Asylum Seekers and the Right to Work: The Supreme Court Decision

Supreme CourtBy virtue of section 9(4) of the Refugee Act 1996, asylum seekers are absolutely prohibited from seeking or entering employment in Ireland. This provision has now been replaced by section 16(3)(b) of the International Protection Act 2015.  This provides that an asylum seeker,

shall—….

(b) not seek, enter or be in employment or engage for gain in any business, trade or profession…

Is this absolute prohibition on asylum seekers from entering, seeking or being in employment unconstitutional. The Irish High Court said no. The Irish Court of Appeal said no (see Maria Hennessy’s analysis of these decisions here).  The Irish Supreme Court has answered yes.

O’Donnell J (and the other six Supreme Court judges who agreed with this decision) have now decided to adjourn proceedings  for six months, after which an order will be made declaring the absolute prohibition of asylum seekers from exercising a right/freedom to work, unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeal ruling that no challenge existed to this prohibition under the ECHR Act 2003 (which I think is very problematic..) nor the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights.

As O’Donnell J. noted, the core question that the Supreme Court had to decide could be broken into three core parts:

  1. Whether there is an right to work under the Irish Constitution?

O’Donnell J. decided that yes, there is a qualified right to work under Art. 40.3 of the Irish Constitution. The reason I am saying qualified, is because, in light of earlier jurisprudence, O’Donnell J. has categorised this as a freedom to work, subject of course to other considerations (i.e. qualifications, experience to enable a person conduct the work they want to). The freedom to work goes to the “essence of human personality” (para. 13), even if (para. 15)

Much work is drudgery, often the subject of complaint rather than celebration, and most often an economic necessity as a means to live a chosen life rather than an end in itself.

O’Donnell noted that the constitutional recognition of what might be called a right or freedom to work does not entail obligations for provision of work, or even require the Government to adopt economic policies to enable full employment (para. 12).

However, the freedom to work recognises the “essential equality of human persons mandated by Article 40.1” of the Irish Constitution (para. 13).  Interestingly, and the first time ever to my knowledge, an Irish Court (and the Supreme Court no less) has relied directly on a general comment from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (para. 16) on the right to work:

The right to work is essential for realizing other human rights and forms an inseparable and inherent part of human dignity. Every individual has the right to be able to work, allowing him/her to live in dignity. The right to work contributes at the same time to the survival of the individual and to that of his/her family, and insofar as work is freely chosen or accepted, to his/her development and recognition within the community.

The Supreme Court stated that this description is “broadly consistent with that which was the background to the constitution” (para. 16). By exercising a freedom to work, a person can then ensure the protection of his/her other rights, within the family sphere, within the social sphere and within the societal sphere (para. 15). The right to work or more precisely the freedom to work, has been recognised by the Supreme Court as a fundamental part of human personality.

2. Whether  an asylum seeker can rely on this constitutional freedom to work?

The Supreme Court did note that a non- (EU) citizen has no automatic right to work in Ireland, this is subject to permission being granted. However, asylum seekers who are lawfully in the State for the duration of their protection claim, cannot be compared to other migrants who might be seeking a permission to work in Ireland. The right to work which goes to the “essence of human personality”, cannot be absolutely excluded for those seeking asylum. Work is fundamentally connected to ‘dignity and freedom’ (para. 15) and cannot be withheld from non-citizens.  ‘Significant distinctions’ can exist in the field of entry to employment between citizens and non-citizens and the Supreme Court stated the Oireachtas and “(where appropriate) [the] executive” judgment on the precise contours of the right to work for asylum seekers will in the main be respected by the courts.  The Supreme Court noted that the “pull factor” argument is a legitimate argument the Oireachtas may make reference to (para. 18). The Oireachtas may determine that by granting the right to work, it may make it more difficult to remove an asylum applicant who is not entitled to protection. In addition, the Oireachtas may have a power to limit the freedom to work for asylum seekers “to defined areas of the economy perhaps where there is a demonstrated need.” (para 18)

Therefore, while an asylum seeker may have the freedom to work, the Supreme Court decision provides significant scope for the Oireachtas to place limitations on this, and limitations that could not be placed on citizens. Its hard to equate the Supreme Court’s views on what may be permissible limitations, with the Supreme Court noting in para. 20 of its judgment the “damage to the individual’s self-worth and sense of themselves”.

