Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 6 November 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
United Nations Human Rights Council: Discussion with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
I remind members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference with the recording equipment in committee rooms, even in silent mode. We have seen some instances of this occur recently.
The main purpose of the meeting is to meet officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Ireland's membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council. I welcome Mr. Colin Wrafter, director of the human rights unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and his colleagues. As members are aware, the Human Rights Council is the intergovernmental body within the United Nations responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights. Ireland’s three year membership of the council began in January this year and as we are near the end of the first year, it is an opportune time for the joint committee to hear from the Department. Three members of the committee visited Geneva this time last year in advance of our membership to talk to the various key people involved. This is an opportune time for the committee to assess the first year of our membership. I invite Mr. Wrafter to make his opening statement. All of the officials are very welcome, including Ms Nicole Mannion and Mr. Brian O’Brien.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I thank members for the invitation to speak at the meeting. I propose to begin by giving a brief overview of the background to Ireland’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I will then outline our activities since taking up membership of the council at the beginning of this year, both in a national capacity and in holding the Presidency of the European Union during the first six months of the year.
Ireland was elected for the first time to the United Nations Human Rights Council, HRC, in November 2012 by the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. We are serving as members from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2015. Election to the Human Rights Council is regarded as second only to election to the UN Security Council in terms of prestige and strategic importance. This was a very tough election in a field of formidable competitors. At the UN, Ireland belongs to what is called the Western Europe and Others Group, WEOG. Three seats were available in the WEOG for the 2013-2015 period and we were competing with four other states, namely, Germany, Greece, Sweden, and the United States. There is a threshold of approximately 97 votes that a member state must pass to be eligible for election to the Human Rights Council. Passing this threshold does not in itself guarantee election, as it is possible that all candidates could pass the threshold. In our case, the election concluded after only one round of voting, with the United States receiving 131 votes, Germany 127 votes and Ireland 124 votes. The result was a clear endorsement of Ireland's reputation in the area of human rights, and at the United Nations itself. It also helped to contribute to achieving the goal set out in the programme for Government "to restore Ireland's standing as a respected and influential member of the European Union and as part of the wider international community".
Our success in the election was a reflection of the strong engagement of our diplomatic system in the campaign. Both our Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in New York and Geneva lobbied their counterparts intensively for support. Ireland's network of embassies and staff at headquarters actively promoted Ireland's candidature in contacts with third countries. Face-to-face ministerial contact was invaluable in the campaign. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, presented Ireland's candidature to their counterparts on the margins of international meetings and conferences. Lobbying at ministerial level was also undertaken by a number of other Minsters and Ministers of State at international conferences and in bilateral contacts with Ministers from other countries. The campaign did not involve any additional resources.
The Human Rights Council was established by the UN General Assembly in 2006. It is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly with responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Council is mandated to promote universal respect for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all; address situations of violations of human rights; promote human rights education, technical assistance and capacity-building; serve as a forum for dialogue on human rights thematic issues; make recommendations to the General Assembly for the further development of international law in the field of human rights; promote the full implementation of human rights obligations undertaken by member states; and undertake a universal periodic review, UPR, of the fulfilment by each state of its human rights obligations. The Human Rights Council has 47 members and meets in Geneva. It meets three times a year, usually in March, June and September. It can also meet in special session. For example, the 2 December 2011 Special Session on Syria established a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Syria.
Three kinds of event take place at the Council's regular sessions: general debates, interactive dialogues, and panel discussions. General debates are held on a number of standing agenda items covering a very broad range of country situations and thematic issues, as well as debates on human rights mechanisms and on technical assistance and capacity building. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also reports to each session of the Council, and states respond in the format of a general debate. Interactive dialogues are held at each session on a variety of specific country situations and thematic issues, primarily with the Council's special procedures mandate holders such as Special Rapporteurs and commissions of inquiry. Panel discussions are held on a small number of human rights themes during each session, normally on the basis of issues mandated by the Human Rights Council in its resolutions.
The promotion and protection of human rights is a core element of Ireland's foreign policy, and has been under successive Governments. Ireland firmly believes in the vital role of the UN in this regard. The protection of human rights is firmly knitted into our development assistance programme, our contribution to international peacekeeping, and our participation in international organisations. Ireland's membership of the Human Rights Council presents an opportunity to enhance our reputation internationally and to make a meaningful contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights globally. As a member, we can shape the programme of work of the Human Rights Council both by influencing the informal negotiations, where much of the work of the Council is carried out, and by voting. We are actively working to add value to the proceedings of the Council and to strengthen the institution itself.
Ireland's approach to membership of the Council is guided by the pledges and commitments made during our election campaign and our well-established human rights priorities. We seek to prioritise a number of themes, including the promotion of fundamental freedoms, notably the freedom of opinion and expression, religion or belief, and peaceful assembly and association; the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI, individuals; the protection of space for civil society and support for and protection of human rights defenders; the promotion of gender equality; and the strengthening of the UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Body system. We also committed to addressing human rights issues in country situations, particularly in the Middle East, Iran, Burma/Myanmar and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK.
