In a few days we mark the 51st anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The basic principle of that document is set out in the first sentence of Article 1 which states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." That principle is the cornerstone of the Labour Party's philosophy and that of social democracy and socialism everywhere in the world. Tragically, the lessons of two world wars which preceded the universal declaration have not been learned and the denial of rights is widespread in many parts of our globe. War, hunger, poverty and oppression continue to threaten the lives of millions of our fellow human beings. Scenes that we had hoped were consigned to the horrors of the past – concentration camps and rape as a weapon of war – have reoccurred in the closing years of the 20th century.
As the economies in this part of the world grow richer, it becomes easier to look inwards, to ensconce ourselves behind fortress Europe, to concentrate on promoting our own economic growth and forget the plight of so many of our fellow citizens of the world. That is why the Labour Party believes that our commitment to the rights recognised by the universal declaration must be recognised in deeds and not just in words. Human rights on the international plane and in the domestic sphere have always been at the top of the Labour Party's agenda. We view the protection of rights not as a convenient slogan but, in the words of the Vienna declaration on human rights, as the first obligation of Government.
When we were in Government, Deputy Spring spearheaded the drafting and ratification of a number of key international human rights instruments, most notably the protocol setting up the new full-time European Court of Human Rights, which came into force earlier this month. It is remarkable that since this Government took office, it has not ratified any human rights treaties, nor has it initiated any major human rights legislation, apart from reviving the Labour Party's Employment Equality Bill and Equal Status Bill, and the War Crimes Bill and Geneva Convention Bill which were also initiated by Labour in Government.
The Government's only firm proposals regarding human rights legislation arise, as the Minister has stated, from the Good Friday Agreement, specifically under the heading "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity". It is worth reciting that section in full:
The Irish Government will also take steps to further strengthen the protection of human rights in its jurisdiction. The Government will, taking account of the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and the Report of the Constitution Review Group, bring forward measures to strengthen and underpin the constitutional protection of human rights. These proposals will draw on the European Convention on Human Rights and other international legal instruments in the field of human rights and the question of the incorporation of the ECHR will be further examined in this context. The measures brought forward would ensure at least an equivalent protection of human rights as will pertain in Northern Ireland. In addition, the Irish Government will: establish a Human Rights Commission with a mandate and remit equivalent to that within Northern Ireland and.introduce equal status legislation.
The British Government was able to move rapidly on its solemn commitment to establish a Human Rights Commission. The legislation was put through Westminster at the end of last year and it appointed a head of that commission in March. The British Government also acted to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law throughout the United Kingdom, leaving Ireland as the only member of the European Union to have failed to do so.
Meanwhile, there was no action on this side of the Irish Sea until recently. My party was able to publish its proposals for a human rights Bill on 1 December 1998. We did so in a constructive spirit, as part of our contribution to the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration on human rights and in order to play a small part in the attempt to ensure that the next 50 years will see the high aspirations of the declaration come to pass for all people, given that everybody is born free and equal in dignity and rights. It took the Government more than 15 months to produce a Bill, which was published last July. It is now unlikely that the human rights commission will be up and running until well into next year. I welcome the timely arrival in the House of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs. This lackadaisical approach is also evidenced by the Government's policy on Irish aid, its approach to the International Monetary Fund and the policy of the World Bank on structural adjustment programmes. Most of all it is evidenced by the chaotic shambles – to borrow a phrase – on immigration policy. It suggests that human rights do not rank very highly on the priority list of the Government.
I strongly agree with the views expressed by Deputy Flanagan that the disastrous decision to amalgamate the Department of Justice with the Department of Equality and Law Reform is partly to blame for the deprioritisation of what is known in the confines of the Department as "soft legislation". It is critically important that meeting our rights and obligations under the Good Friday Agreement has priority and it is unacceptable that we lag one year behind the UK in meeting our requirements which in legislative terms are much lighter than those required from the British authorities.
