Address by the Tánaiste to the 13th DFAT NGO Human Rights Forum
13th DFAT NGO Human Rights Forum
13 November 2013
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Eamon Gilmore T.D.
Ambassadors, distinguished panellists, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Mary Robinson said: “The fifth province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each of us. It is that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in.”
The topic of today’s Forum is “Ideals and interests; the place of human rights in foreign policy”.
I warmly welcome you all here today. I greatly value the ongoing engagement with NGOs in Ireland. I am conscious of how much it has been in our own interests to have had a flourishing civil society sector, both in good times and in difficult times, in the life of our nation. The Forum is the centrepiece of this engagement, and has been the scene of many fruitful discussions in the past. I wish you a stimulating and productive debate here today.
This discussion, on the place of human rights in our foreign policy, comes at an opportune moment. In the modern world, discussions of foreign policy take place in the context of two challenges; firstly, the rapid pace of change in international affairs, and secondly, the increasingly complex interaction between domestic and international politics.
Ireland's human rights record will be examined in July 2014 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which is a body of experts whose function it is to examine how states fulfil their obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. My Department is leading on this process and will be consulting extensively with many Government Departments. Ireland's report under the Covenant was submitted to the Committee last year and the Committee has now produced a list of issues and asked the Government to respond in writing. The Committee has had the benefit of submissions from the Irish Human Rights Commission and NGOs. I can assure you that we treat our reporting obligations very seriously and will submit a full and comprehensive response to the list of issues. I might also mention that under the UN Universal Periodic Review, Ireland will make a voluntary mid-term report on its human rights record early in 2014.
Our external environment, and the international system in which we operate as a state, are experiencing change on several planes. This requires us to be both flexible and adaptable if we are to successfully promote our values and interests abroad.
With this in mind, I have initiated a review of Ireland’s foreign policy and external relations – the first since that carried out by then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring in 1996 – in order to ensure that we produce the right mix of policies and instruments with which to engage as a responsible global actor and to protect the values and interests of our people.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will shortly launch a consultation process as part of this review, inviting input from members of the public, and other stakeholders with an interest in Ireland’s foreign policy. Some of the themes that you will be discussing today will be relevant to this review and I hope that today’s proceedings will make a valuable contribution to that process. I encourage you all to be a part of the formal consultation process when it begins.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is easy at times to be pessimistic about the place of human rights in foreign policy.
Yet, both in policy and in the day-to-day interaction between States, human rights issues are constantly on the agenda. Through the work of international organisations, the media and civil society, there is a remarkable degree of international scrutiny of States’ implementation of their human rights obligations. The question before us is how these processes can be improved and how we can adapt to the enormous challenges we face in the conduct of international affairs.
Human rights have been a central concern of our foreign policy since independence. Our focus on rights found expression in policies such as our principled and practical opposition to apartheid, our support for the process of decolonisation, and our full and active participation in the international human rights system.
Our aid programme, which has a determined and practical focus on combating hunger and realising the right to food, has also positioned human rights as a central principle in our efforts to promote sustainable development. Ireland’s new policy on international development, ‘One World One Future’, which was launched in May, reaffirms the centrality of human rights to Ireland’s foreign policy and to the aid programme. It provides the framework for integrating human rights and development, and commits to ensuring that human rights principles and standards are promoted, protected and integrated in all of our development efforts.
The Irish Aid programme supports state institutions and independent organisations that promote human rights, governance, and democracy in developing countries, particularly in the nine Irish Aid Partner Countries in Africa and Asia. Expenditure on governance and civil society amounts to around 15% of our total budget.
Ireland has also invested enormous political and diplomatic energy into the resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The political settlement and positive prospects for the future have been constructed around immutable human rights principles, including equality and non-discrimination. The emerging result has been in everyone’s interests. I believe that as these human rights guarantees become part of lived experience in Northern Ireland, and as the stultifying effects of fear recede further into the background, the full economic, social, political and cultural potential of Northern Ireland and of the island as a whole can be realised. What could be more in our interests than that?
Human rights have also been a cornerstone in the construction of the European Union. They have been central to the EU’s relations with third countries since the early days of European Political Cooperation, and subsequently the Common Foreign Security Policy.
The EU played a crucial role in anchoring respect for human rights in the former Eastern Bloc states following the fall of the Iron Curtain. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was adopted in 2000 and has been binding on all States since 2009. Along with the European Convention on Human Rights, it had contributed to a strong framework for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms across Europe.
