Speech at the Tenth Department of Foreign Affairs NGO Forum on Human Rights
Opening Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Mr. Micheál Martin TD, at the Tenth Department of Foreign Affairs NGO Forum on Human Rights
Friday 20 November 2009,
Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin
High Commissioner, other Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to welcome you all today to the Tenth NGO Forum on Human Rights. Many of you have travelled long distances to be here, and we greatly appreciate your readiness to contribute and engage with us. Your presence ensures that the Forum will maintain its reputation as a significant annual event in the promotion of human rights both in Ireland and internationally. It is a unique opportunity for us to share knowledge and experience and to learn from one another.
There can hardly be a more appropriate venue for the Forum - apart from Cork, perhaps! - than the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Every year in July, Ireland’s National Day of Commemoration is marked in this historical building. The Commemoration ceremony honours the Irish men and women who have died in past wars, and in service with the United Nations. This year, we were joined at the Commemoration by members of the 5th Infantry Battalion of the Irish Army, some of whom had recently returned from their deployment with the UN force in Chad, MINURCAT. Some four hundred Irish soldiers are currently on UN service in Chad. They face daily peril and sacrifice in order to protect refugees and the internally displaced from the atrocities and gross human rights violations which continue to be perpetrated in that region. They reflect the determination of the Irish people that no effort should be spared to ensure that those who are most in jeopardy are afforded their human rights.
HIGH COMMISSIONER PILLAY
I would particularly like to welcome to Ireland our distinguished keynote speaker, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem (Navi) Pillay. Ms. Pillay has been a groundbreaking champion for human rights throughout her remarkable career. In 1967, she became the first woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province, South Africa, because none of the established law firms at the time were willing to employ her because of her colour. During the following 28 years, she worked tirelessly to defend anti-apartheid activists and to highlight the poor conditions of political detainees. She played a central role in ensuring that all the citizens of South Africa - regardless of their gender, colour, class or creed - could have access to the legal system in order to vindicate their rights. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation.
In recognition of her achievements, Nelson Mandela nominated Ms. Pillay, in 1995, as the first non-white woman to serve on the Bench of the High Court of South Africa. She was subsequently elected as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, including four years as President, and on the International Criminal Court. She took up her current position as High Commissioner in September of last year.
Ireland has been a strong supporter of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights since its establishment - and also one of its major financial contributors. We are proud that one of Ms. Pillay’s most distinguished predecessors in this Office is a former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. We recognise that the Office must operate free from political or partisan interference. Ireland has been a staunch defender of the High Commissioner’s independence. Under Ms. Pillay’s guidance, the Office has continued to grow in strength and effectiveness. It now has a network of fifty-five field offices spanning all continents. It supports more than forty national human rights Institutions and their regional networks. Earlier this year, the Office of the High Commissioner opened its first regional office for Europe in Brussels.
Ms. Pillay has stated that the High Commissioner for Human Rights must be ‘the voice of the victim everywhere’. We are honoured to hear that voice in Dublin today.
The High Commissioner is accompanied on the visit by Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Daithí Ó Ceallaigh. Today is Daithi’s final day at work. He has had a long and distinguished career in the service of the State, including highly successful terms as Ambassador in London and as Head of the Department’s Anglo-Irish Division. I thank Daithí warmly for his contribution, including the superb work he has done in Geneva, and I wish him and his wife Antoinette every success for the future.
TREATY BODY EXPERTS MEETING – “DUBLIN STATEMENT”
I am pleased that the Department of Foreign Affairs has hosted over the past couple of days a meeting of eminent experts to examine how the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Body System can be strengthened. The Treaty Body System has a unique global function in holding States accountable for their obligations as parties to human rights treaties. There are currently nine treaty bodies and some 145 treaty body experts.
It has long been recognised that the system would benefit from institutional and other reform initiatives to render it more efficient and effective. The establishment of the Human Rights Council, with its Universal Periodic Review procedure, has to an extent prompted fresh consideration of these issues. The outcome of these discussions will become the “Dublin Statement on the Process of Strengthening of the UN Human Rights Treaty Body System” and will be a very important contribution to the reflection on system reforms. Some of the experts from the meeting, including Ms. Mary Shanti Dairiam, Professor Cees Flinterman and our own Professor Michael O’Flaherty who led the initiative, have joined us for the discussions today. I would like to thank them particularly for agreeing to share their knowledge and experience with us.
UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Today’s Forum seeks to build on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last year. The themes of the discussions have been carefully chosen to reflect some of the most topical, and critical, challenges facing the Declaration. The eighteen framers of the Declaration propounded a set of inherent and inalienable rights common to all people. Reminding ourselves that such unity of purpose is possible emboldens us as we renew our commitment to securing the Declaration’s promise of dignity and justice for all.
The first half of the twentieth century provided horrific evidence of the suffering which human beings are capable of inflicting on each other. These atrocities recurred, furthermore, in the absence of internationally agreed standards and norms of conduct which might have helped to prevent them.
Mankind decided on a response to these unpalatable truths which would be profound, resolute and unequivocal. The adoption of the Universal Declaration on 10 December 1948 marked an expression of humanity’s highest aspirations, born of revulsion at the manifestations of its darkest depths. The events of that day ignited a torch in a century obscured by periods of unprecedented darkness; a torch which continues to burn strongly today.
