Opening Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs at Front Line’s Fifth Platform for Human Rights Defenders
An Roinn Gnóthaí Eachtracha
Department of Foreign Affairs
Preas Oifig, Teach Uibh Eachach, Faiche Stiabhna, Baile Átha Cliath 2
Press Office, Iveagh House, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2.
Tel: 353 -1- 478 0822 Fax: 353 -1- 478 5942 / 475 7476
Opening Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Mr Micheál Martin TD, at Front Line’s Fifth Platform for Human Rights Defenders
Dublin Castle, 10 February 2010
High Commissioner, Your Excellencies, distinguished human rights defenders, ladies and gentlemen.
I am happy to have the honour of welcoming you to this, the Fifth Front Line Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders. If I may borrow from the Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney, you, as human rights defenders, are dual citizens of the Republic of Conscience. You dedicate your lives to fighting for the rights of others. You make personal sacrifices in the pursuit of justice, human rights and human dignity. You put your own lives at risk to break the deafening silence of indifference and complacency. Without you, the voices of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society would not be heard. You are here today because Front Line has provided an opportunity for you to meet and share experiences. You are here today because you surmounted the obstacles standing in your way. You are here today to give a voice to those who cannot be heard.
We are here today to listen. Ireland is privileged to host such an event and I am privileged to deliver the opening address.
I am delighted to welcome the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, back to Dublin. I had the honour of meeting the High Commissioner in Dublin last November when she gave the keynote address at my own Department’s 10th DFA NGO Forum on Human Rights. Ms Pillay is a champion for human rights, both in her current capacity as High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as throughout her distinguished career. It is fitting that she is here to address this Platform because, like many of you here today, she has a wealth of experience in vindicating the rights of others. As a lawyer in apartheid South Africa, she worked tirelessly to defend anti-apartheid activists and trade unionists. 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 assert their rights. Ms Pillay has also served as a judge on two of the international criminal courts, spending eight years with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, including four years as its President, and five years on the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Ms Pillay’s presence here today is also appropriate given that there will be a focus on the specific challenges facing women human rights defenders during the Platform.
Ireland is glad to be in a position to continue to support the work of the High Commissioner and of Office of the High Commissioner both politically and financially, as one of its major contributors. Ireland has also been a staunch defender of the High Commissioner’s independence. Under Ms Pillay’s leadership, the Office has continued to grow in strength and effectiveness.
I applaud Front Line for organising this biennial event. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to Mary Lawlor, Director, and Denis O’Brien, Chairperson, and their team for all their efforts. Since its foundation in 2001, Front Line has made a major contribution in highlighting the plight of human rights defenders and working on your behalf.
Front Line’s contribution is unique and diverse. It is a resource for human rights defenders, a campaigner for human rights causes and a provider of emergency assistance to human rights defenders at risk. My Department has developed a close working relationship with Front Line since its in inception and Irish Aid has provided funding each year, including a grant of €450,000 in 2010.
The vast technological advances we have seen over the last few decades have presented unprecedented opportunities, challenges and risks for human rights defenders. The advances allow, inter alia, for greater efficiency, awareness-raising and communications with partner organisations. Some of you may not have been in a position to avail of such technological advances as much as others, depending on where you live. Some of you may be limited in your ability to access information due to practices of censorship. Some of you may have been on the wrong end of such technological advances when used as a vehicle for infiltrating and obstructing your legitimate human rights work, and experienced, as a consequence, a heightened risk to your personal security. Front Line plays an important and crucial role through its focus on security, especially computer and internet security, and protection programmes for human rights defenders. I note that this afternoon’s sessions are devoted to strategies for protection.
Human rights and the cause of human rights defenders occupy a very important and indeed central place in Ireland’s foreign policy.
Ireland actively promotes the work of human rights defenders and opposes attempts to undermine their work. The adoption of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in 2004 was one of the key priorities of the then Irish Presidency of the EU in the field of human rights.
Ireland is currently a member of the European Council Human Rights Working Group’s Task Force on Human Rights Defenders, which keeps these Guidelines under review and looks at ways of operationalising them and making them more effective. Front Line is a most valuable partner in these efforts.
Ireland supports a strong and effective United Nations. A strong United Nations is good for human rights. A strong United Nations is good for human rights defenders. This is why we have advocated for the development of a strong Human Rights Council with the ability to address serious and urgent human rights situations.
Ireland has been a consistent supporter of the thematic special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. We have been particularly supportive of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders because of her role in supporting you. Ireland was lead negotiator for the EU in support of the renewal of this mandate at the UN in 2008 and has, for the last 2 years, been the EU burden-sharer during interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteur at the UN. It is a great pleasure for me to acknowledge the presence here today of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya.
Next month I plan to travel to Geneva, at the invitation of the High Commissioner, to address the High-Level segment of the Human Rights Council.
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, including human rights defenders, 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.
One promising innovation of the Council has been the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. UPR is new and innovative. UPR presents an opportunity to bring attention and visibility to the domestic human rights situation in every UN member state. It can be useful to human rights defenders to draw the attention of the international community to human rights abuses.
The UPR mechanism can also be useful for human rights defenders to draw on commitments made by States during the process and to seek to hold them to account. For our part, Ireland systematically raises the issue of human rights defenders in its questions to third countries under the UPR mechanism. We will continue to give priority to issues of concern to human rights defenders and encourage other States to do likewise.
Many of you will also be familiar with the work of the UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies that oversee implementation of the core international human rights treaties. You may have been involved in submitting or contributing to shadow reports for these bodies in your own countries. You may use their concluding observations to try to hold governments to account. 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 UPR procedure, has to an extent prompted fresh consideration of these issues.
I am pleased that the Department of Foreign Affairs hosted a meeting of eminent experts – both current and past treaty body members - in Dublin last November to examine how the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Body System could be strengthened. The outcome of these discussions, the “Dublin Statement on the Process of Strengthening of the UN Human Rights Treaty Body System” was launched in Geneva two weeks ago and will, I believe, serve as a very important contribution to the reflection on system reforms.
So much remains to be done in realising the promise of human rights for all, to which the international community has committed itself. Every day, new and pressing challenges continue to present themselves in the areas of human rights and democratisation: the state of the global economy, the international food crisis, climate change, challenges to global governance, mounting regional or other divisions in the Human Rights Council. These require innovative efforts and tenacious defence of existing human rights standards.
At a time when economic pressures are being acutely felt, human rights risk becoming the luxury item that we guiltily pencil in and then scrub out at the bottom of the shopping list of global needs. Your courage and your struggle to keep human rights alive is the reminder that we need: human rights are not a luxury, they are a basic necessity. 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, representatives par excellence of the Republic of Conscience to which I referred at the outset of my remarks, in your discussions over the next few days and in your ongoing and invaluable work as human rights defenders.
10 February 2010