Ireland held the Presidency of the European Union during the first six months of our Human Rights Council term, that is, from January to June 2013 of this year. This included the March and June sessions of the Council. Membership of the HRC was advantageous to Ireland in our Presidency role, as only Council members can move certain business items at Council plenary sessions. Had we not been a Council member, we would have had to devolve that function to another Council member. During its Presidency, Ireland played an active role in the HRC as part of what is called the Joint EU Team, together with the EU delegation. At the March session this year, the Tánaiste delivered a general statement on behalf of the EU as a whole on a number of country situations and thematic priorities. The Joint EU Team, which included the Irish delegation, led in the preparation of drafts and the conduct of negotiations on EU-led initiatives including resolutions on the DPRK, Belarus, Myanmar/Burma, freedom of religion or belief and the rights of the child. Ireland worked in tandem with the EU delegation on resolutions relating to Sri Lanka, Mali, Syria, Libya, Eritrea, the Middle East and combating religious intolerance. Ireland also led the EU in negotiations on a landmark resolution on human rights defenders and resolutions on human rights institutions, discrimination against women and cultural rights. Naturally, I do not propose to go into detail on all of these issues, but I would like to mention our role leading the negotiation for the European Union on the first substantive resolution on human rights defenders in three years, which was adopted by consensus at the March session this year. The focus of the resolution was on challenging legislation, policies and practices that operate to hinder the work and endanger the safety of human rights defenders. The resolution calls on states not to impose discriminatory restrictions on potential sources of funding, nor to criminalise or de-legitimise activities in defence of human rights on account of funding received from abroad. It carried a clear message, namely, that freedom of expression, opinion, association and peaceful assembly must be ensured.
Since the end of our Presidency of the European Union, Ireland has been working to develop our national profile at the Council. We took the lead on two important resolutions at the Human Rights Council in September 2013. The first resolution was entitled Civil Society Space: Creating and Maintaining, in Law and in Practice, a Safe and Enabling Environment.This resolution was introduced and negotiated by Ireland, with the very welcome support of a cross-regional group composed of Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia.
Civil society actors have come under increasing pressure in many parts of the world in recent years. In some countries, dialogue with civil society remains limited and the space for civil society engagement is narrow or shrinking. Restrictive legislation and repressive practices in some countries have led to stigmatisation, harassment and even criminalisation of civil society actors engaged in promoting and protecting human rights.
The resolution seeks to address, for the first time at the Council, the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern, underlining the contribution of civil society in so many aspects of our lives and calling on all states to create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate effectively. The creation and maintenance of space for civil society is inextricably linked to the ability of individuals to exercise their fundamental right to the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, opinion and expression. The resolution was the subject of difficult and politically sensitive negotiations, and Ireland successfully defended the resolution against several hostile amendments, paving the way for the resolution to be adopted finally without a vote. On foot of the resolution, a panel discussion will be held during the next session of the Council, in March 2014, on the challenges facing states in their efforts to secure space for civil society, and the lessons learnt and good practices in this regard. Subsequent to that discussion, Ireland intends to develop a more substantive resolution on civil society space, which we hope to present to the Council in September 2014.
As part of our commitment to ensuring that our human rights priorities and development programme are mutually reinforcing, Ireland also led on a resolution entitled Preventable Mortality and Morbidity of Children under 5 Years of Age as a Human Rights Concern.
We were supported by a core group of countries consisting of Austria, Botswana, Mongolia and Uruguay, and the resolution was adopted by consensus in September 2013. A total of 6.6 million children under the age of five die each year, mainly from preventable and treatable causes. This resolution focuses on how the United Nations Human Rights Council, HRC, can act in elaborating a human-rights-based approach to this issue and support the engagement of the human rights community in the ongoing efforts to strengthening accountability for children's health. As a result of the adoption of this resolution, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will elaborate technical assistance, in close consultation with the World Health Organization, and with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, including governments. This technical advice, grounded in human rights principles, will help national ministries and other actors to design policies and programmes to reduce and eliminate under-five mortality.
In line with our focus on the protection of civil society space, Ireland also worked closely with Hungary, the lead sponsor of a resolution on reprisals against human rights defenders who co-operate with the United Nations. This was the first substantive resolution on reprisals presented by the Hungarian delegation since 2009 and was the subject of difficult negotiations. Ireland defended the resolution from several hostile amendments in place of Hungary, which is not currently a council member and therefore was unable to challenge certain hostile amendments tabled during the adoption process. In the end, the resolution was adopted after a vote, with 31 in favour, 15 abstentions and one vote against.
Ireland also made national statements at the HRC in September on human rights situations in a number of countries, including Egypt, Syria, Sri Lanka, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Sudan, and Somalia. We have raised important issues such as the safety of journalists, children affected by armed conflict and the role of civil society in integrating gender perspectives in the work of the HRC. The success of our national initiatives and our activity on the council has contributed to a significant increase in Ireland's visibility and standing. Ireland will continue to be proactive in addressing ongoing and emerging human rights situations and issues, including emergency situations, and will play an active role in the council's three annual sessions.
As part of its commitment to playing an active role as a member of the Human Rights Council, Ireland also will continue to raise issues of priority in the universal periodic review, UPR, during which countries' human rights records are reviewed. The UPR is one of the most important and innovative aspects of the council's work. It is a process whereby once every four years or so, the council examines the human rights record of each UN member, asking each state to set out what actions it is taking to improve the domestic human rights situation and precisely how it is implementing the human rights commitments it has made. Apart from South Sudan, which only became an independent state in July 2011, each of the UN's member states, including Ireland, has now been reviewed at least once. Ireland's human rights record was reviewed on 6 October 2011. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, led the Irish delegation. Our review highlighted Ireland's positive and forward approach to human rights at home. At the end of the first cycle, one could state the UPR had been a broadly successful initiative. The second cycle began in late 2012 and a key question that states are being asked during this phase is what they have done to implement the recommendations from the first cycle.
Ireland has been an active participant in all sessions of the UPR to date. During the session that concluded on 1 November, Ireland made recommendations regarding Senegal, Mauritius, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mexico, Malaysia, China, the Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Monaco, Belize, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It interventions have focused, inter alia, on civil society space, human rights defenders, the rights of LGBTI individuals, sexual and gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation, freedom of expression and the follow-up to previous recommendations made in the first cycle of the UPR. While fully committed to ensuring that Ireland plays an active and positive role at the Human Rights Council, the Department is of course also working in other international forums, notably the UN General Assembly, to promote and protect human rights. Advancing human rights is also a key element of Ireland's input into EU foreign policy. Ireland has two years left to serve on the Human Rights Council. Its immediate objectives are to follow up on its two national initiatives on child mortality and civil society space while maintaining close engagement on the priorities already mentioned.
