The commission appreciates the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee today. Since its establishment, the commission has consistently expressed its concern regarding the human rights of the Irish Traveller community. This concern has been reflected at various levels of the commission's work. It was in the context of the State’s first examination under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, CERD, in 2004 that the commission undertook a detailed consideration of the question of Traveller ethnicity. That was in response to the State’s assertion at that time that Travellers did not constitute an ethnic minority in the State. A discussion paper was published which was a legal analysis of the recognition of Travellers as an ethic minority measured against international human rights standards, relevant case law and legislation. At that point the commission predicted that the CERD committee would regard Travellers as an ethnic minority when the State’s report was examined. The commission was correct in its prediction and the CERD committee has made two recommendations, in 2005 and again in 2011, urging the State to work more concretely towards recognising the Traveller community as an ethnic minority. In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee, in considering the State’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also made the same observation in 2008 and expressed concern regarding the State’s approach to the matter. It is notable that the UN Human Rights Committee has issued further questions to the State on its work towards the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.
At Council of Europe level, the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities expressed its concern in 2006 regarding the outright rejection by the State of Traveller ethnicity. The advisory committee, in its most recent opinion on Ireland published in April this year, welcomed the fact that the Government was now demonstrating a more open approach to the question of Traveller ethnicity and recommended that the State finalised its consideration of the proposed recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority so that they could access all applicable international and domestic non-discrimination rights.
As for standards, in January 2013 the Irish Human Rights Commission published its most recent consideration on the question of recognition of Traveller ethnicity. The commission's submission to the Government welcomed the more open response of the State to the question. However, the commission also expressed concern that the State had shifted its position from outright denial of ethnicity to one which focused on what may prove to be a wholly-elusive consensus among the Traveller community and Traveller representative organisations as a possible prerequisite to recognition.
The commission’s submission explores this position in detail and submits that the principle of self-identification as protected under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, CERD, and indeed similarly enshrined in the framework convention, was being misunderstood by the State and that a universal form of self-identification as an ethnic group is not a necessary prerequisite for recognition of an ethnic minority by the State for the purpose of ensuring legal protection of that group. We pointed out that the Human Rights Committee is clear that the existence of an ethnic minority in a State requires to be established by objective criteria. This is nothing to do with opinion or consensus. The principle of self-identification presupposes the existence of an ethnic minority but affords protection to each individual within that group from being coerced in any way to so identify. One can think of many reasons from history as to the reason such protection is considered necessary for vulnerable minorities.
As to the question of whether the State should recognise Traveller ethnicity, the commission would submit that Traveller ethnicity essentially is a legal reality by which the State is bound, irrespective of any formal act of recognition. Regardless of whether the State chooses to so recognise Travellers, it will in no way prevent the international bodies identified in our submission from continuing to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority and to hold the State to account for their treatment in that light. By its denial, the State puts itself in the anomalous situation of denying ethnicity but not being able to deny the protections that flow from that status. We point out that the State has never itself put forward cogent reasons as to why it considers that Travellers do not satisfy the necessary criteria for recognition as an ethnic minority. More positively, the commission sets out in its submission the reasons recognition of Traveller ethnicity will be of benefit to the Traveller community itself and to the State and society in general. We also pose the question as to how the State should recognise the ethnicity of Travellers and observe the modalities for recognition of ethnicity are not set out in any international instrument or opinion and so there is no defined process in this regard. In our written statement, we suggest a possible statement on the record of Dáil Éireann, which then is reflected in the State's international reporting and is carried through into domestic law and policy.
In conclusion, the commission is presently anticipating its merger with its sister organisation, the Equality Authority, and it is appropriate that representatives of both organisations are sitting here side by side today. We understand that new legislation is imminent and may confer on the new Irish human rights and equality commission a wider remit, including in respect of encouraging intercultural understanding, promoting tolerance and acceptance of diversity in the State. At this juncture the commission respectfully urges the State itself to lead by example in this regard by finally recognising Traveller ethnicity.