The innovation of the Convention – the priority which it gave to the individual human being - meant that for the first time the welfare of a State’s citizens took precedence over the interests and institutions of that State.
Another key achievement of the Declaration, which we must bear in mind during our discussions today, is its universal nature. The rights that comprise the Declaration apply to everyone, everywhere and always, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation.
The Declaration covers the full range of rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social. In creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states of vastly different economic philosophies, legal and cultural traditions and religious beliefs agreed to a single conception of human dignity.
That sense of common purpose that brought about the UDHR still motivates our work in constructing the machinery for the realization of the Declaration’s rights. It provided the cornerstone for the United Nations human rights architecture. All legally binding human rights treaties have their roots in this document, as does the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which will become legally binding on 1 December.
The celebrations of the Sixtieth Anniversary have now passed and we look ahead to the next sixty years, and indeed to the sixty after that. Given my own background as a student of political history, I appreciate the importance of learning from events past. However, we must now turn our sights to the future and address how we can shape developments to meet the new challenges of our age.
1. NGOs and HRC
Effective legal standards, treaties and conventions - however welcome and important - do not of themselves prevent violations of human rights. Today we will examine how non governmental organisations can engage with Governments, and with the UN System, to ensure that the commitments made by States in these documents are translated into reality for their citizens.
The discussion of the Human Rights Council is particularly relevant now, as the operation of the Council will come under review in 2011. Ireland, with its EU partners, is committed to a strong and effective Human Rights Council. We see the enormous scope of the HRC to strengthen the cause of human rights around the world.
However, to ensure its success, we must find new ways to reach out across regional divides in the articulation of our core principles. The Council must be able to highlight effectively situations in which international human rights standards are being neglected or violated. Civil society plays a very important role in this regard. One of the notable successes of the Human Rights Council is that it has opened up increased space for NGOs to engage with human rights issues at an international level, particularly through their voice in the Universal Periodic Review Process.
This process is an innovative tool which can be used to increase the accountability of States for their human rights records on an equal basis. Ireland’s own UPR review will take place in 2011 and this Department has already begun its preparations – work which will intensify early next year in consultation with many of you here in the room today.
Our other panel discussion this morning will consider how gender issues can be better integrated into UN human rights work. In light of the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women this year, we will examine what has been achieved and what still remains to be done.
The UN has been a critical force in efforts to define a global agenda for women’s rights and empowerment in relation to peace and security, human rights, poverty eradication and sustainable development.
There has been considerable progress made since women first fought for their inclusion in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration over sixty years ago. Gender equality has been advanced through the work of specific institutions as well as the increasing attention being given to ‘gender mainstreaming’ in the work of the UN over the past twenty years.
One of Ireland’s main priorities during the 63rd session of the UN General Assembly was to make progress on strengthening the UN architecture for gender equality and women’s empowerment. We believe that the progress made in establishing a Composite Gender Entity with a strong leader will contribute significantly to our ongoing work towards gender equality and women's empowerment. We recognise the urgency of operationalising this Composite Entity, and we will continue to work to ensure a swift transitional period as outstanding issues relating to how the Entity will function are resolved. In this regard I very much welcome the appointment of Sally Fegan-Wyles as the coordinator of the transitional process.
We are particularly concerned with combating the extremely high rates of gender-based violence which occur during conflicts. The past eighteen months have seen substantial progress in the international framework for addressing war crimes against women, with the adoption of Security Council Resolutions 1820,1888 and 1889, all of which Ireland was proud to co-sponsor. These resolutions mark the first time that the UN and its member States have recognised that conflict-related sexual violence is a threat to international peace and security. They recognise the heinous impact of war on women and call the international community to action on the issue. We must now ensure that this is heeded.
I understand that this afternoon the Forum will explore how the gaps between international human rights and development work can be bridged. There is a clear interconnection between development and the enjoyment of all other human rights - civil, cultural, economic, political and social. Each is inseparable from the other.
Action on development is essentially action on human rights. In providing access to education, health services, clean water, housing and better government, Irish Aid, in partnership with many of the organisations represented here today, is helping some of the most disadvantaged people in the world; most marginalised societies to realise their rights every day. Our assistance is bringing to life, in a practical way, the language of rights.
It is clear that the benefits accruing from the UDHR have not been evenly felt across the globe. Ireland’s work in this area with some the poorest communities in the world is informed and inspired by our own historical experiences.
The UDHR has given us the tools with which to achieve the boldly ambitious project of universal human rights. It is incumbent on each of us to do what we can to ensure that the spirit behind the Declaration is carried forward to future generations and continues to inspire and protect all the peoples of the world equally.
Successive Governments have attached much importance to the role of the NGO community in the human rights area.
In the very near future I propose to announce the newly-appointed members of the Department of Foreign Affairs NGO Standing Committee on Human Rights.
This Committee brings together a cross-section of representatives from civil society and facilitates open dialogue on key human rights issues voiced at Government level. By working together, Government and civil society can ensure that Ireland continues to play a high-profile, active role in the promotion and protection of human rights at the international level.
It is planned that the first meeting of the new Committee will take place before the end of the year and I hope to participate in the inaugural meeting.
The current budgetary difficulties create difficulties and place pressures on all of us. I wish to assure you of my personal commitment to ensuring that the most vulnerable in society are protected to the greatest extent possible.
I wish you well in your discussions today and I look forward to a very successful Forum.
Thank you very much.
20 November 2009