Ireland’s Unimpressive Human Rights Record

The United Nations has assessed Ireland’s progress on human rights. It is not pleased.

It has been an ignoble month for Ireland’s human rights record in the eyes of the international community. After days of questioning a delegation of government officials, The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) reported a long list of concerns about the state’s progress in reaching compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and has found progress to be lacking to say the least.

There was concern that nothing has been done to amend Article 41.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the constitution, which spells out the state’s vision for how women fit into society. The article currently reads: “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.
… The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

This quaint article could be interpreted as a requirement that the state provides financial security to women who work in the home, but it has never been enforced that way and a high court ruling that it should was once overturned by the Supreme Court. The UNHRC has asked that the state should take steps to ensure that the wording is gender neutral and encourages female participation in the workforce.

On violence against women, it was found that there is no system in place to record incidents of domestic and sexual violence against women, and that there are too many obstacles in the way of victims accessing support services.

The state was criticized for “highly restrictive circumstances” in which a woman can access abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or serious risk to the health of the mother, and a lack of clarity of laws dealing with the matter. This issue came to prominence in 2013 in the case of Savita Halappanavar who reportedly died as a result of doctors not being clear on how they were allowed to proceed during complications with her pregnancy.

On the historic abuse of women in institutions such as Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes, the report expressed regret at the lack of identification of perpetrators, lack of prosecutions, and a failure to provide any remedies to victims.

The report ruled that Ireland has not done enough to protect the rights of women who were forcibly subjected to symphysiotomy. This is a surgical procedure that was largely phased out in the nineteenth century whereby the pelvis was broken by dividing cartilage to overcome problems associated with obstructed childbirth. The practice, which often resulted in impaired locomotion, bladder injuries, and a higher infant mortality rate, was made obsolete in the rest of the world by safer cesarean sections. However it was reintroduced in Ireland because of the influence of catholic ethics. Cesarean sections on women with “disproportion”, a pelvis too small to naturally deliver through the birth canal, were seen as necessitating sterilization or the use of contraception after three cesarean deliveries. This flew in the face of Catholic doctors, resulting the resurrection of symphysiotomy and its imposition on 1,500 Irish women from 1947 to 1987 regardless of their own needs or religious convictions and without their consent or knowledge.

The report found that Ireland has not done enough to track down and punish the perpetrators of this mass mutilation, nor has it provided effective remedies to survivors.

Concern was expressed about the conditions in Irish prisons which are found to be outdated and overcrowded. There is a lack of segregation between classes of prisoners, high levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and no sanitation in many cells, resulting in prisoners having to defecate in buckets in conditions that are deemed degrading.

It ruled that the state has not done enough to protect the rights of parents wishing to send their children to secular schools free of religious indoctrination (see article), nor has enough progress been made on eliminating requirements for public officials to swear religious oaths.

Other shortcomings relate to the failure to recognize Travellers as an ethnic minority group, failure to amend the 2002 Housing Act to recognize the specific housing needs of Travellers rather than criminalizing them, and there was certainly concern at the forced removal of Roma children from their parents because of suspicions raised by their physical appearance.

It is clear that many of the shortcomings relate to a lack of urgency in supporting women’s rights, and most of the suppression of women can be traced back to religious reasoning and a historically dominant position and influence enjoyed by the catholic church. That domination is a thing of the past, but its influence lives on in a legacy of antiquated legislation and constitutional provisions that have fallen behind what modern society demands. Any government that wants to earn the respect of its citizens, women in particular, could do well to address the problems as a matter of priority. It would be unfortunate if the same litany of shortcomings in the 2014 report were to appear again when the next report is due in 2019.