Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill 2014 was debated in the Seanad on Wed June 18th. Senator Zappone made a strong speech where she emphasized the need for an independent and influential human rights and equality body in Ireland to ensure respect and dignity for all people of Ireland in an equal manner.
The Senator warned that the disproportionate funding cuts have damaged Ireland's human rights and equality infrastructure and hence the new legislation needs to be robust to make up for the lost ground.
Senator's full speech at the second stage debate
I welcome the Minister to the House. When the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, announced the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority in 2011, it had been a very long time coming, subsequent to the disproportionate funding cuts to both bodies in 2008. Because Ireland's human rights and equality infrastructure has been significantly damaged, this Bill before the Seanad, having passed the Dáil, must be robust and imaginative enough to make up for much lost ground.
Three years on from that announcement, Ireland needs an independent, influential, "A" status and powerful body to support the people of Ireland in the protection and equal respect of their rights. Ireland also needs, as Deputy Shatter noted on Committee Stage in the Dáil, an Act that will "set in motion a potentially constructive dynamic to promote the development of creative human rights thinking on new challenges in the field". There is a great sense of urgency for us to complete the legislative work on this Bill, and I welcome the Minister's swift engagement with this, and her declaration at the end of her speech of her sense of urgency, so soon after taking up her duties as Minister for Justice and Equality.
Having reviewed all of the legislative debates on this Bill, and having previously contributed recommendations for substantive changes to the heads of the Bill in 2013 as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, my view is that the Bill before us today is almost there. It reflects genuine engagement by the Minister and officials of the Department of Justice and Equality with Oireachtas Members, civil society and the IHREC designate. This must be welcomed and I do so heartily. I am in agreement, though, with the recent views of a coalition of civil society, expressed in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, publication of the shadow report submitted to the UN on Ireland’s compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ICCPR, that "some aspects [of the legislation] may require further amendment if the new body is to meet fully its mandate to promote and protect human rights in accordance with international standards and norms governing national human rights institutions".
First, we need an effective integrating vision, to avoid the overlap the Minister referred to in her speech, of human rights and equality in what this body can do. In the practice of its functions, the body must protect and promote human rights so all people are held equal in dignity and are equally respected. This means protecting and promoting human rights in different ways for different people. The new body must be able to protect and promote human rights in such a way that real, substantive equality will be the outcome. There is a missed opportunity in section 32 of the Bill, which spells out the detail of the commission’s function of undertaking equality reviews and action plans, about which the Minister spoke.
Equality reviews are a feasible alternative to the more complex option of undertaking an inquiry if, combined with a human rights review, this mechanism could provide a means of building better practice. This would provide a prime opportunity to think through and provide recommendations to practice ways of ensuring equal protection and promotion of human rights for various industries, sectors and public bodies. There is an opportunity in this Bill to amend an aspect of existing equality law that does not rise to the EU standard as outlined in the framework Directive 2000/78/EC. Under our existing equality legislation, the definition of religious belief is not sufficient. Our law refers to "religious belief" and should be changed to "religion or belief" to meet the requirements of the framework directive. I have raised this issue in the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill put forward by Senator Bacik that seeks to amend the offensive section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. It could be done in that Bill or this Bill, so why not this Bill as it seems to be moving more quickly than the other?
My second substantive concern with the Bill in its current guise relates to the double definition of human rights, which the Minister mentioned in her speech. This has been covered at various Stages in the debate on this Bill. I have read Deputy Shatter’s initial response to these concerns and the Minister's more extended response to these concerns on Dáil, Report and Final Stages. I respectfully submit that I remain unconvinced by the arguments the Government put forward to maintain the double vision on human rights.
I have two points to add to the ongoing debate about this issue. First, it is a retrograde step. Under the Human Rights Commission Act 2000, which governed the past IHRC of which I was a member, there were two definitions of human rights, but the broader one referred to all the functions of the IHRC bar one, namely, the function to institute legal proceedings. This made great sense because those human rights that might become the subject of some form of legal proceedings must have the force of law in the State. However, in its exercise of all of the other functions, IHRC drew on the broader definition of human rights to guide its work. Therefore, the substantive body of work developed by the IHRC not only provides a human-rights based analysis of many issues, laws, inquires, research and information, it also developed a very valuable method of applying a human rights based approach to its work, and international standards and norms were integral to this, even though they may not have the force of law in Ireland.
Second, this historically developed method will have to be set aside now. Although the Minister has argued that this reflects the way the High Commissioner of Human Rights uses definitions of human rights in light of a meeting with officials in the Office of the Deputy High Commissioner of Human Rights, I still find this strange. Could I be provided with any references, such as speeches or publications of the High Commission that would help me better to understand why this is the new best practice model? I found nothing on the UN website. It does not seem necessary. For example, under section 30 of the Bill, on the one hand the commission can only review the effectiveness of enactments relating to the protection and promotion of human rights and equality under the narrow definition. This means it does not consider international standards that do not have the force of law here. However, when it comes to recommendations subsequent to the review or analysis, it seems it can refer to these international standards, as the Minister said on Report Stage. This sounds like analytical gymnastics that are just too restrictive to ensure our new IHREC will develop robust muscles. Instead of freeing up its limbs, it sounds like putting unnecessary chains around it.
I will mention one more key issue, namely, the commission's independence, and will raise other issues on Committee Stage. There have been many significant improvements in the Bill regarding a legislative foundation for the commission’s independence, for example, regarding its staffing, and these are to be welcomed. However, some Government changes to the Bill, as the Minister pointed out on Report Stage in the Dáil, allow for increased engagement by the commission with the Parliament through work in committees. This is a very good thing. The commission’s independence of Government can be strengthened considerably by more effective parliamentary involvement in the oversight of human rights issues. One of the key ways to do this is to ensure dynamic engagement between parliamentary committees and the national human rights institution. This is part of the resolution of a report published in May 2014 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, entitled Improving Co-operation between National Human Rights Institutions and Parliaments in addressing Equality and Non discrimination Issues, of which I was the rapportuer.
There is scope to include amendments to the Bill in sections 23, 25 - and the Minister spoke at length about the strategy statement issue in section 25 - and 28 to specify that the commission engage with parliamentary committees, particularly the justice committee, in the course of its work, and not only on general administrative matters. The justice committee should be specified.
Furthermore, I formally propose that in parallel with the adoption of this legislation the justice committee change its name to the Oireachtas committee for justice, defence, equality and human rights. This proposal was mentioned by Deputy David Stanton in his Second Stage speech on this Bill in the Dáil. Such a change would, in the first place, allow the importance the State places on human rights to be reflected in the functioning of the Oireachtas. Second, it would provide greater potential for the Irish human rights and equality commission to engage in a consistent and accountable way with Members of the Oireachtas whose specific responsibilities would extend to human rights oversight.
To conclude, there must be an independent, influential national human rights and equality institution in Ireland if we are ever to recover fully and ensure respect and dignity for all our people in an equal manner. Otherwise, although our GDP might start to grow, and please God it is growing, it will simply be more of the same for those who are vulnerable, violated or poor.
You can access the full debate here.