Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 16 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs
Irish Presidency of EU: Discussion with Amnesty International
As we have a quorum, the meeting is now in public session. Apologies have been received from Deputy Donohoe who, unfortunately, cannot be with us today. The first item on the agenda is a discussion with Amnesty International on its recommendations for the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. On behalf of the committee, I am delighted to welcome Mr. Colm O'Gorman, executive director, and Ms Iverna McGowan, policy and strategy co-ordinator, from Amnesty International. As everyone is aware, Ireland has a proud record of advancing human rights internationally. At the beginning of Ireland's Presidency, Amnesty International submitted recommendations in this area. As the Presidency has now passed the halfway point, the organisation has reviewed what has been done to date and has made some suggestions with regard to what needs to be done during the remaining months of the Presidency. We are looking forward to hearing their ideas.
Before we begin, I ask all of those present to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely. I am informed that those with iPads will also need to turn them off because they will interfere with the broadcasting equipment.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. O'Gorman to make his opening remarks.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I thank the committee for inviting us to address it on the Irish Presidency's role in EU human rights policy and, more particularly, on our recommendations to the Irish Presidency on what it could do to advance the promotion and protection of human rights during its term. We have circulated copies of these comments and of the recommendations to members. As the committee will be aware, we met the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at the launch of these recommendations in January. The Tánaiste welcomed them and noted the Presidency's firm commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights in Ireland, Europe and globally. I am happy to state that we have had a great deal of engagement with several Ministers and key officials to date. We take this opportunity to indicate our gratitude in respect of debriefing sessions we have been able to have with the Irish Permanent Representative to the EU. Those sessions have been extremely useful during the Presidency thus far.
Our specific recommendations, contained in our mid-term review, covered a range of issues including the implementation of the EU action plan on human rights and democracy, the fair treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, Roma rights, corporate accountability, violence against women, fighting discrimination, the EU's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights and criminal justice in the EU. Our priority issues for the Presidency have been violence against women and Roma issues. Copies of our recommendations and the mid-term review we published have been circulated to members for their attention.
As we passed the halfway point of the Presidency, we noted some important progress that had been made, including the role Ireland is playing at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the prioritisation by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, of the protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law in Europe during Ireland's Presidency. Unfortunately, however, there are two areas in respect of which we felt the Presidency might have been stronger. To date, there has been the regrettable lack of engagement on EU action to combat female genital mutilation, FGM. We were very heartened, however, by the Tánaiste's comments in Brussels last month to the effect that this issue is now on the Presidency's agenda and will be brought forward. We hope this commitment will translate to the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, placing an item on the agenda for the upcoming Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council in June. In our view, this would confirm the presidency's support for the European Commission's initiative of a consultation on EU action to end FGM. The Commission is very clear in its desire to move this matter forward and we are of the opinion that it is incredibly important that the Presidency should make a clear statement on and take action to support that intention.
On the issue of discrimination against Roma, we hope the important political message in the Irish Presidency's statement on International Roma Day will be matched by action during the remainder of its term. No discussion on human rights in the EU can credibly take place without serious consideration of the plight of the 12 million Roma people across Europe - 6 million of whom live in the EU - who suffer pervasive and systemic discrimination. We welcome the invitation extended by the Chairman to Oona Mihalache to attend the plenary session of the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, COSAC, and give an address during the session on '"A Future for Young Europeans". It is very important that the human rights issues faced by Roma be discussed at this event.
As members will be aware, we came before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in February. We have also asked to come before the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I wish to stress why we were so keen to come before this committee in particular. The Lisbon treaty has increased the role national parliaments play in EU decision-making processes. Earlier this year we met with the Chairman, Deputy Hannigan, to discuss - among other things - the Irish presidency's role in chairing COSAC. Together with the European Parliament, the committee plays a vital role in overseeing and scrutinising EU policy. In particular, it plays a role in strategic planning dialogues with the European Commission. Amnesty International also engages in discussions around the state of the Union address each year, and last September we forwarded our letter to Commission President José Manuel Barroso on this subject to the committee for its attention. In his 2012 state of the Union address, President Barroso called for better means of tackling the EU's internal human rights problems. Members will be aware that the need for a new EU mechanism on human rights was also discussed at the General Affairs Council on 22 April.
There has been much discussion in Brussels recently about the so-called Copenhagen dilemma, whereby the conditions with which we demand states should comply before accession to the Union during the enlargement process are never spoken of once any state becomes a member of the club. This constitutes a refusal to analyse human rights issues within the European Union. In our view there is a need for the European Union to take collective responsibility for this. The committee has a vital role to play in this regard because it can ensure that debates on these issues take place not only at meetings of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality but also at its own meetings in the context of the need for an EU response in respect of such issues. Of particular note in this debate has been the Minister for Justice and Equality's prioritisation of protection of fundamental rights and promotion of the rule of law in Europe during Ireland's Presidency. EU-level political support for such initiatives is vital if the EU is to defend its credibility as an entity founded on respect for human rights. We were very glad also to have had the opportunity to participate at in the Presidency conference last week on the issue of "A Europe of Equal Citizens: Equality, Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law".
