Response to Address by President of the Irish Human Rights Commission


Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Katherine Zappone

Dr. Manning asked us two questions about ourselves on Seanad reform. The first was what should the Seanad do? This is what we should be doing, namely, engaging in debate on human rights with a leader such as Dr. Manning. The other question was who should be in the Seanad? It is a great privilege to be here and engaging in debate. My hope is that members of the public in the Visitors Gallery, or others whom they represent, will some day have this privilege and that the diversity about which Dr. Manning spoke will be increased.

It is a great personal pleasure to welcome Dr. Manning to the Chamber. As one who was privileged to be a founding member of the Irish Human Rights Commission and to work with Dr. Manning for almost a decade, I acknowledge his leadership, particularly with reference to the ways in which he has facilitated the forging of the commission’s independence as it worked to protect and promote human rights. At our various plenary and committee meetings he encouraged our efforts to debate issues with respect for our differences, intellectual rigour and empathy for those whose rights were not being adequately protected or promoted. Respect, intellectual rigour and empathy are prime ingredients for talk about human rights that translates into more dignity and freedom for more people.

The quality of empathy is particularly significant for our deliberations on human rights because it is the human capacity to touch the emotions or feelings of others - and sometimes those others are very different from ourselves - that allows us to understand better what is the right thing to do. I am reminded, and also haunted, by the words of one of our great poets, Eavan Boland, in her poem “Outside History”. She begins it with the words: “There are outsiders, always.” and concludes:
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.
As Members are aware and as Dr. Manning has indicated, Ireland’s record on human rights will be under peer review by the United Nations next week. While it is true, as the Government will argue, that Ireland has built up a strong legal machinery to protect and promote human rights, there are significant gaps in the protections. There are many people residing in this country who live outside history because our protections are not strong enough. As many other Senators have said, we have received communications from several civil society organisations, representing the interests of women, various groups of minorities, prisoners, children, older people, workers, disabled people, Travellers and those without adequate social and economic resources, outlining how these people are denied their full human rights across a number of areas.

In some cases those rights are being denied because lawmakers have failed to engage with controversial issues, such as the meaning of family, family issues and women’s reproductive rights - issues that are not clear-cut even with reference to international standards of human rights. In other cases they are denied under the guise of insufficient resources. For whom are there insufficient resources? Are they those who are like us or are they those who live outside history? In other cases these rights are denied because whereas we may have the laws to protect rights, we failed to put in place the budgets to implement them. As one of the organisations, Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, has said, it is just as important to honour international duties in the area of human rights as it is under the EU-IMF agreement.

As lawmakers, it is imperative for us to prioritise ways to honour our human rights obligations, especially in this time of recession. This is a time that is bringing to light many ethical failures, not least greed, abuse of power and the betrayal of trust. To move forward and build a new Ireland we must utilise, as Dr. Manning has encouraged us to do, the advocacy and knowledge resources of our civil society organisations, the national human rights institution and the Equality Authority. These bodies provide us not only with critical legal analysis but they also offer us opportunities for empathic justice. We have the responsibility to inform ourselves of the records and narratives of the lives whose dreams have been broken, whose trust has been betrayed and whose lives have become undignified because our laws are not changing or are not changing fast enough.

Our visitors in the Visitors’ Gallery and our distinguished speaker, Dr. Manning, work in organisations that provide us with these narratives, which alert us and jolt our imagination and give us access to emotions of shame, exclusion and fear. People will not forgive us if we do not address the abuses and denials of human rights at this time. As Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once asked: “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than to avenge it?”

To conclude, I have a question for my colleague, Dr. Manning. What counsel would he give to Senators to support our scrutiny of the forthcoming Bill that will give effect to the proposed merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority? What should we watch out for to ensure the establishment of this merged body will significantly enhance Ireland’s capacity to realise human rights?

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