I will take this opportunity to mention that the Department is hosting the annual NGO forum next Wednesday, 13 November, in Dublin Castle. While we appreciate that Wednesday is a very busy day for joint committee members, anyone who has the time would be very welcome to attend. In conclusion, I hope this has given the Chairman and members some sense of Ireland's activities as a member of the Human Rights Council. We will continue to endeavour to make a positive and constructive contribution to the work of the council. I thank the joint committee for its kind invitation to speak and I am happy to answer any questions members may have.
I also welcome Mr. Wrafter and his colleagues and thank him for his detailed presentation. I welcome in particular the national initiatives regarding the civil society space and the preventable mortality and morbidity of children under five as a human rights concern, respectively. I compliment the Irish non-governmental organisations in their campaign approximately 12 or 18 months ago to create an awareness of the civil society space issue. I hope this can be advanced. As Mr. Wrafter noted-----
No, it is not switched on.
As Mr. Wrafter noted, the promotion and protection of human rights has for many decades been a central and core part of Irish Government foreign policy, and membership of the Human Rights Council provides an opportunity to maximise Ireland's influence in that respect. On Syria, Mr. Wrafter's notes refer to a special session on Syria being held on 2 December 2011 and states that a rapporteur on the human rights situation was appointed at that time. Some NGOs working in the region - not just in Syria but also in the adjoining countries - have before this committee described the position there as the humanitarian issue of our generation. Is this on the agenda of every session of the Human Rights Council? If not, it would be highly remiss of it.
I wish to raise two further issues, the first of which concerns Israel's continued violation of human rights. The Palestinian people have ensured more than four decades of military occupation. They have witnessed - and unfortunately continue to witness - violence against civilians, restrictions on movement and forced displacement of persons. I understand that at the human rights session last March, the European Union stated it "would like to avoid the proliferation of reports and mechanisms under item 7". Moreover, the European Union did not participate in the item 7 discussions in June and September. This is happening despite Israel's continued violation of international law and it must be disappointing if the European Union is literally withdrawing from discussion of that issue at the Human Rights Council. Is it the policy of the Department or the Government to prioritise the raising of Israel's ongoing violation of human rights and international law? Can Ireland, through its membership of the European Union and of the Human Rights Council, encourage the European Union to participate on this particular issue? It is a major Union and trading bloc comprising 28 countries and the withdrawal of our representative - that is, the voice of the European Union - from such discussions on important issues sends out a bad message and exacerbates the climate of impunity for violations. This must be of concern to Ireland because, over the years, successive Governments have consistently raised the entire Israel-Palestine issue.
I have one further question concerning the expiration of the millennium development goals. Mr. Wrafter will be aware that some organisations welcomed them, while others criticised some of the different measures. In its recent international development policy and strategy, the Government quite rightly notes the promotion of human rights and international development as being part of our foreign policy, and in respect of international development, it also notes the importance of promoting and protecting human rights through development co-operation. One is very much dependent on and supportive of the other. What policy does or will Ireland have to maximise the work on the Human Rights Council to press for human rights to be a central focus in the ongoing debates on the future of international development policy after 2015 on foot of the expiration of the millennium development goals? At times, 2015 can appear to be a long way away.
In the development of strategy it is not that far away. I hope membership of the Human Rights Council gives us the opportunity to consistently raise the issues of human rights and international development and that whatever strategy succeeds the millennium development goals will have that focus and architecture.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I thank the Deputy for his comments and observations. He mentioned NGOs, Syria, Israel, international development, human rights and the proposed 2015 agenda. I will deal with them in that order.
I did not mention in my statement that we enjoyed a good relationship with the Irish NGOs working in the area of human rights. Through the standing committee which meets four or five times a year where we have an exchange of views with human rights organisations on what is happening at the Human Rights Council. We have found these exchanges extremely valuable, both in preparing us for membership and also in terms of what we do as a member of the council. It is partly for that reason that we place such emphasis on civil society space. We hear from the Irish NGOs about the problems relating to the shrinkage of civil society space that they are experiencing and of which they are aware in countries in Africa and eastern Europe.
In Syria the situation is, of course, to put it mildly, deplorable. Peace remains our overall objective. The most important priority in the short term is to ensure there will be full participation in the Geneva II talks, whenever they take place. It is not quite clear when they will take place. From the Irish Government's position, it is for the people of Syria to choose their own government, but it is impossible to envisage a continued role for President Assad and his closest affiliates in any new Syrian leadership. The Assad regime has committed serious war crimes, as have parts of the opposition. There must be accountability for the horrendous violations of international law, including the use of chemical weapons, committed during the war. As a matter of record, the question of human rights in Syria was raised at the Human Rights Council in September. We made a long statement on 16 September in which we expressed our concerns about what was happening in the country.
We take a strong position on the question of human rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. We intervened most recently at the universal periodic review, UPR, hearing on Israel which took place the week before last when we raised a number of issues, including, specifically, the detention of Palestinian children and their treatment at military courts. We also raised the questions of the demolition of houses and restrictions on humanitarian assistance for the victims of such demolition.
There has been a debate inside the European Union on Item 7. The Israelis argue that they are discriminated against because Israel is the only country with its own agenda item at the Human Rights Council. This dates back to the establishment of the council in 2005-06. The EU position is that we will continue to raise the question of the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories regularly in the three sessions per year of the Human Rights Council under whatever agenda item is appropriate. The question of intervening on Item 7 is open. There is an ongoing debate in the European Union about the appropriateness of intervening, but the Deputy can rest assured that we will continue to argue for a full expression of the Union's views on human rights.