I wish to make some comments on enlargement, which will be an item on the agenda for the COSAC meeting in June. We appreciate that the enlargement process has been a key part of the Irish Presidency programme. We met the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs, Deputy Creighton, and officials from the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU to discuss these matters in more detail. Enlargement negotiations should be engaged with constructively in order to maximise the potential to improve the human rights situation in the countries concerned. Croatia will accede to the European Union this summer. While progress has occurred in that country domestically in recent years, further attention will have to be paid to the position there post-accession in order to ensure that victims and their families are provided with access to truth, justice and reparations for human rights violations committed during the 1991 to 1995 war. With regard to other countries in the Balkans, we are highly concerned about reports that continued impunity for war crimes and failings in domestic accountability could be given less prominence - as currently appears to be the case with Montenegro - during future negotiations. We will be discussing this further with the relevant officials before the end of the Presidency in order to ensure that the accession process is used to its full potential to deliver human rights change across the Balkans. We are of the view that it is important that these points should also be raised at the COSAC meeting in June.
In our Presidency recommendations, we have also included nine cases of people under threat. The adoption of the EU guidelines on human rights defenders was one of the key outcomes of the Irish Presidency in 2004. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International asked the Irish Presidency to ensure the EU's active engagement in these cases. We have suggested how this might be done in our recommendations. There is much more detail on those cases and on the steps we think the EU Presidency could take in that regard.
I thank members of the joint committee for their attention. We would welcome any questions at this point.
Thank you very much, Mr. O'Gorman. Before asking my colleagues to contribute, I will make a few comments on the presentation. We were delighted to receive Mr. O'Gorman's comments on the EU Presidency to date, as well as his thoughts on what we should be doing for the remaining few months of the Presidency. Mr. O'Gorman is absolutely right concerning the need to talk further about the Copenhagen dilemma. It would certainly be a concern of many that some of the countries that joined the EU in the last ten years have failed to live up to their commitments. This is particularly so in the case of LGBT rights in some countries. I have a question on that matter. I wonder what Amnesty, as an international organisation is doing within these countries. It is important to make that point to us and other committees so that we can put pressure on from outside those countries. However, what is Amnesty International doing within some of these member states, not just on LGBT rights but also other rights that Amnesty International feels are not being respected?
I wish to inform members of the committee and the Amnesty International representatives that we will be having a session on enlargement at the COSAC plenary session. We have two speakers so far, one of which is Mr. Valentin Inzko, who is the UN's High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo. The other speaker is Mr. Erwan Fouéré who was the EU's special representative in Macedonia. He was also the OSCE's representative in Transnistria. I am sure that both of them will be able to give us very enlightening views on the current state of play regarding enlargement from the Balkans region. I have no doubt that the suggested questions will be raised by members of this committee, some of whom will be attending that conference. It may also be appropriate for Amnesty International to invite people from other member states to make these comments through Amnesty's contacts there. It is nonetheless important that these matters are raised. Organisations such as Amnesty International are needed to educate the attendees from member states as to what questions they should be raising during that session.
I now call Senator Leyden who wanted to make a point.
First of all, I would like to welcome the former Senator, Colm O'Gorman as well as his colleague, Ms Iverna McGowan. I served with Mr. O'Gorman for a short time in the Seanad. It was a short time as far as he was concerned, although I have been there somewhat longer. He played a very good role in the Seanad in that period and I am sorry that he did not continue. I congratulate him on his appointment with Amnesty International. The organisation made a very good choice.
Mr. O'Gorman referred in particular to the plight of the 10 million or 12 million Roma people. Our former committee Chairman, Deputy Bernard Durkan, commissioned a report of which I was the rapporteur. The report was accepted by the Chairman and adopted by the committee, but I got all the abuse. I never got more abuse for adopting any report before in my life. The amount of e-mails I received was absolutely unbelievable, not one of which was positive. I was even banned from a local pub not too far away from where I live, because I mentioned the Roma and there had been an alleged robbery in a particular location.
The Roma do not do much for themselves, quite frankly. Let us be honest, they do not have a good reputation. They will have to get their own act together and there needs to be a bit more leadership within the Roma community. I know a lot about them since I undertook work on that report. They are certainly the most oppressed people in Europe, if not in the world. Their numbers are enormous and they are an Indian race, not Romanians. The Romanians are blamed because people equate Roma with Romanians. I wish Mr. O'Gorman well in his work in that regard but, nevertheless, there is enormous discrimination against the Roma. Each country has to take action to try to assist them to integrate. Education is particularly important in this regard. Some countries in Europe are very negative towards the Roma.
I also noted the good point on post-accession monitoring. In the Council of Europe we have decided to monitor Hungary, which I have voted for, because Hungary has taken particular actions concerning the constitution. We decided that we would monitor Hungary even though it is well regarded and part of the EU and the Council of Europe. I wanted to make that point to members who are going to Europe that there should be a form of post-membership monitoring. Therefore when a country joins the EU, we should not ignore everything it does. A monitoring group needs to go out there to see that it complies with the highest standards of the European Union.