3. What Next?

The Supreme Court decided that “in principle” they were prepared to hold (at para. 21):

where there is no temporal limit on the asylum process, then the absolute prohibition on seeking of employment contained in s.9(4) ( and re-enacted in s.16(3)(b) of the 2015 Act ) is contrary to the constitutional right to seek employment. However, since this situation arises because of the intersection of a number of statutory provisions, and could arguably be met by alteration of some one or other of them, and since that is first and foremost a matter for executive and legislative judgement, I would adjourn consideration of the order the Court should make for a period of six months and invite the parties to make submissions on the form of the order in the light of circumstances then obtaining.

The ball is now firmly in the court of the Oireachtas. However, the Oireachtas must be reminded (contact your TD here), that they are not starting from a blank slate.

First, the Irish High Court has already ruled that maladministration in rendering of a lawful decision on a protection claim may result in damages being awarded to an asylum seeker. Therefore, whatever course of action the Oireachtas takes, lets get this right. There has to be some focus on the ability of our quasi-judicial bodies who determine protection claims to do their work efficiently, but most importantly to be fair to asylum applicants.

Second, It would appear, that if Ireland became part of how European Union society deals with this question, then our Parliamentarians need to look no further than EU law for a solution to this constitutional protection of asylum seekers right to work. The Recast Reception Directive (which Ireland is not bound by), provides asylum seekers a right to work should generally be granted after 9 months where a first instance decision has not been rendered on a refugee/protection claim. The McMahon Working Group on the Protection Process and Directive Provision made a recommendation  (para 5.49) that once the International Protection Act 2015 was operating efficiently, that Ireland abide by this 9-month rule. Whatever the Oireachtas decide, this constitutional right of asylum seekers to have a freedom to enter employment must be effective, and not illusory (borrowing how the European Court of Human Rights insists on the realness of granted rights).

Image credit: Michael Foley

Asylum Seekers and the Right to Work: The Supreme Court Decision

Ireland goes before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

UN imageOn Monday, June 8th and Tuesday, June 9th 2015, Ireland will have its third periodic report under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), assessed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. You can follow this examination on Twitter, using the hashtag #UNIRL

What are economic, social and cultural rights?

The right to work, just conditions of employment, the right to social security and social assistance, the right to health, housing, food and water, encompass core aspects of socio-economic rights. Cultural rights include the right to participate in the culture of one’s communities and to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological endeavour. These rights (and others) are protected in ICESCR.

Ireland before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

To date, Ireland has had two periodic reports (1999 and 2002) considered by the UN Committee. On both occasions, the Committee have expressed concern that Ireland has not incorporated ICESCR into domestic law, and the lack of reference and utilisation of ICESCR by the superior courts. Ireland has failed to adopt rights based frameworks in areas of anti-poverty, disability provision of health-care, rights of members of the Traveller community, housing and the low rate of social assistance payments. CESCR identified some core issues with Ireland’s compliance with its obligations under ICESCR in December 2014, and the list of issues to be discussed bear striking similarities to concerns previously expressed by CESCR in their 1999 and 2002 Concluding Observations. (See, Ireland’s response to these issues here). Continue reading “Ireland goes before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”

Ireland goes before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Socio-Economic Rights, the Constitution and the ECHR Act 2003: O’Donnell v South Dublin County Council in the Supreme Court

Supreme CourtThis note is based on MacMenamin J.’s decision, available here. SCOIRL have a succinct post on the outcome in this case. A decision was also given by McKechnie J, and is not yet available. However, I understand that McKechnie J. came to the same conclusion, albeit for different reasons. With thanks to Patricia Brazil for providing me with a copy of the available decision. As this is a longer post that usual, you can find a copy of this post here.

The Context

On Friday, 13 March 2015, the Supreme Court gave an important decision in the case of O’Donnell v South Dublin County Council (not yet on courts.ie, Irish Times report here). The case revolved around the statutory duties upon South Dublin County Council (SDCC) in the area of housing and Traveller accommodation. The High Court, in a number of cases: Doherty v SDCC (2007), O’Donnell v SDCC (2007) (Laffoy J.) and O’Donnell v SDCC (2008) (Edwards J) (discussed here, pp 13-14), considered the duties of local authorities under Irish housing law and the impact of the ECHR Act 2003. The Irish Supreme Court have been exceptionally conservative when it has come to interpreting the Constitution as providing any form of socio-economic rights duties on the State.