In the context of the Bill it is important to re-examine our commitment to the restructuring of Third World debt. The attitude of forcing through legislation uniformly opposed by those at the front edge of Third World debt amelioration and the delivery of Third World aid indicates where the Government's heart lies. Taken with the delay in processing the equal status legislation, it provides more evidence of the fundamental mistake of the Government in abandoning the Department of Equality and Law Reform. It is important that we examine the issue of Government and parliamentary reform so that the Parliament can have its say. Not only are we lagging behind in legislative terms as a consequence of abandoning that Department, but those in the community whose equality was under threat or whose basic rights needed vindication benefited immeasurably from having such an able advocate as Mervyn Taylor at the Cabinet table. There is nobody in the Cabinet to do that now as the job of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is too broad to have that narrow and clear focus. I wonder whether the requirement under the previous administration that all legislation which came to Cabinet be checked for its impact on equality, particularly on women, is still enforced. I know how rigorously it was enforced by the former Minister for Equality and Law Reform. Observations of the Department of Finance and, importantly, the Department of Equality and Law Reform, invariably appeared on every memorandum brought before Government. It would be a very telling tale to know whether that requirement still holds good and whether the current Minister who has a much broader remit than equality and law reform is as diligent in the vindication of equality issues as his predecessor when these matters are discussed at Cabinet.
The Bill is important and I welcome it. It is important that the Government demonstrates a complete commitment to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects. Legislation is still outstanding for which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, not surprisingly, is responsible. His Department stated that from the date of the publication of the Good Friday Agreement amendments are required to the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts. We have inquired several times about the precise nature of these requirements and when amendments will be available, but amending legislation has yet to be published. Everybody in the House wishes the peace process well and we are I hope, within days of an agreement and the institutions which will flow from it going live, but a Bill has not been published and we do not have any notion regarding what it will contain.
Last July I welcomed the publication of this Bill while strongly criticising the undue delay in bringing it forward. We support the intention to give effect to the Agreement and its commitments. We do so in order to contribute as constructively as we can. It is an immensely important Bill and it is important, therefore, that we devote sufficient time to it to ensure we get it right. The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights received the heads of the Bill, and I acknowledge this as an excellent mechanism for dealing with legislation. It allowed us receive submissions from a wide variety of groups which put forward their views before legislation was enacted. This model should be replicated for all important legislation. It gives the rightful status to the legislative committees and is a very good mechanism for ensuring legislation is improved upon. A number of organisations interested in human rights issues made submissions, many of which have been taken on board by the Government, while, unfortunately, some others have been ignored.
I wish to briefly compare the provisions of the Bill published last year by the Labour Party with the Bill now before the House. In essence the Labour Party sought to do three things, namely, the make the European Convention on Human Rights part of our law, like almost all of the other 39 countries on the Council of Europe. It is interesting that for the sixth time since the war we hold the presidency of the Council of Europe. It is important that we try to find a mechanism to incorporate into domestic law the important provisions of the convention, as the other countries, many of which have constitutions, have done. It would mean that Irish citizens would not need to go to Strasbourg to have their rights under the convention upheld. It is not good enough for the Minister to tell the House that for administrative reasons or the judgment made in 1996 that the European convention has legal sway in international but not domestic law, and that it is possible for an Irish citizen to seek redress in the European Court of Justice but not in domestic courts. It is important that citizens be able to rely on the convention in the courts to vindicate their rights.
We also proposed to implement a number of other key UN and Council of Europe conventions in the legislation we drafted and tabled last year. Another of the key provisions of the Labour Bill was to oblige the Government to ratify the United Nations race discrimination and torture conventions as well as a number of other instruments. At a time when Ireland seeks membership of the United Nations Security Council, it is necessary, if we are to have any credibility in this area, that we ratify all key human rights conventions. I say that in the hope that, in the response of the Minister or of the Minister of State representing him, there will be an acknowledgement that this needs to be done.
The third objective of the Labour Party Bill was to establish an independent human rights commission with powers to take cases of breaches of rights to court. While such a human rights commission was promised in the Good Friday Agreement, it has been part of our policy since before the previous general election and was incorporated in our manifesto which we put to the people at the time.
The Government's Bill proposes to move on only one of the three main proposals. There will not be a statutory requirement on the Government to move on the outstanding backlog of international agreements which the State has been unable to ratify, nor will the commission have the function under this Bill, which is specifically conferred on it by the Labour Party Bill of "encouraging ratification of human rights instruments or accession to those instruments, and their implementation". That is a salient and telling point. We have been tardy in doing that until now and it reveals a mindset in those who are charged with this area of policy.
Neither is there any movement on the question of the incorporation of the European convention into domestic law, although the Minister hinted that the Government is examining some way of doing that. There was an element of concession in the Minister's suggestion. He said:
. . . it is difficult to justify a situation where we alone, out of 41 contracting states of the Council of Europe, have not incorporated the convention into our law in some shape or form.