I will start by asking for some information. We have two pink documents - one dealing with Ireland and the other with Romania. A set of figures is given, one of which is the Roma population. The estimate for the number of Roma in Ireland is 3,000. The Council of Europe estimate, however, refers to approximately 37,500. I cannot figure out these two charts, so could someone explain them later?
Let us take it that there are 3,000 Roma in Ireland, according to one of those figures. It is a noble cause to integrate the Roma. I have had a lot of experience of the Roma in Budapest, Hungary. I am also familiar with some of them here in Ireland. It is right that they, no more than Travellers, should not be discriminated against. We have legislation to prevent discrimination against Travellers and the days of throwing a Traveller out of a pub are over.
Is Mr. O'Gorman aware of the extreme difficulties, even today in Ireland, in attracting Traveller children into the educational system at primary and secondary level, and retaining them there? I am speaking about schools that are most accommodating, including St. Dominic's in Ballyfermot, where they are trying to provide a wonderful education system for the Labré Park Traveller children. However, the most recent statistics from that school show that the retention rate is slipping because of socio-economic problems on the site and the attitudes of the Traveller community. The school is extremely worried, although it has the yellow flag for accommodating them.
The Roma community here has many more additional problems than Travellers. The State is trying to accommodate them, but is Mr. O'Gorman familiar with the difficulties we are having? There seems to be an increase in problems, perhaps because of conditions on sites where they are living, as well as the abuse of drugs and alcohol, hopelessness and suicide. Mr. O'Gorman might give us his opinion on those matters.
Mr. O'Gorman used the term "human rights defenders" and he has chosen nine. How did he pick nine from all the human rights defenders in the world? I was at the Front Line Defenders event in Dublin City Hall where a Mauritanian was awarded the Front Line Defenders award for exposing slavery in Mauritania. I get confused about who picks these people. We have been fighting the human rights issue of Nijinsky in Russia. In addition, there are others imprisoned in Siberia and elsewhere in Russia but we do not hear them being mentioned. How, therefore, does the international community decide which ones will be exposed in the headlines?
Ireland has been to the forefront in enacting legislation to outlaw female genital mutilation. Perhaps we should also be giving leadership on that in Europe. As a white Irish man speaking to Africans and challenging them on why FGM exists in their communities, I am conscious that it is almost a rite of passage in rural parts of Africa. Nonetheless, we do not condone it. I saw children in villages in Sierra Leone recently and it was like their holy communion or confirmation; it was a cultural event involving the whole village. In Europe, if there are any signs of female genital mutilation being pursued by parents or jujus on behalf of some communities, it has to be outlawed.
Should we concentrate on demands to outlaw it within the EU as opposed to exerting pressure on countries in Africa to outlaw it there?
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I will answer some of the general questions and then Ms McGowan, who works at our European institutions office and who is based in Brussels full-time, will follow up on the others.
On the question of our work within member states, we are very active at national level in many of those states. As a global organisation, we also work on them - both globally and regionally - through our European institutions office. A priority for us in recent years has been discrimination in the EU context, with a focus on that which relates to Roma people, LGBTI individuals, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. That has been a strong focus for us in the past number of years and it will continue to be so in the future. At national level within member states, the organisation works on those issues where they are particularly relevant. As part of a European and global organisation, we also feed in to the work that is happening in other countries.
Senator Leyden raised the issue of Roma rights. He referred to the response the committee received when it adopted an important item of work a number of years ago in respect of which Deputy Durkan took the lead. That response speaks to the level of prejudice that exists within Irish society towards Roma people and towards members of the Traveller community in general. When we talk about a group of people in terms of that fact that its members do not help themselves or when we make an entire group responsible for the conduct of members of a particular community, that is discriminatory. We do not assess Irish people within our society, for obvious reasons, and neither do we assess the position in terms of how certain members of society might operate.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I appreciate that. It speaks to the reasons why we have a great deal more work to do in order to challenge that level of prejudice. However, we must also name it as such. If we ever decide that we can discuss an entire group or class of people within society as some kind of homogenous entity which, therefore, can be held responsible for everything within that group or class, then perhaps that is where we need to start. That is all I will say about the matter.
A couple of comments were made about the fact that, post-accession, we must pay particular attention to what is happening within new member states. When we refer to discrimination, we are not necessarily talking about new member states but just EU states. In the context of the Roma issue, we have been pushing for infringement proceedings against both Italy and France with regard to forced evictions and other grave violations against Roma people. There are very particular issues which arise in the context of Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and some of the newer member states. However, this problem is not one which comes down to old versus new member states; it is, rather, one which exists at EU level. In the context of Traveller integration, I would encourage the committee to engage as much as possible with the development of the national Roma strategy and its implementation. Pavee Point, with which we engage directly, does a great deal of work on Roma rights in Ireland. If the committee has a particular interest in this matter, I encourage it to bring representatives from Pavee Point before it in order to hear their views on the development and implementation of the national traveller and Roma strategy.