The Deputy raised the question of development and human rights. This is a matter of particular interest to Ireland. It is an area in which my unit and I do not take the lead. It is taken by the development co-operation division of the Department. Frankly, the question of the relationship between development and human rights was avoided in the drawing up of the millennium development goals the last time out, with the exception of gender issues. This time we must be much more conscious that development and human rights are two sides of the one coin. The debate will take place in New York rather than Geneva, but we are already keenly aware of the issues the Deputy has raised and on which we are working closely with our colleagues in Irish Aid. Speaking personally, one can no longer distinguish between the two issues as they are two sides of the same coin.
I thank Mr. Wrafter for the report.
From being a member of this committee and heading the Irish section of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa, AWEPA, in which role I have visited a number of African countries, there is no doubt that Ireland is held in high regard. Sometimes we do not capitalise enough on this. It has come from a variety of sources, including the Department, the NGOs which are doing amazing work, missionaries who forged the trail initially and our ambassadors. Certainly, our ambassadors to Lesotho and Nigeria whom I met are very much hands on and actively involved in what is going on. They have greatly enhanced Ireland's reputation.
I support what Deputy Brendan Smith stated about human rights being at the centre. I also welcome what Mr. Wrafter stated, that development and human rights go together. I refer to one right, in particular, the right to decent work. During the centuries we have seen historical patterns of exploitation of workers, for example in Africa, in the growth of certain industries, including those involved in extraction, but there are others. There will be massive growth in agricultural production, etc. We can use our position because we are represented in these countries and they listen to us. We can put the right to decent work, labour conditions, pay, health and safety on the agenda. In that regard, I want to see Ireland playing a bigger role. I am always struck by the disconnect between what is written on paper about rights and the abuse of these rights. We can be a strong voice in that regard.
I mention Colombia, in particular. Looking at our policies, we want to defend civil society space. We defended a resolution on reprisals against human rights activists, yet there are significant abuses of those involved in civil society in Colombia, particularly trade unionists and farmers. Only today we received word about another murder, the murder of Mr. César Garcia, an environmental activist and farmer who was murdered in front of his children. That crime will go unpunished. There was also a report about a particular community which had been displaced. Under the Santos Administration, they were allowed to return, but they have since been displaced again. Another trade unionist, Mr. Huber Ballesteros, is in jail for doing what we in western society do all the time - speak outing and making our voices heard. Any trade agreement must include a clause on guaranteeing respect for human rights.
On the gender issue, the matter of child brides is still significant. It amounts to gross exploitation. Children have been taken forcibly from families. Does this form part of the gender debate in which the Department is involved?
We have spoken about the situation in Syria. I am merely asking whether Ireland will support the idea of humanitarian corridors respected by both sides in order that humanitarian aid can get to where it is most needed.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I will take the matters in the order in which the Deputy raised them - humanitarian corridors in Syria, the issue of child brides, the situation in Colombia and the right to decent work and labour conditions.
The right to decent work and labour conditions is an important one. As I stated in response to Deputy Brendan Smith, the development and human rights agendas are moving closer together. From an Irish Aid perspective, we are conscious that we need to be able to interact, both in terms of our programmes and also policy, with our host or partner countries. What we try to do is encourage these countries to respect human rights standards. Human rights standards do not change, but the situations to which they apply do.
It is an ongoing dialogue and I must admit it is not always easy with some countries in ensuring the very points raised are respected. We need to bear this in mind, not just in the context of the post-2015 agenda, as mentioned by Deputy Brendan Smith, but also in terms of the implementation of the Irish Aid White Paper produced earlier this year.
As I am not an expert on Colombia, I will not try to answer the points thereon in particular detail now. However, we will answer in writing. Having previously worked on that side, in all of our interactions with Colombia, both public and private, we raised concerns, particularly about human rights defenders. I am sure Ms Mary Lawlor and others from Front Line Defenders will not mind my saying they are particularly active in exerting legitimate pressure on us in that regard. We try to deal with these representations as they arise.
The issue of child brides comprises a development question as much as a human rights question. There will not be development until the rights of children and women are respected. Part of an effective development scenario in any country is that girls go to school and do not leave at an early age. The problem with child brides, particularly where there is an element of coercion, is that it hinders development. Early, childhood or forced marriage is a devastating human rights violation in itself, but it also has a multiplier effect as girls and women who are trapped in coerced marriages are deprived of their right to an education. Issues regarding SRHR also arise, as one can imagine. Unfortunately, the problem is also related to the issue of female genital mutilation which is a problem in some cultures. We are keenly aware of this and it is one reason we have raised the issue of female genital mutilation in the UPR consultations.
On the question of humanitarian corridors in Syria, I do not have a particular steer. We will write to the Deputy on this issue. I am quite confident that we will support anything that can be done to alleviate the appalling humanitarian circumstances in Syria. The first requirement is to ensure some kind of peace process. As I stated, the prospect of that happening in the shorter term is not particularly encouraging.
I thank Mr. Wrafter for his extensive report on the role of our delegate to the Human Rights Council.
We are politicians from a sophisticated First World country. Collectively, we sing from the same hymn sheet where human rights are concerned, but I wonder whether we are not in a bubble. Perhaps Mr. Wrafter might help me to understand whether that is the case.
We should record the fact that the Chairman and all members of the committee worked assiduously with the ambassadors from each country with a view to lobbying them in support of our nomination. It was an extra tier of lobbying. Ireland is one of 47 countries represented around the table. We have a sophisticated western liberal democracy’s attitude to the issues of female genital mutilation, child brides and hunger. I was interested in learning from the briefing notes that we were working extremely hard to achieve limited goals. However, I presume we must also contend with opposition at meetings of the Human Rights Council. Mr. Wrafter supported the Hungarian position, for example. The case for human rights defenders not being discriminated against was won, but there were people on the council who voted against this. Ireland fought very hard to get its nominee on the council. Is Mr. Wrafter telling me that not all 47 council members adhere to the principles to which we adhere? Are there internal struggles. It is interesting to note the voting patterns of some representatives. Only one voted against the Hungarian position, but there was a substantial number of abstentions. Are we viewing the human rights arena differently from others?
