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Michael McDowell, TD, Minister for Justice
Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen and may I, on behalf of the Irish Government, welcome to Dublin for the 2nd Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders organised by the Frontline Foundation.
I was delighted to accept Mary Lawlor’s very kind invitation to address you at this opening session of the Conference, and to place on the record my high regard and appreciation of the work of those among you who are at the frontline of repression for defending the human rights of others.
Listening to the two testimonies we have just heard and considering what we have just heard, I think the words that echo strongest in my ears are those which remind us that whereas we are here in Dublin and in benign circumstances with the luxury of discussing these issues at our ease, the reality is that the battle for human rights is by no means comfortable and it requires immense bravery and the ability to withstand physical, psychological and emotional hardship to an extent which most of us hope, in our comfortable lives, that we will never have to endure. That is the value of this conference, that many of you here today know from first hand experience, exactly what I am talking about and have come here together to bear witness to the importance of this struggle
At the outset I want to congratulate Mary who, as the Director of Frontline, has been the driving force behind the organisation and who, in a short period of less than 3 years, has ensured that it is to the forefront in highlighting the work of human rights defenders throughout the world in fighting repression and injustice. And I also want to pay tribute, if I may Denis, to you, for your generosity in funding the establishment of Front Line. It was an enlightened decision on your part and one for which I personally have great admiration and one for which I presume all of us are very grateful.
It may be strange, that I have the title of Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and in Ireland that is a bit of a mouthful for a minister. I go every couple of months to the justice and home affairs council of the European Union and it is strange from the point of view of a minister from one of the smaller states. The larger states have two ministers. Typically a minister for justice and a minister for the interior. I think it is perhaps ironic that I combine both functions and that a minister of the interior would be asked to speak to you today. I am conscious of that but the irony is not simply irony, there is more to it than that.
In Ireland, we are no strangers to the selflessness of individuals and the changes they can bring about on behalf of the oppressed. Many of our countrymen down through the years have made it their life’s work to strive for the good of others in the service of humanity and that applies to other countries too. Indeed, many have paid the ultimate price for their altruism. Furthermore, it would be a mistake to think that this service was given exclusively on foreign fields, in some faraway land many years ago. We have our own recent history to consider and that history is still being written, even in the present day where dark forces remind us of the callous disregard for justice and the most fundamental of all rights - the right to life itself.
The idea that people have rights simply by virtue of their humanity is as old as humanity itself. It is something that can be traced back to the political and legal theories of the natural law philosophers to the foundations of Roman law and, perhaps, even back to the ancient Greeks. In more modern times a dramatic shift of emphasis occurred in the crucial period leading up to the French and American revolutions. This had the marked effect of moving these scholastic and theological theories into practical propositions which were intended to have the force of law. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the American Declaration of Independence are the foundation texts in this regard and they are the keystones marking those civil and political rights which nowadays are universally accepted in all civilised societies as being fundamental and inviolable.
The modern development of rights can be traced back to June 1945, a not inauspicious date for other reasons connected with World conflict, with the signing in San Francisco of the Charter of the United Nations, thus marking the emergence of international human rights awareness on a global scale in the twentieth century. This was followed some three years later by the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of human Rights, and shortly after that, in 1950 by the drawing up by the Council of Europe of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
This is all very well, but of course we do not live in a perfect world. We don’t even live in a perfect corner of an imperfect world. Unfortunately, even in these early days of the twenty first century we are witnesses to man’s cruelty to man and the continued use of repression on a global scale. Most recently, the tragic murder of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights illustrates the risks which have to be faced by those who, in the cause of humanity, pay the ultimate price.
The adoption by the General Assembly of the UN in 1998 of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Freedoms was a further important step in the fight against repression and the elimination of violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Under its provisions States have a duty to safeguard defenders of human rights against attack, violence, threats, intimidation and discrimination. The Declaration strengthens considerably the rights of individuals engaged in this work under international law.
Of course, law is one thing, but its application, as I am frequently reminded in my own political capacity, is another thing. I have to say this, we can have all the charters we like, but we have to have governments that believe in the charters as well. Whereas that isn’t to belittle or take away from international law as it is written down, but I think each and everyone in this room would agree with me, that international law written in a book is of limited value, it is international law put into practice that is of huge value.
As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and arising out of my previous position as Attorney General, I am particularly well placed to ensure that our obligations as a State under the provisions of the Declaration are met. Indeed, as a nation, we are fortunate in being one of the few States to have a written Bill of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in our 1937 Constitution. However, I can go further and state that among the European Union states, Ireland is the oldest republic with such a constitutionIreland is unique among the member States of the European Union, and among the other signatory States of the Convention on Human Rights, in having a constitutional system for the protection of rights which are chosen by the people; are unalterable save by the wish of the people; and which are made superior to all laws and that isn’t a paper guarantee. It is a real guarantee because day in, day out, every organ of the irish state is brought to the bar of justice before an independent arbitral judiciary as equals with the citizen and made to account for its stewardship of executive and legislative powers and in Ireland it is the right of any citizen to invalidate any act of the Irish state, be it legislative or executive, or whatever, in the court as of right. This is a rarity in the European Union. It is not the norm in the European Union that a citizen can invalidate an act of parliament by bringing an action before an independent arbitral judiciary. This is one of the values that we bring to the ongoing debate about a new Europe and a new European Constitution.
The hallmark of the protection of those rights has been their development by the superior courts through the doctrine of unenumerated personal rights by means of the mechanism of judicial review of legislation - an in-built capacity for organic growth in the protection of human rights, if you like.
This year we have enacted legislation which will come into force at the end of the year to give further effect in our laws to the provisions of the Convention on Human Rights. Some of you will know that Ireland was one of the earliest countries to ratify the convention and it was one of the two countries, Ireland and Sweden, to say that we would be bound by the European Court in Strasbourg. That was almost fifty years ago. Funnily, Ireland was one of the last countries to incorporate the Convention on Human Rights into its laws. Well that may sound bad but you have to balance it by the fact that on less than ten occasions was Ireland brought to Strasbourg and found to be in default of its obligations and that in a world where many society’s that consider themselves to be older, stronger and more powerful than we and more attached to democratic values, have been there on hundreds of occasions and found to be in breach of that treaty.
It is no surprise, therefore, that through the foresight, hard work and perseverance of Mary Lawlor that we also have the Frontline Foundation in this jurisdiction, a body which I hope will shine like a beacon indicating a place of refuge and safety for human rights workers who may need solidarity, support and protection.
I know that Mary said to me earlier that she intended in remarks afterwards to express the hope that there would be a flexible and positive approach on the part of the Irish authorities to support the need for effectively, respite care for human rights defenders who need to come to this country in circumstances of urgency. And I want to indicate in response to a point that has not yet been made, but since I will not be here, I better say it now. I just want to say that that point is one that I fully accept and I believe that whatever lies within the capacity of the Irish Government to do to sustain human rights defenders internationally, by a policy in relation to short term visas and the like for people who need protection, we will do it.
Eleanor Roosevelt posed the question “. When after all, do human rights begin?” She then answered by saying “In small places close to home, and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity and equal dignity without discrimination.” As defenders of human rights your search for injustice and oppression begins in small places, but you now know that Frontline will ensure that the principles and standards set out in the 1998 Declaration will be highlighted, known, respected and adhered to on a much wider stage worldwide.
For the Irish Government’s part we will continue to support and cooperate with the Frontline Foundation and Ms. Hina Jilani, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders.
I shall conclude this address by wishing you all the greatest success with this year’s Conference.