, and capacity building for state parties in their reporting duties. The extent to which these and other proposals for reform become a reality depends on the deals struck at the negotiating table.
Until then, the show must go on
In the meantime, the reporting process continues. Having ratified six of the treaties, Ireland has undertaken to report to the various treaty bodies on a periodic basis. The State has not ratified the convention relating to people who have disappeared (signed but not ratified), migrant workers (neither signed nor ratified) or the disabled. With regard to the latter, while the State has signed but not yet ratified the treaty, a commitment has been made to do so. The Department of Justice and Equality is leading the way on drafting the necessary legislation to give effect to its provisions.
UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
The ICCPR was ratified in December 1989 and Ireland has thrice been reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in 1993, 2000 and 2008. The State has been involved in a follow-up process with the Committee since 2009 on the issues of the availability of non-denominational education at primary level, conditions in prisons and counter-terrorism measures. While the Committee was satisfied with responses received in relation to the first two issues, it found the State’s response in relation to counter-terrorism measures to be incomplete and requested further information on this issue to be included in the State’s fourth Report, submitted in July 2012. Ireland will be reviewed under the ICCPR in July 2014.
Ireland has ratified the two optional protocols to the ICCPR relating to a complaints mechanism to the Committee and the abolition of the death penalty. One case has been taken against the State through this complaints mechanism, Kavanagh v Ireland in 1998 and again in 2002.
UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
Ratified jointly with the ICCPR in 1989, Ireland has submitted two reports to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in 1997 and 2002. The State’s Third Periodic Report, due in 2007, was only recently submitted and somewhat arbitrarily covers the period up to the end of 2010. NGOs have been encouraging the State to submit an update in advance of the review to cover the intervening period. The Third Report is unlikely to be reviewed before 2015 due to the Committee’s backlog. Ireland has signed but not yet ratified the Optional Protocol on a communications procedure for complaints to the Committee.
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)
Ratified by Ireland in September 1992, the State has twice been reviewed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1998 and 2006. Now four years overdue, the State is due to submit its Consolidated Third and Fourth Reports this summer. The date of the review itself will be set once the Report is received by the Committee’s Secretariat and is expected to be in 2015-2016. The Committee also oversees the implementation of the three optional protocols to the Convention. Ireland has ratified the Optional Protocol on children in armed conflict and has been reviewed under this agreement once in February 2008. The State has signed the Optional Protocol relating to the sale of children. It is currently reviewing its position relating to the latest Optional Protocol on a communications procedure to the Committee which opened for signature in February 2012 and will enter into force once it has been ratified by ten countries – six countries have ratified or acceded to date. Work is being done behind the scenes to make the necessary legislative and other arrangements to ratify both.
UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD)
The UNCERD was ratified in 2000 and Ireland has been reviewed twice by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2005 and 2011. The State’s next report to the Committee is due in January 2014. The State partook in the follow-up procedure with the Committee by May 2012 on four issues arising under the Concluding Observations:
- Reduction of financial resources for human rights institutions
- Recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group
- Improving certain pieces of legislation such as that relating to immigration
- Incorporation of the treaty into domestic law under our dualist system.
The NGO Alliance against Racism has produced a monitoring tool of indicators to help track the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations annually in the period leading up to the next review.
UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT)
The UNCAT was ratified by Ireland in April 2002 and the State submitted its first report in 2005, four years overdue. Ireland was reviewed for the first time by the Committee against Torture in March 2011 and is scheduled to submit its Second Periodic Report in June 2015. The Committee requested follow-up information from the State within a year on:
- Reduction of financial resources for human rights institutions
- Follow-up to the Ryan Report on child abuse including implementation of the recommendations, investigations of all reported cases of abuse and redress.
- Investigation into the Magdelene Laundries
- Expedition of legislation banning Female Genital Mutilation.
Ireland has signed but not yet ratified the Optional Protocol to UNCAT which establishes the Sub-Committee against Torture. Unique among the treaty bodies, the Sub-Committee has a preventative role and conducts regular visits to States to engage with authorities on torture prevention.
UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (UNCEDAW)
Ratified by Ireland in 1985, the State has been reviewed under UNCEDAW three times, having submitted reports in 1987, 1997 and 2005. The State’s next periodic Report was due back in 2007. Ireland ratified the Optional Protocol on a communications procedure for complaints to CEDAW in 2000.
While the State engages to varying degrees with the numerous treaty bodies, fundamental challenges remain for these interactions to have a meaningful impact for people on the ground struggling to exercise their rights:
- The failure of the State to fully incorporate the provisions of human rights treaties into national law means that their provisions are not binding at national level or justiciable in Irish courts. This means that a child who is denied his or her right to access education in Ireland for example, cannot rely on the right to education under Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the courts.
- State reports from Ireland do not provide the treaty bodies with a rights-based analysis of the situation at home. They tend to provide a compilation of activities, plans and strategies that exist rather than a comprehensive review of the impact of these activities, plans or strategies on the Convention rights of those affected by them.
- A lack of up-do-date, disaggregated data and information presents not only the treaty bodies with difficulties in assessing the situation with regard to a particular right but also the State in its own assessment and planning.
- Finally, without a commitment to the implementation of the various rights to which the State has committed itself, the treaty monitoring system itself is of limited value to vulnerable groups such as Travellers, asylum seekers and children, whose rights it was created to protect.