This October saw Ireland examined for the first time by other United Nations (UN) countries on our human rights record. The process is called Universal Periodic Review. It is a process where the human rights record of the United Nations 192 member states are reviewed and assessed every four years. It is an important part of reminding states of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms. As noted by Ban Ki – moon, UN secretary General, the Universal Periodic Review ‘has great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.’
Minister Alan Shatter personally attended the United Nations Geneva Head Quarters on the 6th October 2011 to answer questions on Ireland’s human rights record as Ireland submitted to its first ever ‘Universal Periodic Review’. In his opening address, Minister Shatter made specific references to both the positives and negatives of Ireland’s human rights record. Of particular interest to us was his specific reference to the unacceptable delays in the Naturalization process. He confirmed that he was taking steps to rectify this problem, and aimed in due course to have all applications dealt with within a six month period. He acknowledged criticism for the lack of appeal process to decisions of Naturalization applications, but confirmed that he reviewed all decisions and therefore there was no higher authority to determine appeals. He cited the new Citizenship ceremonies as a positive step towards welcoming and celebrating newly declared citizens.
Questions were then put to the Minister from each represented member state focusing on human rights issues of concern in Ireland today including children’s rights, access to abortion and the ABC judgment, prison violence, overcrowding and sanitation and traveller’s rights. The review marked an opportunity for people in Ireland to highlight important human rights issues which face the country, and to encourage Ireland to promise to address these issues in front of an audience of their international peers.
The Minister made some positive statements such as confirming that a Referendum on children’s rights would be held early in 2012 in order to bring Ireland into line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. He acknowledged the urgent need to modernise our mental capacity legislation in order to protect those who are vulnerable in society. He also outlined a commitment to ratify the optional protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which would allow individuals to complain about alleged violations of these rights at an international level.
However, it has been noted that the Minister was short on detail in response to questions on other issues that are related to human rights protection in Ireland. For instance, the Minister noted the government are preparing legislation to enable it to ratify the Optional Protocol under the UN Convention against Torture. This is an important development and would require the establishment of a national body to monitor places of detention. However, the Minister failed to go into detail on the substance of that legislation or to give any timeline for its implementation. Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) Director Mark Kelly has commented that while Mr. Shatter appears to be sincere in his intentions, concrete action will be required to meet the promises made by Mr. Shatter at the review.
On the 11th October, the UN Human Rights Council adopted its ‘Outcome Report’ on Ireland. This contained a summary of what was discussed at the hearing and a list of recommendations for Ireland to improve the human rights situation. This will be formally adopted at a hearing in March 2012, where Ireland, The United Nations Human Rights Council, and NGOs will be able to discuss the report and the obligations which Ireland are required to meet. Once this report is formally adopted, it will form the basis on which Ireland’s human rights performance will be measured for the coming 4 years.
We believe that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is an essential part of improving the human rights situation in all countries and to address human rights violations whenever they occur. It has allowed for civil society to contribute to the examination of Ireland by highlighting the human rights issues of concern which are facing Ireland today and providing evidence of this to the United Nations about how they are affecting people on the ground.