Deputy Eric Byrne answered many of his own questions, particularly when he referred to the reasons why members of certain groups - in this case, Traveller children - find it difficult to remain in education. It is not just about schools being willing, able or positive with regard to encouraging Traveller participation. Communities and society need to facilitate this and make it possible. If conditions in terms of accommodation are so poor and if the socioeconomic experience of families and marginalised groups is so significant, then undoubtedly we are going to see less participation in formal education.
The Deputy inquired as to how we will pick nine human rights defenders. The answer is that this will be done with very great difficulty. Ms McGowan will comment further on that matter. In any of the work we do, we are often involved with cases in respect of which we believe there is evidence of even greater issues. This means that if we can resolve issues relating to a particular case, we will also be dealing with more systemic difficulties. That is one of the ways in which we prioritise campaigns, not to mention individual cases. The term "human rights defenders" has a basis in international law. It is a well-identified concept which the international community has established. We select cases through a careful analysis of the degree of influence any particular group can bring to bear in respect of a certain case and what will be the likely impact - both on and beyond said case - of highlighting it.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
Our recommendations to the Presidency come from our global movement. The cases are adopted by our movement. These are the cases we have highlighted via our European institutions office and in co-operation with our movement across Europe.
Female genital mutilation is a particularly barbaric practice. To somehow try to use the defence that it is a traditional practice does not stand up. A harmful tradition or practice can be a human rights violation and can be clearly identified as such. We are working, not just at European but also at global level, to address the issue of female genital mutilation as part of our work on maternal mortality and women's rights in general. We have a very particular campaign across all 27 member states of the EU which is co-ordinated by the Irish section of Amnesty through our European institutions office. The aim of this campaign is to try to ensure that the kind of legislation that was thankfully introduced in Ireland in recent years will be forthcoming elsewhere. That is the type of legislation we want to see being put in place. However, there is also a need for clear action on the part of the EU in order to address female genital mutilation within Europe. This is a good example of why we believe there is a need for clear coherence between EU foreign policy and internal policy. This is, perhaps, a very obvious area in which that is necessary. If we are going to talk about female genital mutilation - and other issues - in countries where it is a traditional practice, we also need to take seriously the impact of that practice on EU citizens and people living within the Union.
Ms Iverna McGowan:
The Chairman inquired about work we are doing in other EU member states. Amnesty International is involved in a broad body of work across EU member states in respect of torture, monitoring police behaviour, Roma issues, etc.
I will comment somewhat more specifically on our work in respect of Roma, a matter which was highlighted as a priority for this meeting. The most important thing to realise about Roma people in the EU is that states are carrying out forced evictions in respect of them. Roma children are being segregated in schools in EU member states. That is the burning issue which must be addressed at European level with regard to the broader context of how serious we are about human rights policy.
Reference was made to Hungary. The situation there has highlighted a structural issue that exists within the European Union, namely, that if a human rights issue or crisis arises, people are left scrambling around trying to decide how to respond. It should not be a case of considering the matter in the context of east or west. As the Roma issue demonstrates very strongly, there are human rights issues across all member states.
What we need is an internal response to that within the European Union as well as working with the Council of Europe. We need to respond to that. We are making recommendations to the Irish Presidency following the fundamental rights conference of the European Union with some practical things that may be considered by the Council Working Party on Fundamental Rights, Citizens Rights and Free Movement of Persons, known as FREMP. That could be given a stronger role and greater expertise and we could work towards having a European Union internal human rights policy in order that when another situation arises there is no panic in the Union or questions about how we respond. If this were done we would already have a coherent response ready and a way of responding. I welcome that this was discussed at the General Affairs Council. We are keen to see it discussed at the Justice and Home Affairs Council and at fora such as COSAC or between European affairs committees with regard to the broader issue of what the European Union's internal human rights policy comprises.
A question was asked about the cases. The cases were selected at our European Union office. We communicated this to all our national offices in countries throughout Europe. As Mr. O'Gorman pointed out, we look at where the EU has certain leverage. We look at cases that are emblematic. The committee will notice that some of the cases are within the European Union addressing issues on Roma, for example. We also consider EU guidelines on foreign policy and how to align it and we seek to get a regional overview as well. Basically, a good deal of thought goes into it, but it is still a difficult task to get it down to nine cases.
You mentioned where the European Union has leverage. Are you proposing that sanctions should be applied? What do you think should be done by the Union and the Commission to try to put pressure on member states?
Ms Iverna McGowan:
In general the EU already has many tools at its disposal. I will be concrete with the example of the Roma people. There is a race equality directive. The Commission could bring infringement procedures against certain states which are blatantly in violation of those directives. There is also political dialogue and it is working together with the Council of Europe in this regard. However, at the moment certain situations come outside the EU box and that is where the difficulty arises.
It is somewhat easier in external relations. There are still inconsistences and double standards in the application of European Union foreign policy but the guidelines are clear. This is what we request in the case of torture in a third country. There are guidelines on violence against women. That is one obvious example. There are guidelines on what we ask of a third country but within the European Union we do not have a coherent European-wide policy. There are practical steps we could take. The 27 member states could all agree to sign and ratify the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. We have been advocating for some time for a strategy on violence against women throughout European Union member states. The idea is that when there is a human rights dialogue with a third country and a third country asks about the European Union position on violence against women there is a coherent response.