With regard to the issue of female genital mutilation, we discovered that it was part of the culture when we were in Sierra Leone where some 50% of the children were affected. It is almost like making one's First Holy Communion in that it is a big event in the village. There will never be a shortage of human rights issues to be addressed. There are millions of them and the case in Syria is the one making the headlines. There are huge problems that we have not mentioned, including the human rights issue affecting the Roma, many million of whom are floating around Ireland, England and the rest of Europe. What is our position on it?
What is the position of the 47 ambassadors on the vulnerability of minorities? Gays and lesbians comprise but one minority and their case keeps being highlighted. There are also religious minorities operating in very restricted conditions. I include Christians in the Sahel area where Muslim terrorism is strong. There were recent horrors in Kenya involving guns. It reminded me of Northern Ireland when people were pulled from the back of a lorry and asked whether they were Catholic or Protestant. Either the Catholics or Protestants were killed; I forget which. Elsewhere, individuals were asked whether they were Muslim and if they could not recite the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer or something else, they got a bullet in the head. Is there a western view of what constitutes human rights and is there another view? What is the political balance among the 47 representatives?
Mr. Wrafter has stated the council has been mandated to provide technical assistance. Can we receive further information on this? How does the council provide technical assistance and for capacity-building? Is there a separate budget for such matters?
It is important that Mr. Wrafter highlight the space for civil society. This is key because, if it is provided, it will open all sorts of doors.
I would have believed the health of children under five years would have been more a matter for UNICEF or the World Health Organization. How does the council relate with those charged with the provision of health care for the children in question?
I believed I had heard of all the countries in the world until Mr. Wrafter mentioned Tuvalu. Will he do me a favour and tell me where it is?
I congratulate Mr. Wrafter on the extremely good work he is doing. I would like to hear about the other forces at play within the council.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I thank the Deputy. I will address the question on perspectives of human rights, particularly the positions of the members of the Human Rights Council, as well as the questions of technical assistance and mortality among those under five years of age.
Our position is very clear: human rights are universal. Having said that, every country has its own interests. In our membership of the Human Rights Council we are not pretending to prioritise everything. We could not possibly do so. What we are doing is picking issues we believe are important and in respect of which we have something to offer. A good example is the issue of mortality among the under-fives.
Civil society space is an issue in many countries which may have many kinds of political system. There are problems in Africa and eastern Europe. Some countries place great emphasis on economic and social rights. Traditionally, western countries have emphasised political and civil rights. We are certainly in the western camp, but we have a slightly distinctive approach in the sense that we have a history that is not typically western because we were once colonised.
I do not want to go into the details of what happened on the Hungarian resolution, simply because I do not have the details to hand. However, with the permission of the Chairman and the Deputy, I would like to mention what happened in the case of our own resolution on civil society space, which was finally adopted without a vote.
Cuba and Pakistan tabled five written amendments between them, with support from other states including Egypt, China, Russia, South Africa, Algeria, Venezuela, India, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Djibouti. In specific terms, Cuba and Pakistan wanted us to delete a paragraph which emphasised the need for states to amend domestic, legal and administrative provisions which have sought, or are being misused, to hinder the work and endanger the safety of civil society in a manner contrary to international law. This was rejected by a vote of 12 in favour, 28 against, of which we were one, and seven abstentions.
There was also a proposal to dilute the references to freedom of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly and association. This again was rejected by a vote of 11 in favour, 28 against and eight abstentions. There is a group of countries who would not necessarily share our perspective on the universality of human rights, particularly in the areas of freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Moving on to the question of technical assistance, there is a budget - not in the Human Rights Council, as such, but in the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights whereby she provides technical assistance. A good example has been the office of the high commissioner in Tunisia, which has provided technical assistance to Tunisia in the context of the Arab Spring, and which has been quite successful.
The office in Cairo has been less successful. There are proposals to establish an office in Myanmar-Burma, but there are still ongoing difficulties in arriving at an agreement with the host country. There is provision for technical assistance through the United Nations, although not from the Human Rights Council in the narrow sense.
The question of under-fives goes back to the point I made earlier that one cannot make a sharp distinction between development and human rights. In our initiative on child mortality and morbidity, we are trying to bring what is called a human rights-based approach to the treatment of children. In other words children, and everybody else, have a right to health and medical treatment in so far as that is possible. We are trying to universalise these principles, which is not always easy in practice, given what happens on the ground with particular governments.
I hope I have covered everything but if I have not, then members of the committee should revert to me.
I thank Mr. Wrafter for his comprehensive speech, which has left us with very few questions to ask. I would like to comment on what Deputy Smith said about coming to the end of the millennium goals and the post-2015 situation. I was pleased to hear Mr. Wrafter say that as a human right, gender equality is fundamental to development.
In establishing the previous millennium goals lip service was also paid to them, yet some goals received greater priority. In addition, where progress was made it was patchy across countries. Goals 3, 4 and 5 were the gender equality ones, including children, where least progress was made. It was definitely because they did not get priority.
Although Mr. Wrafter has partially dealt with this question, to what extent can the Human Rights Council feed into establishing priorities post-2015? The Irish initiatives on child mortality and civil society space, are not 1,000 miles from achieving gender equality. Will Mr. Wrafter concentrate on that or on the broader issues?
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
The main debate will be in New York in the context of the UN General Assembly. The open working group has been established and will meet to examine the post-2015 scenario. A meeting in December, although not the first one, will be devoted to human rights. I see the role of the Human Rights Council as not primarily inputting into this process, but certainly working in parallel with it.
