By Niall Crowley
The NGOs assiduously did their shadow report, two actually. They headed over to Geneva to comment, address and witness. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) produced a whopper of a report for the occasion and also headed for Geneva. The media chipped in with an article or two.
The Government didn’t overextend itself, but still produced its report, if a bit late. It was found to be based on outdated data that was not adequately broken down to reflect the different groups in society. The Government only mustered a Minister of State for the UN hearing, but at least managed to round up twenty-one civil servants to support him.
The United Nations Economic and Social Council Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights delivered the goods. It made thirty-two substantial recommendations to the Government. IHREC called it a “strong message” to Government. FLAC called it “a comprehensive blueprint for Government action”. The media kicked in again, but largely confined their coverage to the recommendation for a referendum on abortion.
That’s about it then, until June 2020 when it all starts again. Human rights is at risk of descending into ritual unless something actually happens, after all this. Thirty-two recommendations, including recommendations on substantive human-rights abuses identified, should generate some institutional urgency, political tremors, even public concern. Not a bit of it. We’ve already moved on. Strong messages and comprehensive blueprints are not going to go far.
The UN Committee raised substantive human rights abuses, when it pointed to the “persistent institutionalisation of persons with disabilities” and recommended that all necessary steps be taken to provide “alternatives to institutionalisation, including community-based care programmes”. It also pointed to “the poor living conditions and the lengthy stay of asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres” but was timid in its recommendation to “improve the living conditions in Direct Provision centres”. It further pointed to the “lack of funding and at the inadequate legal framework for mental health” and recommended “implementation of ‘A Vision for Change’ through the allocation of sufficient resources”.
Most dramatically, the Committee criticised Government austerity policies from a human-rights perspective. It noted the failure to assess the impact of austerity measures on economic, social and cultural rights; the disproportionate focus on cuts to public expenditure in social policy areas; and the significant adverse impact on the enjoyment of their human rights for a range of disadvantaged groups.
It recommended that Government “review, based on human-rights standards, all the measures that have been taken in response to the economic and financial crisis and are still in place with a view to ensuring the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights”. Austerity policies must be temporary, proportionate, necessary, and comprise all possible means including tax measures. They must not result in discrimination and increased inequality.
The Committee recommended that “austerity measures are gradually phased out and the effective protection of the rights under the Covenant is enhanced in line with the progress achieved in the post-crisis economy recovery”. If this were taken seriously, it would change the direction of the next budget. Promises of tax reductions would be replaced with a commitment to restoring expenditure to fulfill social, economic and cultural rights.
The Committee identified flaws in our human-rights infrastructure. It recommended a review of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act “with a view to ensuring that the IHREC covers and applies all rights enshrined in the Covenant in exercising its functions”. This of course should be at issue again when the International Coordination Committee of National Human Rights Institutions examines the IHREC for compliance with the UN’s “Paris Principles”.
The Committee recommended that anti-discrimination legislation would “include all the grounds for discrimination set out in the Covenant”. These include grounds of “national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. It reiterated a previous recommendation that the economic, social and cultural rights in the UN Covenant be incorporated in domestic law.
Will anything happen? Will human rights rise over the mere rhetoric and make a real impact? We need to move beyond strong message’s to deploy more impactful tools of litigation and inquiry. We need to see the recommendations not so much as a blueprint for Government action but an agenda for joined-up cross-sectoral action by civil society organisations. Only in this way will we avoid June 2020 a repeat (non-)performance. •