Reference was made to the Syria crisis. The best thing that could be done at the moment by member states is to ensure it does not happen again that the European Union is somewhat unsure about what it will say. There is great momentum at the moment. This was something for which we had been advocating for approximately 15 years at European level. It was always said that it was not the right forum and that there was no competency. During President Barroso's state of the Union 2012 speech he referred to the need for some kind of internal response. It is now being brought to the General Affairs Council. We hope to see it on the Justice and Home Affairs Council as well. At EU level there is already thinking about what an internal strategy on human rights might be. We have the external action plan that we have talked about implementing but the question is what the internal mechanism are.
There are 27 member states which all have other external human rights obligations under international treaties and their constitutions and obligations that arise directly from membership of the European Union. Frankly, to say we do not have the competence to do that does not really hold. In a concrete sense, it is important to have a serious look at ourselves, to be critical and to ensure that there is a place at EU level even within the club where these discussions are taken seriously. That would be a great step forward and something we would be keen to see with some momentum coming out of the Irish Presidency.
The members of the deputation are welcome and I am glad to get the opportunity to meet them. I am a great admirer of the work that Amnesty International is doing. It is outstanding. In particular, I commend its work in the areas of female genital mutilation and Roma rights. They are important projects and I am pleased that Amnesty International is putting them forward. It was good to see that the Seanad and the Dáil passed a Bill on female genital mutilation, FGM. It was given full support by all sides.
Ms McGowan referred to the Istanbul convention. We held a considerable discussion on the issue last week because there was a lengthy debate about domestic violence. It is a considerable problem at the moment in the State. I note that the convention must be signed by ten states and we are not to the fore in that regard. We are not leading the charge. Does Amnesty International have an opinion on that? Should it be one of our priorities before the end of the Presidency that this State should sign up and lead by example? Instead of simply talking about human rights we need to practice them ourselves at home. We tend to be good at talking about these things but when it comes to implementing legislation at home we are seriously lacking.
I note Amnesty International's recommendations on treating migrants and asylum seekers fairly. I contend that they are somewhat mild-mannered, to put it mildly. We are seriously lacking in Ireland, especially in the area of direct provision, in which I have a specific interest. We should opt in to the EU reception conditions directive. I gather we are the only EU state that has not done so, apart from Denmark, whose reasoning was that it brought in legislation that went further than the directive. I would have thought that this measure could have been added to the list of actions in the review card which we could have taken during the Presidency to show how serious we are on that issue.
Where does Amnesty International stand on direct provision? Is the organisation concerned that there is a serious violation of human rights in the direct provision system in Ireland? Some of the organisations which campaign on behalf of people in asylum believe this is the case and they are concerned especially with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights and contraventions of the convention relating to direct provision. Specifically, there is concern about Article 8 which relates to the right to privacy and family life. I note the statement in the Amnesty International report that there are legal and political issues hampering the implementation or development of the EU Convention on Human Rights. Will the deputation expand on that and explain what exactly they mean and perhaps put it into lay parlance? Who is holding it up and why?
Amnesty International has made an important statement on corporate human rights. Since that was put together we have heard of the tragedy in Bangladesh and the people who died there. That focuses the mind on the necessity of working on corporate human rights. Has that event affected the dialogue on these issues?
Another important EU directive raised with us by the Immigrant Council of Ireland is the EU directive on the right to family reunification. There are particular difficulties in this regard. A study was done by the council relating to EU citizens having difficulty being reunited with family members or partners and so on.
Most of the groups who work as advocates on behalf of these people have been affected by austerity. What is the opinion of Amnesty International on the effects of austerity in the EU in respect of all the issued raised?
I welcome our guests and I thank them for their presentations. To follow on from Senator Terry Leyden's introductory remarks, I remember well the particular occasion which the Senator courageously and generously shared with the rest of the committee.
Two important points have emerged. Prejudice is something that grows if not challenged. It grows in all societies, in developing societies and in developed and sophisticated countries. There is a considerable amount of prejudice throughout many European countries, some of which are established citadels of democracy, and it is growing as time goes on. It grows simply because it is accepted and it meets a situation that arises from time to time, particularly at times of economic stringency.
Notwithstanding what the last speaker had to say, economic stringency affects everybody. People move into their respective corners when they feel threatened. I agree that we need to confront this. We need to establish certain norms by way of setting down particular guidelines beyond which we should not allow ourselves or our neighbours to go. I was a member of the original convention which drafted the human rights charter. We discussed all of those issues in great detail at that particular time. We had brave ideas as to how to solve the problems which presented to us at that time. There was also a recognition that resources would be an issue in many cases, of the type developing and unfolding now.
Two distinct issues arise in the context of existing and incoming member states of the European Union. First, we must set our own standards and ensure we keep to them, notwithstanding how difficult that may be. While doing so may not from time to time be popular, we have to do it. Second, we must recognise the erosion of basic fundamental rights standards in some of the more sophisticated European countries and the degree to which slippage in this regard is occurring. There is quite an amount of racist reactionary attitudes developing throughout the European Union. In this regard, one has only to look to international media coverage of some of the events in more recent times, in particular those affecting migrant workers from non-member states, including in future accessionary countries. We must be critical and question to what extent we can stand over much of what has happening without condemnation; to what extent we can address and improve the situation and what we can learn from the serious mistakes of the past so as to ensure they do not recur.
