'Rights in Action': Residents of Dolphin House Harnessing the Power of Human Rights Discourse

Today the residents of Dolphin House in Dublin (left) launched a campaign entitled Rights in Action to highlight the appalling condition of many of the flats there. These flats are local authority provided housing but there are serious difficulties with the conditions of the housing including mould, dampness, sewerage invasion, and the implications of these conditions on the health of residents (RTÉ report). There are a couple of important things to note about this.

The first is that these conditions not only make the housing unsafe in a structural sense, but also create serious difficulties of health for residents. In this respect it seems to me that there is a serious question of the extent to which Dublin City Council—already under criticism for its policy of eviction in times of recession highlight by Aoife late last week—may, through its abject failure to maintain these residents, be breaching residents’ constitutional rights to bodily integrity and to the inviolability of the dwelling. In addition, the State has obligations under the European Charter of Social Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The second interesting point is the way in which the residents are attempting to harness the power of a human rights discourse, including the power of human rights treaties, to try to highlight state and local authority failures and to advocate for their rights. This is a powerful example of both the power of community advocacy and the potential for international human rights standards to empower communities in respect of governmental failure. Sometimes (perhaps often?) as lawyers we are guilty of measuring the power of human rights instruments by their impact in court-based litigation, but there is a more fundamental way in which these standards can operate to create a reputation cost to state agencies that fail to respect the basic dignity-based entitlements of individuals and to try to mould the discussion from practicalities to rights.

Too often we see that the groups and individuals who harness these rights are, in some ways, already empowered because—often (not always)—they are economically and socially empowered although differently treated in respect of civil rights. However, in Dolphin House we are speaking generally of people who are in economic need and whose housing is provided by the State and are attempting to use these standards for the purposes of empowerment. This kind of ‘rights from the bottom’ movement has enormous potential for community activists and groups and it demands a particular kind of response from the government. From the reported reaction today in the RTE report, Dublin City Council has not measured the tone and the nature of the discourse being demanded by Rights in Action. RTE reports:

A spokesperson said despite lack of money being an issue, which is likely to be a problem for the foreseeable future, it paid for consultants to work with the community to come up with regeneration options.

The demands of these residents are not only for regeneration options; they are for a guarantee that as long as they reside in Dolphin House the landlord (DCC) will ensure that the properties are kept in a state of liveable repair because that is the basic right of the residents and the basic obligation of the Council as a part of the State. The response falls back on a typical and well-rehearsed reaction to a claim for socio-economic rights, i.e. “lack of money”. However, that response only goes so far when the demand is based on a basic claim that one’s human dignity ought to be respected. It will be interesting to see whether, through adoption of this discourse, Rights in Action will be able successfully to shape the tone of the conversation.

Here at HRinI we would be delighted to hear from anyone involved in the campaign who would like to share perspectives on why and how the community decided to adopt this kind of approach and to help us to track the ways in which it is successful.

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'Rights in Action': Residents of Dolphin House Harnessing the Power of Human Rights Discourse

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