By Niall Crowley
Political reform is yet another Irish oxymoron. Certainly not something to be serious about: it is a field for making promises rather than taking action.
Political reform that advances equality and human rights is more elusive still.
The establishment of a new Oireachtas Sub-Committee on “Human Rights Relevant to Justice and Equality Matters”, therefore, merits some attention. Inevitably it got almost none.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolved in 2011 that parliaments are “key to the effective implementation of international human rights through legislating (including the vetting of draft legislation), involvement in the ratification of international human rights treaties, holding the executive to account, liaising with national human rights institutions and fostering the creation of a pervasive human rights culture”.
The Dáil and Seanad do not fulfil these roles.
The Resolution recommended that national parliaments establish “appropriate parliamentary structures to ensure rigorous and regular monitoring of compliance with, and supervision of, international human-rights obligations, such as dedicated human rights committees”.
Four years later, and – begrudgers be silent – we have such a committee.
As with all such change in Ireland, it is about having the right people in the right place at the right time: David Staunton TD, Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and Chair of the new sub-committee, and Senator Katherine Zappone, Rapporteur of the new sub-committee. The sub-committee has three other members, all ready volunteers: Anne Ferris TD, Labour; Senator Ivana Bacik, Labour; and Finian McGrath TD, Independent.
Staunton said the sub-committee was “established with a view to examining how issues, themes and proposals take account of human rights provisions. The focused membership of the sub-committee intends to work to ensure that any new legislation is human rights ‘proofed’”. Zappone added: “members agreed ambitious but achievable areas to examine, which will ensure that this sub-committee provides robust parliamentary oversight in how Ireland complies with its international human-rights obligations”.
The sub-committee has identified four important areas for immediate attention. It will review the 2009 Charities Act’s failure to include human-rights work as a purpose of benefit to the community. Such a provision would have allowed organisations working for the advancement of human rights to have benefited from charitable status.
The sub-committee will investigate the introduction of a regularisation scheme for undocumented migrants for which the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland has been campaigning. It estimates that there are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented migrants living and working in Ireland, most of whom have been here for many years.
The sub-committee will examine the ratification by Ireland of international human-rights instruments. This could usefully start with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ireland, Finland and the Netherlands are the only EU Member States that have still to ratify this Convention. The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture will be another focus in this work. The sub-committee could usefully extend its focus in this area to the incorporation of international human-rights conventions into domestic law.
The sub-committee will support public bodies to prepare for their obligations under the positive duty to have regard to eliminating discrimination, promoting equality of opportunity and protecting human rights. This obligation has been introduced by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. It offers the potential to inculcate a new culture of equality and human rights in Government Departments and public bodies. However, it runs the risk of being limited to a tick-box exercise unless there is some drive and support behind it. The sub-committee is now usefully offering a rare impetus.
Sub-committee reports will be published, sent to the Minister for Justice and Equality, and laid before both houses of the Oireachtas for debate.
The only fly in this otherwise cleverly formulated ointment is that the field of work for the sub-committee is confined to issues emanating out of the Justice and Equality brief of its parent committee.
However, Zappone noted “I am hopeful the Committee can demonstrate the ways in which parliamentarians can monitor the implementation of our human rights obligations within the remit of justice and equality issues so that other Oireachtas Committees can do the same or that a stand alone Human Rights and Equality Oireachtas Committee might eventually be established”. •