The issue of FGM has been raised. All of us have been dealing with this issue in our constituency work for many years. It is a serious issue of discrimination that has become acceptable, which is sad. FGM is an appalling, repulsive and disgusting practice. I know that some people resent it being described in that manner. However, the number of cases with which I have had to deal in recent times involving the hospitalisation of women who had undergone this practice years ago is horrifying. I take the delegates' point on the need for more focus on this issue.
Everybody in this country says "I am not a racist but". The "but" is used less frequently now than previously. While we have improved, some sensitive situations need to be addressed. Situations can develop overnight, be it in regard to Roma people, Travellers and so on. It may well be that the various ethnic groups will have to try to address this themselves. While we need to encourage them to do so and to evolve to meet certain standards there is a need for us to focus to a far greater extent that normally on the dangers in times of economic stress. It should not be forgotten that there are many difficult situations emerging in this country and across Europe, which have been thrust upon us by economic difficulties. These issues cannot be resolved overnight. We all deal on a daily basis with horrific cases of economic deprivation. I do not agree with the notion that the answer can be plucked out of the clouds and the situation can be resolved overnight. We are in a difficult situation. We must try to live up to the highest possible standards and ensure we do not digress but maintain those standards regardless of the threat.
I, too, welcome Mr. O'Gorman and Ms McGowan. Like other speakers, I hugely admire the work and objectives of Amnesty International and its notable successes around the world. One shudders to think of what might happen in the absence of Amnesty International. I apologise for not being present to hear the presentation but I was making a Second Stage contribution in the Dáil. I believed it was important to attend the meeting to register my support for Amnesty International and my admiration for what it does and its objectives. I have a couple of reasons for doing so. As a citizen, member of this committee, public representative and leader of the Irish delegation of the Council of Europe, I am aware of the clear overlap between what Amnesty International does and what the Council of Europe does. Obviously, we have shared objectives. I take this opportunity to affirm the work of Amnesty International and, in particular, Mr. O'Gorman.
There is much work being done at Council of Europe level on the issue of violence against women. I have taken part in plenary sessions in that regard. Considerable work is being done, as should be the case. I agree with Mr. O'Gorman that a subset of violence against women is FGM. It is an issue much discussed at the Council of Europe. Perhaps Mr. O'Gorman would in his response be prescriptive in terms of what he believes can be done by particular countries. It is difficult to enact legislation that reaches into sub-cultures. I agree without question about the barbarity of the practice and so on. However, how one polices such practices in communities and so on is difficult. I would be interested in hearing Mr. O'Gorman's response in this regard.
I am also interested in hearing with Mr. O'Gorman's response to my question on domestic violence. I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh's fundamental point that we should sign up to all international charters on the matter. Perhaps the Chairman will enlighten us in this regard. I am interested in hearing Mr. O'Gorman's response to the following. In my view, our record in dealing with domestic violence here is good. Perhaps I am wrong but I believe that to be the case given the various levels of intervention here in that regard. The Women's Aid charm campaign is running in my constituency and is hugely successful. There is also a great free legal aid support system in my constituency and a shelter in Navan. My personal experience has been that our response to domestic violence is very good. However, I am open correction.
Islamophobia is an issue that often comes up for discussion. At the last plenary session of the Council of Europe I spoke about the issue of discrimination against religious groups, in particular the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Tunisia. I also spoke about Islamophobia, which is currently a huge problem in Europe. It arises out of the current economic position we are in and particular events, including 9/11. All of those events have had an adverse effect on the lives of ordinary people and feed into Islamophobia. We need to do something about this. I accept it is not within the remit of Amnesty International or us to comment on the politics of a neighbouring country. The local election results in the UK are disturbing and alarming in terms of one-quarter of all votes going to one particular political grouping with links to Islamophobia and so on.
The point about the Roma is well made. I was not here for Mr. O'Gorman's initial contribution but I read his submission. It is a difficult issue but it needs to be addressed. It is great that Amnesty International is here and it is important for us to publicly affirm its work. At the risk of being repetitive, it is also important that we put our shoulders to the wheel on the issues raised. I have immense admiration for what Amnesty International does.
In regard to Islamophobia, the witnesses will be aware that Ireland hopes to open a chapter on Turkey's accession to the European Union but there will undoubtedly be resistance to Turkish membership. How much of that resistance would the witnesses ascribe to institutional Islamophobia and is Amnesty International doing anything to combat that on a pan-European basis?
Reference was made to direct provision and the treatment of refugees. I would be interested in hearing Amnesty International's perspective on this. I would think we deal very well with cases and provide a reasonable level of sustenance and accommodation. We cannot do much more in these circumstances.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I will begin answering questions and Ms McGowan will follow up on the Council of Europe and EU context. Our European institutions office covers the European region, including both the Council of Europe and the EU.