The European Court of Human Rights has been reluctant to interfere with decisions of state/local housing authorities in the housing law arena. The ECtHR has stated that Article 3 and Article 8 ECHR cannot be interpreted as providing a duty on the State to provide everybody with a home, unless there are very exceptional circumstances at play (see, M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, discussed in detail here).

The decision on Friday, 13 March 2015 in O’Donnell v South Dublin County Council provides at least a signal, that in very exceptional circumstances, legislative duties coupled with constitutional/ECHR rights may protect socio-economic rights. However, as will become clear below, the decision has not resulted in the provision of accommodation to Ellen (or other members of the O’Donnell family) and Ellen continues to live in accommodation that is inhuman and degrading. Continue reading “Socio-Economic Rights, the Constitution and the ECHR Act 2003: O’Donnell v South Dublin County Council in the Supreme Court”

Socio-Economic Rights, the Constitution and the ECHR Act 2003: O’Donnell v South Dublin County Council in the Supreme Court

Odious Debt Politics

UN imageHuman Rights in Ireland welcomes this guest post from Dr John Reynolds. John is a lecturer in law in NUI Maynooth.

In September 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the ‘establishment of a multilateral legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring processes’. This is a global South initiative emanating from experiences of predatory exploitation by the vulture funds of the North, but aimed more broadly at preventing debt crises and financial speculation from undermining socio-economic rights in all indebted nations. As we know, neoliberalism’s unregulated debt system has become increasingly universal in its reach. The resolution was adopted by a decisive majority of the UN’s member states, by a vote of 124 to 11. It builds on work done by UN authorities on conceptions of debt restructuring and illegitimate debt as they relate to the vindication or violation of socio-economic rights. Despite our own harrowing and ongoing debt crisis, Ireland aligned itself with the finance capital centres of the US, Britain, Germany and Japan in voting against the initiative, Continue reading “Odious Debt Politics”

Odious Debt Politics

Our Voices, Our Rights: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Ireland

FLACHuman Rights in Ireland welcomes this guest post from Geraldine Murphy, Legal & Social Welfare Intern at the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC). The parallel report on Ireland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Our Voices, Our Rights is available to download here.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Ireland’s ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Under this covenant a UN committee sitting in Geneva examines each signatory country roughly every five years on the progression of their obligations under the covenant. Since its ratification in 1989, Ireland has been examined under the Covenant twice, in 1999 and in 2002. The next examination under the covenant will take place in June 2015.

The covenant covers rights including the right to work, fair wages, social security, the right to the highest standard of mental and physical health, the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life. As such it covers areas that span right across the lives of people in Ireland and the organisations in the NGO sector that support them.

In the examination process, each state must submit a report to the committee. Civil society organisations may then submit a “shadow” or “parallel” report which offers an independent view on how the state has or has not realised or progressed its obligations under the Covenant. Ireland submitted its most recent report in 2013, covering the period of 2002 to 2010. As Ireland is being examined by the committee in 2015, the government’s report will thus be five years out of date by the time it is examined – a significant length of time to be left unreported.

Further, State reports naturally tend to focus on positive progress and actions by Government. This is where a shadow report by civil society is vitally important to provide valuable independent information, not just to supplement the government’s report, but to highlight any inaccuracies and, in this case, to account for the glaring gap of five years in the State report, such that the committee can hold the Irish Government to account on the most relevant issues.

Parallel reporting – a tool for rights-based change

A civil society report generally aims to influence the List of Issues on which the committee will question the government party. This may prompt the Committee to request more information from the State in question, and ultimately the government will be publically questioned on the issues involved.

Civil society is growing its knowledge on how to use mechanisms such as ICESCR to promote basic rights. The public questioning of the government by a UN committee provides civil society with a platform to hold the government to account for its progress on protecting, promoting and fulfilling rights and to explain its actions in an international setting amongst peer nations.

Following this examination the Committee publishes a report (“concluding observations”) with recommendations for the government to act upon. This report provides civil society with a strong basis for which they can hold the government to account when campaigning in their particular area.