If the Minister says it is difficult to justify, it is time he made a pledge to remedy it, to act upon it and to ensure the proposal in our Bill, the incorporation of the European convention into domestic law, is implemented without further delay.
Of the rest of the detailed provisions of the Bill, the most important is that the Commission must be and must be seen to be independent. It is, therefore, important that the appointment of members should not be left at the whim of whatever Government is in power. Unfortunately, that is what is provided for in the Bill as drafted. When the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's RightsColour RGB 171,0,0 took submissions from a variety of groups, this was a point stressed by many. I do not mean to be facetious, but when we see visiting committees of prisons containing people with addresses which are readily identified with political parties and with the Minister sponsoring the Department, we need to be clear as regards this body that the political credentials of people who will form the Human Rights Commission will not be vetted in a way which some of the decisions of Ministers of all hues have tended to have been in the past.
The appointment of the president of the commission will be extremely important. There was a tendency in the presentation we received from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and in the Bill as drafted that, while it is no longer a requirement, the president should be a judge or former judge. That is unnecessary. There are many eminent people who are not judges who would be much more suited to hold the presidency of this reforming new body. I hope the Minister of State brings that to the attention of her Government colleagues before any decision is made. I am concerned about the appointment of certain judges to that post. Being a judge or former judge does not confer on an individual such impartiality and knowledge of the field of human rights that they would make an obvious choice to hold the presidency of this innovative and important commission.
In terms of the membership, I welcome the broadening of the numbers, but I would have preferred that there were a different mechanism for appointment. One of the recommendations of the report of the Joint Committee regarding membership of the human rights commission – item 13 on page two – states that the commission should be nominated by the Government but appointed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. It suggests that it should be on the same basis as the Ombudsman to show clear impartiality. That is something we should revisit on Committee Stage. I hope the Minister is open to considering that proposal.
The issue of human rights and its location is something to which I will refer briefly. The legislation comes from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, although the Minister specifically charged with human rights matters is a Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Labour Party Bill suggested that, because of the importance of the legislation, it should be sited in the Department of the Taoiseach. That would have been a better approach. While I acknowledge the credentials of the Minister of State with responsibility for human rights, it would probably be wrong to consider human rights as an external or foreign issue solely concerned with the rights of minorities abroad rather than looking at ourselves and the inequalities and lack of citizenship and rights which obviously exist within our society.
We have many acute problems. We do not have to go beyond the issue of travellers. The Administration of which I was a member enacted the traveller accommodation Act, yet there is still an appalling situation throughout the country regarding waiting lists for proper accommodation for travellers. The import of the legislation was to require local authorities to provide for travellers and to require county managers to do it if there were a blanket refusal by elected members to take their responsibilities seriously. However, there are many other areas. In the areas of health statistics of the travelling community, access to education and economic status, a large number of people do not enjoy equal citizenship and it is something we must rectify.
Unfortunately, there is a growing problem of racism in our society, racism which is often fuelled by ill thought out comments made by people who should, and in many cases do, know better. I agreed with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs when she characterised the recent utterances of some Fianna Fáil backbenchers as xenophobic and intolerant. It is important that we use language carefully and be aware of the sensitivity in our society, as it changes and becomes more multi-cultural, to intolerant or xenophobic remarks. It is important that the Government and this House give a lead in this regard. Intolerant and xenophobic remarks should be disowned. If we are to make a real pledge to the fulfilment of obligations under a human rights regime, we must begin by ensuring that the Members of this House comply with acceptable norms of behaviour in regard to human rights and the use of language.
I want to refer briefly to a number of issues. Section 5 of the Bill deals with the structure of the commission. I hope the Minister will re-examine the character of the individual who will be president of the commission as that will be very important.
Section 8 describes the functions of the commission. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, in its submission, sought the inclusion of the right to draft legislation among the commission's functions. That is a good idea. I do not see why any external group should not be able to propose draft legislation which we could consider. The Attorney General is well disposed to outside groups, such as the Law Reform Commission, drafting legislation and appending it to its reports rather than simply making recommendations.
This Bill is extremely important but we have a great deal of work to do to make it better. My fear is that it is as narrow as it can be within the confines of our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. In essence, our response has been very tardy and minimalist. I hope that on Committee Stage we can broaden the Bill's scope. I particularly hope that the Minister's assertion of his near dismay at our unique position in the Council of Europe for not enacting the European convention into domestic law will be resolved and that we will have a much better Bill at the end of the process.