One of our recommendations is that Ireland should set out its own timeline for signing and ratifying the Istanbul convention but the Presidency should also encourage other EU member states to ratify it. We are back to the question of leadership. We can speak about the role Ireland needs to play as a country that claims to champion human rights issues, quite rightly in the international context in particular, but we need to demonstrate that leadership within the EU and at national level. If one of the founding principles of the EU is human rights, it needs to demonstrate a commitment to that principle. This means advancing, promoting and protecting the human rights of those who live in the EU. It cannot be limited to a dialogue around accession that is dropped from the table the moment a state becomes a member of the club. This is a huge ongoing issue.
We have serious concerns about conditions in direct provision centres, mainly because of the length of time people spend in them. The major difficulty is that children are growing up in direct provision centres and we are concerned about the impact on family life, child development and mental health for those who are forced to live in one room in a contained environment. These people are not able to live freely as families and individuals. Although we regard this area as a pressing concern, we are not actively working in it because we do not have the capacity to do so alongside everything else we need to do. A range of highly credible and effective organisations are focused on the treatment of people in direct provision and the conditions such people experience. At our most recent annual conference our membership adopted a motion calling on the Government to review conditions in direct provision but we regard the timely adoption of a single protection procedure as a core solution to this difficulty. Single protection has been a stated commitment of Governments over many years but we still do not have a procedure. Previous Governments have proposed procedures that would allow all cases to be fully processed within six months. When asylum seekers or refugees come to the State to seek protection it might be appropriate or reasonable to accommodate them in direct provision for a period of six months while the State discharges its responsibilities but to fail to process applications for multiple years, and permit children to grow up in direct provision, is a matter we take very seriously.
On the effects of austerity, when the Government of the day was in negotiations with the troika over the obligations it would be required to sign up to in regard to bank debt, it would have been interesting if it had on hand a counterbalancing set of legally binding obligations to the people who live in this State. The Government could have accepted the need to take on its obligations in the context of the crisis it faced while also asserting legally binding obligations in areas of health, education, social care, protection of humans and other human rights areas. That is why Amnesty International views the incorporation of economic, social and cultural rights into our Constitution as a priority. We need the added strength such protections would give to human rights accountability. They would also give Governments a tool in making difficult decisions around how they use the people's resources to best effect in the interest of the people living in the State. We are concerned about the impact of the economic crisis on human rights. There is no doubt that human rights standards have declined in key areas as a result of austerity. This is similarly evident in several European states. We intend to do more to examine this issue more closely.
Deputy Durkan used powerful language in speaking about guidelines and standards beyond which we should not allow ourselves to go. We would love to reach that point but we are still discussing minimum standards. When I speak to legislators and policy makers about economic, social and cultural rights, I sometimes get the response that these are not real rights. When we advocate the advancement of human rights international law, we do not refer to laws we might have written as an NGO but to laws that were agreed and adopted by states. Deputy Durkan was usefully involved in the development of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. These are not aspirational standards; they are core obligations to which states willingly and voluntarily agreed. We are asking states to respect the laws they wrote and to make them meaningful. We ask Ireland to protect and promote the laws it developed in the international context by observing them at home and showing leadership at EU level and beyond in advancing these core minimum standards. We are gravely concerned about the erosion of human rights standards in a number of areas.
When we speak about a practice as barbaric as FGM, we are not adopting some distant position or sitting here as white Europeans to talk about practices in certain cultures. Many practices in our own recent history would be viewed as equally barbaric by other societies. We live in a State where the gravest human rights violations one can imagine were visited on marginalised groups in the interest of prescribed morality. That might have been explained away through the norms of religious or traditional belief. Our work on FGM, particularly at European level, is driven by rights holder participation. We have a strong voice from women who are directly affected by the experience of FGM and who can guide our work. Rather than speaking as outsiders looking in, we are developing our position based on our engagement with rights holders and trying to find effective solutions based on their experience and what they tell us. We can share more information about these models with the committee if members so wish.
It is always useful to look at the national experience when addressing issues such as violence against women, and there is a great deal we could improve. It is fair to say matters in Ireland have improved in the past decade in particular when we examine the area of gender based violence, sexual violence and domestic violence but we still have a long way to go in that regard. That is not necessarily the focus of this set of recommendations because we are talking about recommendations to the Presidency in the context of its leadership within the European Union.
A key priority for us would be fore Ireland to sign and ratify the Istanbul convention. We have not been given any indication yet that there is a commitment to either sign or ratify the convention of which I am aware; Ms McGowan can correct me if I am wrong about that.
On the question generally of discrimination, something we believe must happen is movement on the anti-discrimination directive, which currently is in a nowhere place. The Minister of State, Deputy Creighton, said it was something she hoped to see advanced during the Presidency but we must be clear that it is member states that are blocking the adoption of the directive. If we want to improve human rights conditions within Europe, we must strengthen both the competency of the EU to address human rights violations where they are occurring and where states are in breach, for instance, of their obligations under the fundamental charter but also strengthen the hand of the institutions, and the anti-discrimination directive is important in that regard.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
Excuse me; Islamophobia. We are a human rights organisation and therefore we cannot get overly involved in the politics of this but it is an issue when we hear European leaders and other leaders, and not even political leaders, talking about resistance to Turkey based on Turkey's religious profile. If Europe intends to be inclusive it must not constantly define "other" and exclude people, for instance, on the basis of a belief that they come from a different religious profile.