With the Chairman's permission I want to make a few points about this general issue, partly in response to Deputy Mitchell's comments but also in response to other members of the committee. There are a number of human rights principles that should be at the core of our thinking in all aspects of the post-2015 agenda, including the importance of addressing inequality and discrimination. Inequality and discrimination against vulnerable groups constitute one of the main barriers to achieving the eradication of poverty, including extreme poverty.
Gender equality and women's empowerment will be a critical element of this, and action to address this must be strengthened in the new post-2015 framework. A cross-cutting approach to inequality is essential, including recognising the rights of vulnerable and marginalised people everywhere, including poor people and persons who may be marginalised for other reasons, such as persons with disabilities, children, ethnic groups or geographically marginalised groups.
Ireland also recognises the importance of supporting governance as well as designing a framework to address the needs of conflict-affected and fragile states, and that would address critical development to challenges related to conflict and violence. These are priorities in our new development and will continue to be priorities for us in our engagement on all development issues, especially including the post-2015 framework.
Go raibh maith agat. I apologise for being late but I was speaking in the European Council debate, which went on. I therefore missed the start of Mr. Wrafter's paper, for which I apologise.
I wish to raise a couple of points, some of which have been touched upon. Other speakers mentioned the great excitement both at this committee and across development organisations when Ireland gained a place on the UN Human Rights Council. People were hoping that Ireland's work plan would be integrated into the council's agenda, but many people are asking what we are doing differently concerning the council's work. What issues is Ireland prioritising?
Mr. Wrafter mentioned Colombia and the Israel-Palestine situation. Does he see a difficulty with special trade agreements between those two regions, Ireland and the EU generally? Given the human rights record in Colombia and Israel, many people feel this is almost like rewarding bad behaviour, rather than tackling it. Does Mr. Wrafter have a view on that?
Can Mr. Wrafter give an overview of what we are, and will be, doing differently on that council? Do we see ourselves as a voice for people who are not on the council? Can Mr. Wrafter cite some examples in that regard?
Mr. Wrafer mentioned human rights offenders. The Universal Periodic Review of Development and Co-operation refers to operations and recommendations, as well as playing a role in the development of co-operation and work in partner countries. Would it be helpful if there was any correlation between the UPR recommendations provided to Ireland to countries where it also engages in development work through Irish Aid, and the focus of its work in the said country? Are UPR recommendations included when decisions are made concerning the focus of Irish Aid's work?
The issue of human rights abuses comes up all the time, but what about alleged human rights abuses in Ireland? What is Mr. Wrafter's view on that? Does his office receive letters on such matters? What is the structure concerning that? Is his office seen as part of the much larger organisation, or can he engage in dealing with such matters?
Other speakers have mentioned placing human rights at the heart of the post-2015 development. Irish Government policy for international development notes the importance placed by citizen-organised civil society on promoting and protecting human rights. Can Ireland capitalise on its membership of the UN Human Rights Council to press for human rights to be at the centre of critical ongoing debates at UN level?
How does the unit do its job?
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
This folder here contains all the statements we have made at the UN Human Rights Council over the past three months. The reason I am showing it is that as a member of the council we try, in so far as possible, to engage on almost every issue. To give an extreme example, in September we intervened in a debate on albinism, the rights of albinos, which is a particular problem in African countries. We are very conscious of our responsibility as a member of the council to engage with issues that may not normally be on our radar.
The Deputy raised the issue of the universal periodic review, UPR and Irish Aid. We are very conscious that there has to be a relationship between what Ireland is doing on the ground in aid countries and the human rights situation in them. Nigeria, which is not a partner country, is an example of where there are problems with anti-gay legislation. In Uganda, which is a partner country, there have also been problems with anti-gay legislation and irresponsible rhetoric in this area by local politicians. We have made our position quite clear both publicly and privately in this regard. It is almost a rule that where an Irish Aid partner country is examined under the UPR, we take a definite interest in that examination and make recommendations through our embassies on the ground. Irish non-governmental organisations also lobby us on particular issues in various countries.
There is much follow-up work on the two national initiatives mentioned already, civil society and space and preventable under-fives morbidity and mortality. We have started the ball rolling in both of these but we need to keep it so. As I stated earlier in my presentation, we hope to have a more substantive resolution on civil society-space at the September 2014 session.
We will continue to follow the human rights situations in particular countries. The Hungarian resolution on reprisals against human rights defenders where they co-operate with the UN is a good example of where we have taken an active role. It was not our baby but we felt it was an important role. Norway led on the human rights defenders issue at the March 2013 session, an occasion on which we took an active role in support of it. At the General Assembly, Norway has a resolution on women human rights defenders which is related to but not the same resolution. Again, we are taking an active role in promoting this. We want to contribute to the work of the council, help make a difference, in so far as we can, but also to enhance our reputation as a serious player in the international human rights fora, as well as a country with a strong and honourable tradition of promoting and protecting human rights that goes right back to the 1960s.
Maybe we could distribute atlases to all members.
I regret we do not have a sub-committee on human rights. The committee’s remit was extended to include trade but there was no extension to cover human rights. This is unfortunate, particularly considering our role on the UN Human Rights Council.
It is hard for Ireland to move child morbidity and mortality as an individual issue because it is linked to the millennium goals. I feel we are aiming low in our aspirations when we should be aiming higher. Being tied into the EU Presidency earlier this year gave us some opportunities but it also limited what we could raise.
There are other human rights issues which we could tackle. My colleagues earlier brought up the issue of human rights clauses being included in trade agreements. I know Ireland pushed hard to have such a clause included in the Colombian trade agreement, much to the resistance of many. However, clear violations of human rights clauses have no consequences for trade agreements. Could the delegation expand on this? What are the reporting mechanisms for such breaches? Relying on individual governments to investigate themselves which could result in the suspension of a trade agreement is laughable.