Our Voice, Our Rights: A parallel report

In early December 2014, the UN Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights will decide the ‘List of Issues’ on which it will question the Irish Government on its performance under ICESCR. With this important event in mind FLAC coordinated a parallel report on how the Irish State is meeting its obligations under the Covenant, based on evidence from a wide variety of diverse organisations throughout Ireland which promote rights covered under ICESCR.

In compiling this report, FLAC consulted with more than 50 civil society organisations and individuals around Ireland. The report represents a range of issues which FLAC believes have not been adequately covered by the Irish State Report. It covers the period from 2002 to mid-September 2014 and examines issues arising under each of the different Covenant Articles where relevant.

“Our Voice, Our Rights” brings together organisations from across the spectrum of rights to voice their concerns and to illustrate how the decisions and action of the government with respect to economic social and cultural right are affecting people on the ground. This report exemplifies a combined action by independent organisations, with a common focus of human rights, to hold the government to account for its responsibilities and obligations under the Covenant.

The reporting process

A fundamental feature of the process involved in a collective report such as this is to ensure maximum consultation with organisations working on the ground in relation to Covenant issues. Consultations were held in Cork, Galway and Dublin in an effort to gather information from as many bodies countrywide as was practicable. While most issues in the report would hold for communities rural and urban all over the country, in some cases such as poor broadband connectivity, the effect of transport quality in rural communities and its impact on people’s right to enjoy cultural life there are region-specific highlights.

Why is this important?

A comprehensive report with clear recommendations for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to consider when they compile their list of issues  means the Committee will have a more balanced view of what has been happening in Ireland since 2002. ‘Our Voices, Our Rights’ provides the committee with the opportunity to see the rights and issues in context. It also provides them with a clear view of the rights that have either not been progressed since the last review, or in the case of some rights, which have been regressed.

Our Voices, Our Rights: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Ireland

Anti-vaccination movements, children’s’ rights and private power

We are delighted to welcome back Ntina Tzouvala who is Deputy Co-Convener of Law and Global Justice and a PhD candidate  at Durham Law School. She is currently researching on history and theory of public international law. You can follow her on Twitter @ntinatzouvala

Around a month ago the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled ‘The Anti-Vaccination Epidemic’ , which summarises an ongoing and worrying trend: diseases like mumps, measles and whooping cough are reappearing in the Western world. The reason for this is comeback is the growing anti-vaccination movement both in the US and Europe. Fueled by (dubious) publications that falsely associated certain vaccines (MMR) with autism, and by overemphasising highly exceptional cases of severe side-effects, the participants in anti-vaccination movements refuse to vaccinate their children. Apart from a heavy reliance to conspiracy theories, these movements also rely on the undeniable success the very social practice they oppose: we are no longer afraid of smallpox or rubella precisely thanks to being immunized against them at a very young age. The fact is that historically these diseases claimed the lives of millions of children and if the anti-vaccination movement prevails, they will do so again. The only way for parents to keep their children out of the ‘system’ without seriously endangering them is for them to fail politically: a few free-riders will still be safe given the overall eradication of the diseases due to the overall high rates of vaccination. But if the public campaign of these parents succeeds, then this shield will collapse and it is a matter of time before epidemics of smaller or larger scale return.

What is of interest here are the legal justifications provided by parents for their actions. (Un)surprisingly, there is a long history of civil liberties rhetoric in the UK against compulsory immunisation. After vaccination was made compulsory in 1840 the British society was in unrest and in 1878 a member of the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League argued:

I. It is the bounden duty of parliament to protect all the rights of man.

  1. By the vaccination acts, which trample upon the right of parents to protect their children from disease, parliament has reversed its function.

III. As parliament, instead of guarding the liberty of the subject, has invaded this liberty by rendering good health a crime, punishable by fine or imprisonment, inflicted on dutiful parents, parliament is deserving of public condemnation.’

Given the general distrust towards governmental intervention at the time and importantly, given that the only conceivable rights at play seemed to be those of the parents, the law was amended in 1898. The amended version arguably introduced the concept of ‘conscientious objector’ in British law, allowing parents who ‘did not believe’ in the effectiveness of immunisation to opt out.

