Thursday, 6 February 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
2. Mr. R. Burke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the proposals, if any, he has to increase the scope and resources of the human rights unit within his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3333/97]
Mr. Spring: The White Paper on Foreign Policy announced the establishment of a human rights unit in my Department and the allocation of additional resources for that purpose. The establishment of the unit was a further indication of the importance the Government attached, and continues to attach, to the role of human rights in the formulation of Ireland's foreign policy and in terms of the domestic implementation of international human rights standards.
The human rights unit, which was established in advance of our Presidency of the European Union last year, is currently staffed by a counsellor, first secretary, third secretary, human rights intern and clerical assistant. Three of the positions are dedicated exclusively to the unit. During the Troika period, two of the officers serving in the unit carried out some additional duties but their human rights responsibilities represented the major focus of their overall work. This staffing level compares with a situation prior to the establishment of the unit when there was no position in the Department devoted exclusively to human rights issues.
Two further points arise in regard to staffing levels. First, the increased level of resources I have assigned to human rights issues is against the background of very considerable other demands on the Foreign Affairs Vote as Ireland's overall international responsibilities and role continue to grow. Second, in respect of the work of several other sections of the Department, I have attached increasing priority to the human rights aspects of their responsibilities. The role of the human rights unit is additional and complementary to that played by those sections.
I would like to outline the broad scope of the duties undertaken by the unit in fulfilling the mandate assigned it under the terms of chapter 8 of the White Paper. In the second half of last year, the unit serviced a very active Presidency of the EU during which important human rights issues were addressed by the EU. In the context of the Presidency, the unit also played an intensive co-ordinating role on human rights issues at the Third Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. The unit coordinated Ireland's election to the UN Commission on Human Rights, a prestigious position which we assumed on 1 January 1997. Membership of the commission will afford Ireland an  enhanced role on human rights issues in the multilateral framework. The unit is currently preparing for the next session of the commission which will take place in Geneva from 10 March to 18 April next.
In accordance with a further commitment in the White Paper, Ireland assumed responsibility, at the Commission on Human Rights in 1996, for the drafting of a resolution on the human rights of disabled persons and the unit was actively involved in that process. The resolution was adopted by consensus. The unit was also responsible for the co-ordination of Ireland's role at the World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children held in Stockholm last August and the resulting declaration on the appropriate follow-up.
The unit has completed two major reports to United Nations treaty bodies — Ireland's first report under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Ireland's first report under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Work is currently under way in the unit on the completion of Ireland's second round of reports to the UN Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Such reports are an important element of the commitments Ireland undertakes in ratifying UN human rights instruments and involve intensive consultation and co-ordination with other Government Departments. The White Paper indicated that an improvement in such co-ordination was needed. Against that background, the White Paper announced it had been decided that the head of the human rights unit should chair a new standing interdepartmental committee to consider all aspects of Ireland's human rights obligations. Following the completion of the Presidency of the EU, I am keen that priority be given to the ongoing implementation of the commitments in the White Paper and, in that context, to the establishment of this committee. Work has been proceeding to this end and invitations to the first meeting are being issued this week.
We are also proceeding with the implementation of a further commitment in the White Paper — the establishment of a joint standing committee representing my Department, NGOs and experts in the human rights field. The establishment of this committee reflects recognition by the Government of the increasing importance of the role played by NGOs in the formulation of Irish foreign policy. Preparations for the formation of the committee are at an advanced stage and it is hoped that the first meeting will be held within the coming weeks. The servicing of both these committees will represent an important element of the work of the human rights unit.
As will be clear from my reply to the Deputy's question, a significant body of work has already been undertaken by the human rights unit and a major programme of activity is currently under  way. I will keep the House informed in this regard. I will also continue to keep the question of increasing the scope and resources of the unit under close review.
Mr. R. Burke: The key issue is that of resources, as referred to by the Tánaiste. He outlined what appears to be a comprehensive body of work carried out by a very limited staff. The extent to which the unit is under-resourced is indicated by its failure to fulfil its primary function of reporting to the UN on all measures being taken to give effect to the UN human rights treaties.
The Tánaiste mentioned that there is to be some level of liaison with the NGOs. Will he accept that the NGOs view the human rights unit as a smokescreen to deflect attention from the Government's inactivity on the human rights issue, particularly during the EU Presidency?
Mr. R. Burke: Does he agree that, to dispel this perception and allow the unit to act effectively as the primary vehicle for promoting human rights, the unit must be expanded in terms of manpower and financial resources without delay?
Mr. R. Burke: I have had detailed discussions with the NGOs and am aware of the view of the need for greater co-ordination and participation in the development of foreign policy, particularly in the human rights area. Does the Tánaiste agree this unit needs extra resources and will he agree to increase and provide these resources to realise the full scope of this unit?
Mr. Spring: During what was a busy EU Presidency, Dóchas, the co-ordinating group, met on a monthly basis. I absolutely refute the assertion made by the Deputy. The working relationship with the NGOs is good and we work closely with them. I regard them as a valuable resource for my Department. We set up the human rights unit because of the importance of this issue in international politics. Our relationship with the NGOs is probably as good as, or better than, any other European state.
Mr. R. Burke: It is only right and proper that the NGOs have ongoing contacts with the  Government in view of the great work they do on behalf of the Irish people around the world. Will the Tánaiste outline his ideas with regard to the working group which involves the NGOs? Does he accept that, in order to ensure a coherent approach to human rights issues in Ireland, it is necessary to establish a permanent mechanism for human rights consultation between Government Departments and the Irish aid community? Will he outline the circumstances in which the Government has failed to establish such a mechanism, despite promises made to the contrary in the White Paper?
Mr. Spring: We are making progress with regard to standing committees. I detect an enthusiasm from the NGOs about my proposals. The Deputy will understand the obligations we had during the EU Presidency. The unit has been established. I have not heard of any proposals from the Opposition on setting up this unit. I assume that when the Deputy was Minister for Justice he had regular consultations with the NGOs.
Mr. R. Burke: In light of the high priority which the Government claims to have afforded the area of human rights under the EU Presidency, will the Tánaiste outline the circumstances in which the Government has failed to ratify the international convention on all forms of racial discrimination and the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment?
Mr. Spring: As I have said previously, these conventions are a priority for the Government. Ratification will take place after the necessary implementing legislation is completed. I understand the Department of Justice has done considerable work to prepare for the ratification of the convention against torture and the equality legislation being introduced by the Department of Equality and Law Reform will enable ratification of the treaty on racial discrimination.
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