I note Sri Lanka will chair the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next week but Canada has refused to attend it because of concerns, that in the space of a little over 100 days during the final days of the country's civil war, Sri Lankan forces killed between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians in a no-fire zone. A UN report was done on this and the UN Secretary General discussed the matter with the Sri Lankan President, and his brother who is foreign Minister. They have not been held to account when there is a case for war crimes and crimes against humanity. There was no follow-up to some of the recommendations of the UN report on what happened in Sri Lanka. It made it quite clear that Sri Lanka needed to investigate events at army level, up to the commander in chief, and at a political level. What is Ireland doing about this? Will it raise it at the next council meeting?
The Sri Lankan President being made the chair of the Commonwealth is nothing short of rewarding war criminals. As leader of his country, he orchestrated an attack and told his generals to set up no-fire zones where people were told they would be safe. Every time they moved into these zones, however, they were targeted by the Sri Lankan military which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. I will accept there were war crimes on both sides. However, Ireland should raise this matter at the council. We should grab the opportunity even if it upsets some people. If we are on the council only to make friends of the whole world, we will definitely achieve nothing. We have a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but no human rights Minister or committee that could assist this delegation.
A dedicated committee might do some of the heavy lifting, including making the case that the President of Sri Lanka is most certainly eligible for trial for war crimes at The Hague. The United Nations produced a report on the issue but seems unable to tackle this individual. I would like to know what the UN hopes to do next. Perhaps Ireland should lead the charge on this. We are not a member of the Commonwealth and, as such, need not be too worried about the Sri Lankan President's position as president of that alliance.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I thank Senator Daly for his questions. I very much sympathise with what he is saying in regard to Sri Lanka. We did make an intervention on that issue on 17 September in the context of a general debate at the council. We took that opportunity to express our serious concerns about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, the treatment of prisoners incarcerated in connection with the conflict, enforced disappearances, torture and other human rights violations. We called for genuine reconciliation among all groups and communities in Sri Lanka, while noting that this would require justice and accountability for human rights violations in the past.
I acknowledge that sometimes the system does not deliver. Syria is a case in point, as is Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans, through some very adept diplomacy, have managed to secure enough support to block effective action at the Human Rights Council.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I would be happy to write to the Senator on this issue. For now, suffice to say that some of the countries I mentioned earlier in another context as being unhelpful would have been equally unhelpful in this particular context.
Fortunately, I do not have to comment in any way on the Commonwealth issue other than to say that I happened to be in Canada at the time of the announcement by that country's Prime Minister. There was a great deal of public support for his action.
Equally, I do not have to comment on the question of the establishment of an Oireachtas sub-committee on human rights. The only point I will make is that we are always ready to meet, individually or collectively, with members of the committee. I take this opportunity to thank the committee for its support in our efforts to secure election to the Human Rights Council.
To clarify, human rights issues have always been at the top of the committee's agenda. We have met human rights lobbyists, various NGOs and so on, both formally and informally. We have not neglected our remit in this regard. In fact, we have been very active in lobbying the Minister on various human rights issues. It is important to make that clear.
I welcome the delegates and thank Mr. Wrafter for his comprehensive report. I welcome co-operation with Hungary in regard to the civil society space. I am pleased to see that link-up, because I see many instances, particularly at EU level, where people criticise that country without having done any research. In fact, Hungary has changed its constitution and done a great deal of good work on fundamental human rights. It might not, however, conform to the ideological selectivity that goes on in some areas regarding human rights, which are distorted into adult rights rather than human rights.
I also welcome the campaign to prevent mortality and morbidity among children under five years of age. That is a very good initiative.
The report refers to the safeguarding of freedom of opinion, expression and religion as priorities for Ireland. I would argue that freedom of conscience, which is something more than just freedom of opinion and expression, should be included. We saw a serious breach of that principle in these Houses before the summer. It is important that we recognise where we are failing. We might not have a great deal of credibility on this issue at this time, in light of the events to which I referred, but we should try to include it. It is a factor in many countries across the world.
With regard to the promotion of gender equality, a heavy emphasis should be placed on developing a strategy to oppose the practice of rape being used as a weapon of war. That is very common in many parts of the world and has horrendous effects on the victims and on society as a whole. It should be a strong priority for us. In the context of a three-year term, there is time presumably to flush out and enhance the agenda.
Regarding freedom of religion, the persecution of Christians is probably the single most significant discrimination applying to any minority group. The number of Christians killed every year is quite significant and much of it is taking place in the Middle East. We have talked before in this committee about Boko Haram in Nigeria, the situation in Egypt and so on. In fairness, this is also a problem in Europe, where we see a growing but more subtle intolerance and discrimination against Christians. Standing up for the rights of Christians flies in the face of some of these ideological movements, but it should be done. The right to life is fundamental.
I attended the launch last Thursday of a book by Ann Cadwallader called Lethal Allies which deals with the collusion that applied during the Troubles, particularly within the murder triangle in Northern Ireland. Many of the victims told their stories to the justice committee, of which I was a member at the time. They are seeking the truth of what happened. Mr. Justice Barron, who chaired the initial inquiry into these matters, sought to assist them, as did the justice committee and indeed the Houses of Oireachtas. A motion was passed by Dáil Éireann calling on the British Government to co-operate, but that has never fully happened. The message must go out that where a person fails to co-operate with inquiries or conceals information that would expose collusion, then that is a continuation of the collusion. Such a person is as complicit as if he or she was involved from day 1 in the atrocities. That message needs to be brought home to the British Administration. Our position on the Human Rights Council should be used to highlight this issue of collusion, which is also happening in other countries, including Sri Lanka.