Contemporary protesters rely on the same legal and scientific (in the broadest sense of the word) arguments to justify their choice not to vaccinate their children. This post is not concerned with explaining how science has progressed since then rendering any overall challenge to the practice implausible. What is of our concern here is the modification of the legal background since the end of the 19th century. Two things need to be noted here: first, the classical, liberal conceptualisation of rights as shields against state interference is now complemented -to an extent- by an understanding that state intervention is necessary for the meaningful enjoyment of such rights, especially by vulnerable groups. Further, the conviction that children enjoy rights that are not identifiable with those of their parents has entered the legal equation. In the international realm this conviction is materialised through the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC hereafter), an instrument that according to UNICEF changed the way we see children from passive objects of care and charity to human beings with a distinct set of rights.

Sadly, any analysis based on the CRC is not applicable in the US, since the state has signed but not ratified the Convention. Nevertheless, it is applicable almost worldwide, and therefore we need to pay close attention to it. Directly relevant here are the Article 24 on the right to health and the General Comment 15 of the CRC Committee that elaborates the details of the right. Moreover, Article 3 para. 1 stipulating that all decision-making should be guided by the ‘best interests of the child’, Article 12 dictating that children should be provided ‘the opportunity to be heard’ and ‘due weight’ should be given to their opinions and finally, Articles 5 and 14 that guarantee parental rights are significant for this debate.

More specifically, Article 24 stipulates that children are entitled to the enjoyment of the ‘highest attainable standard of health’, they should not be deprived of their right of access to such health care services’, while there are explicit references to preventative health care and utilisation of technology, in order to promote the right to health. Moreover, we are confronted with one of these (rare) circumstances when there is a rather objective basis for judging what is ‘at the best interests of the child’. In principle, pluralistic societies with different and often conflicting understandings of what amounts to ‘good life’ grant parents with a wide margin of appreciation (in the non-Strasbourgian, ordinary sense of the term) in the making of such decisions. However, vaccinations are specific in two interrelated ways. General Comment 15 obliges the states to decide on Article 24- related issues according to ‘evidence-based public health standards and good practices’, setting therefore a rather objective, scientific standard for what is at the best interest of the child. Further, in its commentary on Article 3 the Committee clarifies that ‘best interests’ apply both to individual children and ‘children as a group’. This is of importance, since refusal to vaccinate one’s children is in many aspects dissimilar from refusing, for example, blood transfusion on religious grounds. In the latter case it is the specific child that is endangered (which is bad enough), whereas in the former there are legitimate general public health concerns. Moreover, this practice endangers these vulnerable children who due to genuine medical reasons cannot be vaccinated. Luckily, when immunisation levels are high these children’s health is protected thanks to our ‘herd immunity’. They might not be immune to the disease themselves, but they will probably never face the risk anyway, since everyone else is and therefore it is highly unlikely for them to be infected. Any state policy towards the anti-vaccination movement needs to take into account the rights and best interests of these children as well.

Another legal argument invoked by parents is that compulsory vaccination violates their (and their children’s) right private and family life under Article 8 of the ECHR. This argument does not seem to be legally tenable. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights had the chance to rule on Article 8 and compulsory vaccination in 2012 in Solomakhin v Ukraine. It needs to be stressed that when Solomakhin was subjected to compulsory vaccination he was a full- grown adult. Still, the court found that even though compulsory vaccination evidently interfered with his bodily integrity and therefore fell under Article 8, the interference was justified in a democratic society as it ‘could be said to be justified by the public health considerations and necessity to control the spreading of infectious diseases in the region.’ Arguably, if this is the case when it comes to a 35-year-old man, it is highly unlikely that the ECtHR would find a violation of the parents’ rights when it comes to vaccinating children 1 or 5 years old (these are ages the two rounds of MMR vaccination commonly take place), especially if we take into account the children’s rights under the ECHR and the CRC.

This does not necessarily imply that states are under an obligation to introduce compulsory vaccination for children. Questions of policy efficiency are of direct concern here and each state can make to appropriate choices taking into account the rights and interests of all individuals concerned and , of course, the interests of the society as a whole with a special focus on its more vulnerable members who arguably will suffer disproportionally from a disease outbreak. For example, in the light of the overall circumstances a state might choose to initiate an information campaign rather than resort to criminalisation of parents that refuse to vaccinate their children. Nevertheless, it needs to be stressed that the rights- based rhetoric of the anti-vaccination movement does not seem to take into account the actual international human rights documents and courts decisions. Further, this human rights rhetoric draws from an intellectual and political tradition with a very narrow understanding of human rights and, importantly, a very exclusionary conceptualisation of who is actually the bearer of these rights.