In Turkey, and I believe it is flagged in the recommendations on accession, we have concerns, as we do about many states. For instance, the issue of LGBTI rights in Turkey is something we believe must be addressed as a priority in discussions with Turkey about its accession.
Can I ask a brief supplementary question? Regarding female genital mutilation, FGM, when the witnesses, or we as a State, campaign against that practice do we see it as a problem within Europe or are we conscious of the victims of FGM, some of whom we might have met, who came to live in countries in Europe? Are our consciences disturbed by what is happening in, say, Africa when we campaign or is it happening to substantial numbers of people within the European Union?
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
It is happening both within the EU but also there is a concern about the return of girls and women to practising communities where they will be subjected to FGM. The Deputy will know that in the context of the Irish legislation there was a strong focus on the need for the principle of extra-territoriality to be included in that legislation because in our experience of talking to affected communities we know it is important to empower parents in particular with those principles. This is to ensure that if they are returning to a community where they are under significant pressure to allow their children be subject to FGM they will say they cannot because when they return to whatever European country they are living in it is a criminal offence. That is an important principle. There is concern about the return of women and girls to practising communities, the practice within the EU but also how we respond to EU citizens and people living within the EU who have been subjected to FGM. There is a broad range of concerns.
Ms Iverna McGowan:
We have included a good deal of work on the asylum directives also, which was raised, in terms of people arriving at borders and then the follow-up on FGM in terms of women in detention in some cases having just entered European borders. It is about it happening in Europe but also about European neighbourhood policy in that respect going beyond the borders. It is also about strengthening the calls at the United Nations for concrete policy and legislation. A question was asked about what we can do in concrete terms to fight against FGM. Amnesty International has an e-learning tool for health care providers which goes into detail on the practical steps because all too often legislation is adopted but not implemented on the ground or dealt with.
With regard to accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, our office is called the European Institutions Office because we deal with both the European Union and the Council of Europe. Members will find in the mid-term review of our evaluation that we welcomed that finally, the draft agreement for EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights has been agreed. The challenge now is the so-called internal rules. One of the actions we called for in the mid-term review is a more transparent dialogue on what these internal reviews will entail. Will they serve to limit what ultimately will be the consequences of EU accession or will they be in line with the purpose and cause of that convention, namely, to protect and promote human rights in the European Union? That is a pertinent question.
In terms of corporate accountability, the incident in Bangladesh brought that to the forefront again. We have found working on corporate accountability at the EU level that progress has been slow. We are involved in a number of negotiations on more technical issues. However, we believe there is a need for a broader discussion on what we can do in terms of implementing the UN guiding principles on business corporate accountability at EU level. We can provide the committee with a more detailed response on that at a later date.
With regard to Islamophobia, last year Amnesty International released a report on discrimination against Muslims in Europe, to which I would invite any interested members to refer.
Ms Iverna McGowan:
On the question about the response to general LGBTI issues, Amnesty International recently released public statements on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia regarding authorities tackling homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. To some extent the problems can be institutional in that even if they are protected by law there is not proper follow-up or there is impunity for crimes committed at the time.
At EU level Amnesty International is engaging with the European Commission progress reports and also the European Parliament progress reports on enlargement and insisting that LGBTI rights should be included in those.
Within the European Union we engage at EU level on legislation on hate crime. We are also due to have a regional briefing released in September or October on the thematic report on LGBTI issues.We also offer a gooddeal of support and are working with LGBTI prides. Members will be aware that Baltic Pride is coming from Vilnius and therefore in the context of the Lithuanian Presidency, we will be combining those two efforts and working in concrete terms on that.
On the more technical questions, we could send a follow-up submission to the committee. On some of the issues relevant to enlargement, we could forward those to the relevant people for the COSAC meeting.
On behalf of the committee, I express our appreciation to the witnesses for attending today and sharing their thoughts and recommendations with us. We will take them on board and if we receive additional information from them in the near future we will be able to raise some issues with the various Ministers in advance of the June General Affairs Council.
Mr. Colm O'Gorman:
I thank the Chairman. We fully appreciate that there are always questions of competency at the EU level.
We are mindful that those same questions exist, for instance, in moves being adopted to address the financial crisis. When we examine some of the challenges that the EU is faced with, and some of the issues that the EU Presidency is tied up in and trying to address, we realise that EU competency around banking regulation, etc., is an ongoing challenge. Let us take the financial crisis as an example. The EU was founded on the principle of human rights. If we really are committed to it then Europe must find a way to resolve the competency questions, no matter how long it takes. We encourage the committee, as legislators, to try to address and find solutions to the competency questions. The committee, post-Lisbon treaty, has played a particular role and that is why we are grateful that it gave us so much time this afternoon.