An issue about which I feel very strongly from a human rights perspective is the protection of the unborn. I was appalled last week to see an attempt at the European Parliament to have abortion - the killing of the unborn - declared a human right. That is an appalling position. Can the delegates tell me whether Mr. Anand Grover is the rapporteur to the Human Rights Council? In his capacity as rapporteur to one of the UN's human rights committees, he goes around the world promoting abortion, which is the killing of the most innocent of all. If anybody dismembered a baby at one, two or three months of age, it would be considered a major crime and there would be a huge outcry globally. The fact that it is done three or four months earlier does not make it any less of an atrocity. The protection of the unborn should be declared a human right. The inclusion of that protection in our Constitution puts us in a position to advocate and promote the principle at European level.
I presume the UN will be marking the fact that 2014 has been declared the year of the family. I would like to see an initiative which seeks to give a human rights underpinning to the family. In all objective surveys that are done, particularly in larger countries, there is clear evidence that the institution of marriage provides far and away the best outcome for children. If we place children as our priority, we must move away from a position where certain human rights are allowed to morph into adult human rights rather than human rights per se. Our human rights evolve in the mere fact that we are human. We should try to promote that philosophy and have it accepted more widely. That is not to claim that women are not affected by the abortion issue.
We must find ways of ensuring proper support and care for these women and it must be done without infringing the most fundamental human right of all, the right to life.
I want to raise a topic I have raised before. To what extent do we make an effort to deal with the human rights of prisoners in various hot spots across the globe? We have referred to a number of locations at committee meetings. In some former or serving politicians have been interned. There may be different degrees to which their human rights have been abused, but I know from visits to Israel that at least four groups, three in particular, have taken prisoners in the past few years. The prisoners are not treated well, for want of a better description. There is also the case of Ms Tymoshenko which has been ongoing for a number of years. We have raised other issues here, including the detention of an Irish citizen overseas. We spend a lot of time agonising over the issue and I wonder to what extent the international community is alert to it, having been prompted by Ireland. I compliment the Department on the work it has done on it. Is the international community sensitive to these issues or does it just hope they will go away? On my most recent visit to Israel, I was anxious to meet prisoners in all areas to find out exactly what was going on. One of the areas in which human rights abuses are greatest is prisoners, particularly where large numbers are held in camps for long periods without charge.
Amnesty International has completed its campaign on behalf of those who suffer from mental ill-health in Ireland in its exposé of the denial of the human rights of those in this vast area. Amnesty International has done some very good work and produced extremely revealing reports, especially on the contravention of international conventions on the rights of people suffering from mental ill-health. Can the delegates comment on this and give their response to what Amnesty International has worked on for five or six years?
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I have a lot of questions to answer and I will do my best to answer them as comprehensively as I can, beginning with Senator Jim Walsh's interventions. His comments about gender equality and rape as a weapon of war are correct. It is a source of serious concern for us that gender-based violence is a problem in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rape has been a problem in the Balkans where it has been used as a weapon of war. In the context of peacekeeping and the Security Council, it is important that the gender equality aspects of peacekeeping and the reconciliation process in various countries take account of the need to deal with these problems.
With regard to the persecution of Christians in which the Senator has a strong interest, we are very concerned about the position in a number of countries. This applies in general in the context of freedom of religious beliefs and particularly in the context of the persecution of Christians. In Iran we are very unhappy with the position of the Baha'i community. Baha'i is not even recognised by the authorities as a religion, whereas Christianity is recognised as a legitimate religion by the government. The political turmoil that has overwhelmed many countries in the Middle East in recent years has led to unprecedented concerns which we share about the safety of Christians in Egypt, Iraq and now, pressingly, Syria. This is an issue in which the Senator has a particular interest. The descent of Syria into violence and disarray has left small Christian communities very exposed and sometimes subject to direct attack. We raised the issue of the safety of Christians in our bilateral contacts with the countries in question, stressing the responsibility of the government concerned to protect minorities. There was a meeting of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council on 21 August. In his interventions at the Council the Tánaiste ensured there was particular reference to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East in the statement released by the Council. In the Middle East region Irish Embassy officials have met local Christian leaders to discuss issues affecting their communities. Sometimes, as the Senator will appreciate, we are asked not to say things in public because it can work to the detriment of those involved, but we do what we can. Certainly, in contacts with governments we stress their responsibilities. There is a question about the individual rights of members of Christian communities, but there is also the danger to the heritage, including the cultural heritage, of Christian communities dating back almost 2000 years in countries in the Middle East.
I note what the Senator has said about the year of the family. I am not completely up to speed on it, but he makes a valid point on human rights in the context of the family.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked about prisoners, which issue arises in particular but not exclusively in the context of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. A topic which we have not mentioned is the death penalty. We are active in a bilateral, quiet way in countries in which the death penalty is still used in trying to work towards a situation where it will eventually be phased out. We are also active in the context of a resolution passed every second year at the United Nations General Assembly, not the Human Rights Council, on the death penalty. We were active last year and will be active again next year.
Deputy Dan Neville referred to mental health, a matter of which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is cognisant. There was reference to the need to help people with disabilities in the context of development. We see this as a human rights-based approach to vulnerable persons in countries with which we deal. It is something of which we are more and more conscious in the context of development and wider human rights.
Mr. Colin Wrafter:
I have not been briefed in any sense to talk about Northern Ireland, but I will bring the Senator's comments to the attention of the relevant persons in the Department. On the protection of the unborn, I have a natural reluctance to become involved in the issue, but there is no recognised right to abortion.
I thank Mr. Wrafter and his colleagues for attending and updating us on the first year of Ireland's membership of the Human Rights Council. Much more remains to be done in the coming two years. Our ambassador and his officials will be quite busy with human rights issues in Syria and throughout the Middle East dominating the agenda. We have had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion and I thank members for engaging with Mr. Wrafter. The answers were short but comprehensive.