One final note: it is very easy and very appealing to dismiss these movements as manifestations of lunacy and poor education. Nevertheless, this attitude does not explain why and how these movements are fuelled periodically and more specifically now that no major publication (however ill-researched) on the topic has come out. My feeling is that- up to an extent- the revival or appearance of such movements is attributable to an overall distrust towards the state and a trend to conceptualise the private sphere exclusively as one of freedom and, in this case, care and love. Arguably, these sentiments are cultivated by states themselves through their turn to a neoliberal agenda that discredits any conception of public good and prioritises a very narrow understanding of what it means to live in a society, and even to be an individual. Interestingly, children’s rights and children’s welfare more broadly is one of the starkest examples of how less state involvement does not necessarily lead to more freedom. Rather it can well lead to an increase of private power, which being private, and in this case accompanied by love and affection, is not easily identifiable.

Anti-vaccination movements, children’s’ rights and private power

Human Rights and Transnational corporations: A Step Forward?

UN imageWe are delighted to welcome this guest post from Ntina Tzouvala who is Deputy Co-Convener of Law and Global Justice and a PhD candidate  at Durham Law School. She is currently researching on history and theory of public international law. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter @ntinatzouvala  On the 25th of June the first round of the international campaign to create a legally binding framework for the protection of human rights by transnational and other corporations was concluded. The draft resolution tabled by Ecuador in the 26th Session of the UN Human Rights Council was adopted, since 20 states voted in favour, 14 against and 13 abstained. According to Resolution A/HRC/26/L.22/Rev.1 an open-ended working group needs to be established, with a mandate to prepare a legally binding instrument to regulate corporate responsibility regarding human rights violations. In this short blog post I will attempt to provide some context, in order to situate this advancement within the broader legal and political debate regarding both human rights and corporate power. Further, some attention will be given to the internal divisions of the HRC on the issue and finally, I will try to establish why this Resolution, despite certain problematic aspects, constitutes a significant and welcome development.

To begin with, this resolution came as the interim conclusion of a wide-spread campaign co-ordinated by social movements, NGOs and certain governments of the Global South, such as Ecuador , that have started to question the neo-liberal political and economic orthodoxy and, importantly turn to international law to promote these aspirations.  Thus, the Peoples’ Forum on Human Rights and Business issued a manifesto supported by more than 600 socially active groups that called for an international treaty which amongst others:

“Requires States Parties to monitor and regulate the operations of business enterprises under their jurisdiction, including when acting outside their national territory”

In my view there are three factors that enabled the movement to gain some momentum. First, as John Morrison has pointed out extra-territoriality constitutes a central issue when it comes to the regulation of transnational companies. Therefore, the outcome of the Kiobel case was a wake-up call for those insisting that already existing domestic law can be utilised to address grave human rights violations, like those committed in Ogoniland with the co-operation between Shell and Nigeria. Given that states seem reluctant to legislate in this direction an international treaty could push towards such legislative action. Secondly, the current regulatory framework seems to be in crisis, and quite deservedly so. The 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were non-binding and largely based on the idea of self-regulation. Admittedly, soft law and self-regulation have been the dominant legal paradigm both domestically and internationally in the regulation of business conduct during the last three decades. To bring but an example the Basel Committee was established in theUS  to ‘self-govern’ the financial sector through a hybrid mechanism of governance largely based on the premise that business can be better regulated if left alone under a flexible, non-enforceable set of guidelines. The disastrous consequences of this approach became evident with the break of the financial crisis and the inability of the Basel Committee not only to address it, but even to predict it. Hence, there has been some scepticism concerning the efficiency of soft law and self-regulation and the field of human rights was prone of accommodating this aspiring shift. Thirdly, and here come the bad news, the pressure to adopt such an instrument is concomitant of the ever-increasing power of transnational and other corporations and the gradual erosion of other legal means to control them. For instance, the proliferation of investment treaties and the inclusion of arbitration clauses has arguably been detrimental to states’ capacity to regulate the economy and society’s attempts to challenge corporate power in relation to labour rights, the protection of the environment, health concerns and redistributive goals[1]. Within this inimical international legal environment, human rights appear to be one of the last fora left to challenge the tide.

