I am in Geneva as part of the Irish NGO delegation to Ireland’s 4th Periodic Review under the ICCPR.* Readers will be aware that the UN Human Rights Committee heard testimony early yesterday from some 12 Irish NGOs and civil society organisations, and from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. It might be interesting to give a sense of how the day falls into place. The Committee meets in the Palais Wilson, which is down by the shore of Lake Geneva. People congregate in the cafeteria where the idea is that, as Tobias Kelly writes in This Side of Silence, it can be possible to buttonhole Committee members (if they appear, and if they are willing). There is a great collaborative buzz in the room, as people mill around, revising their submissions, anxious in anticipation of the next event. The age profile is relatively young and there are a lot of women in the room. There are very different levels of experience – from first time small campaigns to organisations like the IFPA which have been around for generations. By and large, the groups have a common agenda: the notable exception arrives in the form of two young men from Family & Life and the Pro-Choice Alliance, whose position on abortion is, of course, in conflict with that of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the other assembled interested NGOs, and on my reading, the Committee itself. The Irish delegation also features several activists whose lives are directly affected by issues under consideration by the committee – particularly from TFMR Ireland, Survivors of Symphysiotomy and the Irish Traveller Movement. They do some of the most effective advocacy work of the day.
At midday, each of the NGOs has a two minute slot in which to make a briefing statement. The Committee has received written submissions from the NGOS in advance (see here under Ireland), but this oral statement is a chance to define your group’s priorities for the Committee. I learn a lot about what is possible in two minutes. The room in the Palais Wilson is a study in poor design. It is long, narrow, level and warm, with the Committee sitting in a rectangle at the top of the room, and the delegates – and press, if there are any, and perhaps observing students – arrayed in rows behind them. The State’s delegation, when they arrive later in the day, sit on a raised dais at the top of the room. The effect of the layout is that, from the back of the room, you can’t see any member of the Committee, even though they’re not that far away, and you would struggle to tell which of the suited gents from the Departments is speaking at any given time. I sat at the very back, with some of the group from Survivors of Symphysiotomy. The acoustics are poor. Without the translators’ headphones in, you often can’t hear a thing, except the steady typing of delegates taking notes, for themselves or for twitter.
Break for lunch, and then a short and informal briefing meeting, in a smaller room at which members of the Committee can ask questions of the assembled NGO delegates, and of the members of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. As people find a space in the small room, an odd tableau assembles by the back wall – the young men from the pro-life NGOs leaning up against a marble mantelpiece, ready to interject, with the women and men of various pro-choice movements arranged in front of and around them. At this meeting, you can get a strong sense of what is going to happen when the State presents for questioning. Several groups – particularly Doctors for Choice, the Irish Traveller Movement, and the Commission – were able to make very effective responses to the Committee’s queries.
Immediately afterwards, the Minister for Justice arrives, together with the Irish ambassador and a phalanx of civil servants from the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Attorney General. The Minister outlines Ireland’s efforts, such as they are, to comply with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and details some recent developments in Irish human rights law and practice. There is some surprise that she never mentions the issue of Traveller ethnic minority status as an achievement. After the Minister’s opening statement the Committee asks a focused and demanding series of questions, based on the list of issues here. They are particularly strong, as I had hoped they would be, on the issues of historical reparations, and abortion rights. It is clear both that the NGOs and the Commission have done a hugely effective job, and that the members of the Committee are highly engaged and very well briefed. The State delegation has a 15 minute break in which to consider the questions, before presenting replies.
The mood is good. The quality of the questioning strikes home with everyone. How much of the domestic law-making process is based on rigorous, informed questioning of this kind? How hard do NGOs like the IFPA or Survivors of Symphysiotomy have to work to get questions like the ones below on the domestic agenda? It’s a pity, on reflection that Irish media outlets haven’t sent more journalists to these hearings, simply because the discourse on many issues is so different in this context. Too much media reporting of human rights issues begins and ends with the ‘human tragedy’ angle. There is much less interest in/engagement with/informed critique of the sorts of structures which might be proposed to address and prevent such violence.
Of the state replies, when they come, the less said, perhaps, the better. The mood in our camp deflates a little. People are tired. I am told that in the ICCL Green Room back in Dublin there were audible sighs at some of the Government responses. One of the Committee members has brought some of his Masters students to observe. Among them is a former student of mine. Later, after the State submissions, he expresses amusement at how little the government’s representatives are willing to give away. It is hard to tell how much of what is said is immovable government policy, and how much is stalling.
I will be paying special attention to three issues in the follow up questions tomorrow:
Professor Yuval Shany, having noted Ireland’s ‘disappointing’ refusal to bring our abortion law into compliance with the ICCPR, reminded the Minister that her predecessor had described the operation of the law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality as ‘unacceptable cruelty’. He then asked a series of very detailed questions about the operation of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act 2013. These, by and large, mirror the joint submission of the Abortion Rights Campaign, the IFPA, Doctors for Choice, Lawyers for Choice and Termination for Medical Reasons, Ireland. The Government’s response ignored all of these questions. It simply asserted the legitimacy of the constitutional position as striking a ‘balance’ between the right to life of the mother and that of the unborn. The assertion is that Irish abortion law is the product of some sort of delicate evolutionary process which cannot be rushed. It is, to paraphrase the Minister, a nuanced and proportionate response to a profound moral question. Mary Jackson, the Principal of the Department of Health asserted that Irish abortion law is compatible with the ICCPR (even though it does not permit abortion in the cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality) because the convention must be read as a whole, and Ireland is complying with Article 25 ICCPR (the right to vote and participate in elections….) by giving effect to the ‘will of the people’. Make of that what you will.
- Christine Chanet raised the issue of the investigation of the Magdalene Laundries. She notes the narrow remit of the McAleese report and questions the degree to which it was independent of the State. The twist in the question is very telling: “Why is the state so reluctant to find out what happened in the laundries?” The Minister almost omitted to answer this question, but insisted again that the Magdalenes report and scheme were on solid ground. UNCAT have already pressed this issue with the last government, and it isn’t going to go away.
- Professor Shany also raised the issue of the symphysiotomy redress scheme. This was an especially useful question because he did not simply ask an open ended question about what the State proposed to do for survivors. He acknowledged the redress scheme, and asked what the State now proposed to do, given that the majority of survivors had refused to co-operate with it and had criticised its failure to produce accountability. The tenor of Professor Shany’s question is important because it may suggest that survivors should be allowed to participate properly in designating the remedies they receive for human rights abuses. This is a refreshing perspective, because it directly contrasts with the government’s paternalism in respect of members of S.O.S. The government offered no response yesterday, but has promised to address ‘additional issues’ at tomorrow’s session. If we read this question together with Madame Chanet’s question on the Magdalenes, and Prof. Shany’s later question on proposals to investigate the Mother and Baby homes, it may be that the Committee is about to take a firm stance on the state’s obligations to repair historical injuries, and on the right to an effective remedy.
*I am tagging along with Survivors of Symphysiotomy, and I am a member of the newly-formed Lawyers for Choice (@lawyers4choice). The delegation is led by the ICCL. The University of Kent have funded my trip. However, this is a personal reflection, and all errors, opinions and omissions are my own.
You can watch tomorrow’s session live at http://www.treatybodywebcast.org/ from 9am. A number of people are live-tweeting from Geneva and elsewhere using the hashtag #ICCPR. Look out in particular for @Doctors4Choice, @SoS_Ireland, @ICCLtweet and @smullallylaw ( Prof. Siobhan Mullally of UCC Law and the IHRC). I’ll be tweeting at @maireadenright.