Despite the many difficulties the European Union faces, the existence of this human rights culture across the continent has helped to create a space of remarkable political civility. And, as in Northern Ireland, this approach has been much more beneficial to Ireland than what preceded it. The challenge for the EU in the period ahead is to keep this determined focus on a broad concept of human rights and human dignity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in our foreign policy has been recognised by our election, for the first time, to the UN Human Rights Council in November 2012. This was a major endorsement of Ireland’s international standing, and in particular, of our advocacy of human rights across the globe. More widely, it reflected the esteem in which Ireland is held as a UN member and as a champion of the values which underpin the UN.
Ireland pledged to focus on a number of issues during our membership: combating discrimination and gender-based violence, strengthening the UN human rights treaty monitoring body system, and supporting human rights defenders. Serving on the Council enables us to play a much more active role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide, and to make a distinctively Irish contribution to that international effort.
The space for civil society has been shrinking in many parts of the world as a result of legal, administrative and other restrictive measures and practices. I am very proud that at the September session of the UN Human Rights Council, Ireland took the lead in presenting and negotiating a resolution entitled “Civil society space: Creating and maintaining, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment” along with Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia. The resolution, which was adopted without a vote by the Human Rights Council, examines the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern. As we know, the work of civil society goes far beyond the promotion and protection of human rights, embracing countless actors and activities which fulfil the purposes and principles of the United Nations. This is the first time that this issue has been addressed directly by the Council, and the resolution provides for a panel discussion at the March 2014 session of the Council. We intend to build on this work subsequently by bringing forward a more substantive resolution, most likely at the September 2014 session.
The integrity of the international human rights system is also under threat as a result of reprisals against individuals or groups who seek to cooperate with or who have cooperated with the United Nations. I am delighted that Ireland was in a position to give strong support to Hungary on a new initiative at the UN to combat impunity for such reprisals, and to ensure that the United Nations Human Rights system remains accessible to all.
Ireland also led an initiative on Preventable mortality and morbidity of children under five at the September 2013 session of the Human Rights Council. This resolution will lead to concrete follow-up action from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organisation on the development of a human-rights-based approach to address this problem.
Support for Human Rights Defenders has been a keystone of Ireland’s human rights diplomacy, both at the multilateral organisational level and in practical outreach at Embassy level. This day to day work of support and encouragement for human rights defenders goes largely unreported by necessity, but nonetheless constitutes an important part of our diplomatic work.
Ireland was pleased in 2011 to have been in a position, along with US Government and others, to work for the first ever UN resolution calling for an end to discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons. Our actions on this human rights issue stem also from our own positive experience of how the creation of a more inclusive and pluralist society is conducive to greater social and economic dynamism. I note that in this morning’s second panel there will be a discussion about how to achieve tangible outcomes in relation to improved human rights protection. It is heartening in this regard to hear of reports from LGBTI organisations worldwide that this resolution has assisted them in their advocacy work and given them new confidence.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As I have mentioned earlier, the conduct of international politics is undertaken in the context of new and significant challenges. The speakers today are addressing multiple aspects of these, including climate change, development cooperation, and the revolutionary wave of protest and change constituting the ‘Arab Spring’.
A central question for this Forum is how to maintain a focus on human rights in the real-time realities of the global market place. Our belief is that values, economic dynamism and development are not incompatible.
In our focus on the role of civil society, we also invite that sector to consider the question of how they might better contribute to achieving real-world outcomes and improvements in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Despite the difficulties and upheavals faced by many in our societies, it is remarkable that international human rights principles have not lost any of their aura. On the contrary, around the world, political legitimacy remains associated with respect for these principles.
These standards were largely codified by the international community after the experience of political philosophies that had led the world to ruin. The international community has learned the hard way what is not in our interests.
The simple fact is that our long-term interests can only be furthered if we adhere to these integral values. The acceptance that our interests and these values are intrinsically connected and symbiotic is the key to a successful, flexible and durable foreign policy. As US President Jimmy Carter once said, we must consider the “strands which connect our actions overseas with our essential character as a nation”. The challenge, as always, which you will be discussing further today, is how to keep a focus on improvements to the protection of human rights, in the real world outside the conference room doors.
There is no finer manifesto available to us for the conduct of international affairs than the international treaties on human rights and fundamental freedoms. By becoming parties to such treaties, States assume legal obligations to respect and protect human rights. Your deliberations today will assist us in seeking to bring the full potential of that manifesto to light.
Go raibh maith agaibh.