What is also notable is the polarisation within the HRC steered by Ecuador’s initiative. The voting patterns reveal a clear division between the Global North and the Global South with the former voting en bloc against the resolution. It might be of interest for the readers, that Ireland also voted against the motion arguing that the International Law Commission is a forum better situated to address the legal challenges of the issue at hand. This polarisation is worth taking a note of. First, given that the states that voted against the resolution are capital -exporting states, where most of the transnational companies in question are registered, their hostility or reluctance regarding the initiative is a bad omen for its future. Indeed, even if the treaty is drafted successfully lack of ratification by these states would be fatal to its efficiency. Secondly, what is revealed is the intention of certain states to move on with initiatives even when consensus or wide-spread agreement is not secured. This was lamented by the US delegation, but it might be encouraging to the degree that it might indicate the emergence of an alternative perspective of human rights.

This takes me to my final point which concerns the potentially positive implications of the Resolution. It is undeniable that we need not to get too optimistic prematurely, since both the final content and the efficiency of the potential treaty are unknown and indeed, they are going to be the subject of intense political confrontation. In any case, it is significant that the UN acknowledges that corporate power is something that needs to be addressed with a legally binding instrument. Besides the immense or moderate practical effects that this might have in the lives of deprived individuals and communities across the globe, this initiative might also demonstrate significant ideological impact. In a nutshell, the idea that corporations are people , that is vulnerable entities that need to be protected from an evil, arbitrary state and therefore must enjoy rights conceptually comparable to those of the individual, has deeply eroded international law and international legal thought. (See here for an argument in support of the arbitration clause in TTIP entirely based on an analogy between investment and human rights law)  Hence, any legal motion that recognises the fact that corporations, usually with the active collaboration of states, be it host or exporting states, are responsible for the violation of people’s rights is welcome. Finally, the drafting of the treaty could become an excellent forum for documenting in a systematic way the atrocities that are being committed around the globe.

Only future can tell what will be the fate of the newly passed resolution. Frederic Megret once asked if international law can be a law of resistance. My point here is that if international law is to be of some relevance in a time of rising tensions and inequalities both domestically and internationally, being a law of resistance is the only way forward.

[1] See: David Schneiderman “How to govern differently: neo-liberalism, new constitutionalism and international investment law” in Stephen Gill and A. Claire Culter, New Constitutionalism and World Order (CUP,2014)

 

Human Rights and Transnational corporations: A Step Forward?

Direct Provision and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

UN imageThe Seanad Éireann Public Consultation Committee is inviting public submissions on Ireland’s Fourth Periodic Report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The issue of direct provision is one that the UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body responsible for assessing Ireland’s compliance with the ICCPR, has asked the Irish government to provide information on (see ICCPR list of issues and Ireland’s reply to list of issues).

The issue of direct provision was raised by a number of shadow reports from civil society organisations, in particular by the Free Legal Advice Centres (here), the Irish Human Rights Commission (here) ,  the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (here) and the Irish Refugee Council (here).  The enormous work  by these organisations have ensured that the issue of direct provision for asylum seekers remains on the UN human rights agenda.

I have made a submission on The System of Direct Provision and Ireland’s Obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. In this submission, I note that all human rights are interdependent and indivisible, violations of economic, social and cultural rights may lead to violations of civil and political rights.  The three core arguments I make to the Seanad Éireann Public Consultation Committee  are:

  1. Ireland is fully aware of the significant negative impact that direct provision is having on a large number of families and individuals.
  2. The direct provision complaints system lacks any independent oversight. This must be remedied as a matter of urgency.
  3. The operation of the direct provision system is bordering on inhuman and degrading treatment, given the length of time individuals and families will have to remain in the system. Given the level of social control, poverty and enforced idleness imposed on asylum seekers for several years, the State is also violating rights to private and family life and rights to be treated equally before the law.

You can read my full submission here.

Direct Provision and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Ireland – Why the Constitution?

Constitutional ConventionWe are delighted to welcome this post from Katie Boyle on economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights in the Irish Constitution. Katie is a PhD student at the University of Limerick and an ESRC Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a solicitor and has previously advised state departments and parliamentary bodies on human rights compliance. Katie has lectured in both Ireland and the UK on International Human Rights, Public Law and Constitutional Law. Continue reading “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Ireland – Why the Constitution?”

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Ireland – Why the Constitution?