Emily Logan: Calling the State to account on Direct Provision

We should consider Oireachtas body on Equality and Human Rights in next Dáil

Emily Logan: “We are dealing with legacy issues that meant the equality and human rights architecture in this country was so undermined as to effectively remove it from both political and public debate.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Emily Logan: “We are dealing with legacy issues that meant the equality and human rights architecture in this country was so undermined as to effectively remove it from both political and public debate.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Last week on my way in to meet with members of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, I noticed a striking photograph of Mary Robinson when she held the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In my experience, UN treaty bodies invariably reference her leadership and Ireland’s strong reputation as an advocate of human rights on the international stage.

It was one calendar month since the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission was established. I explained to the committee that we are dealing with legacy issues that meant the equality and human rights architecture in this country was so undermined as to effectively remove it from both political and public debate; that we, as a commission are working hard to build this new institution and that it is more appropriately described in business terms as a “start up” rather than a merger.

The committee was keen to hear whether we enjoy political support for the new commission and its work. At this point I was glad to be in a position to say that the commission, as an institution, has thus far enjoyed political support from government and has been encouraged by the interest of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice in framing the new legislation.

However, I am well aware from my previous role as ombudsman for children and as an independent officer of the State, that as we develop our competence and credibility as a commission, we may indeed have occasion to assert our independence and to navigate this path with skill and courage.

The commission’s new-found independence will be crucial in this regard. In addition to all members of the commission being appointed on October 31st by President Michael D Higgins, the commission reports to the Oireachtas for its statutory functions and to the Public Accounts Committee on its financial expenditure.

There are many human rights issues under consideration by the commission, one of which is direct provision – the system of support to asylum seekers while their applications for protection are being processed.

Human rights

Today, on International Human Rights Day, the commission is publishing a policy statement on direct provision. The attention on direct provision is largely attributable to civil society, legal activists and individual journalists.

Our aim in publishing this paper is to complement this work and to inform the deliberations of the working group appointed by the Minister for Justice.

Although direct provision is subcontracted to non-State actors, the commission’s 10 recommendations are broad in nature and focus on the State’s accountability as duty bearer, answerable for the observance of human rights.

In a recent judicial review of CA and TA v The Minister for Justice, Mac Eochaidh J found both the complaints handling procedure and some of the rules contained in the “Reception and Integration Agency” house rules to be unlawful. In July last year, the UN Human Rights Committee was apprised by the State of the lack of evidence for some of the claims made by residents.

It is no surprise that there is a lack of supporting evidence. As it stands, residents are expected to bring any concern or complaint to the very system that deals with their asylum application, without any access or redress to the Ombudsman or Ombudsman for Children.

Some of the early comments to me about how we should undertake our mandate claim that equality is better understood than human rights.

More than once, I have been told that human rights are sometimes perceived as too abstract and largely seen as the purvey of human rights lawyers, the courts and academics and not relating to people in any real way.

Witnessing the institutionalised nature of the environment of direct provision, I was reminded of Bryan Stevenson’s comments when he delivered the FLAC lecture last week.

Stevenson, a renowned US public interest lawyer, spoke about a number of principles that might serve to make rights more real.

One of the key principles he spoke about was proximity – proximity to the marginalised. This proximity will be part of how we will undertake our mandate. In this first month, I have met with members of the Roma community about the events in Waterford, members of the Forced Labour Action Group and people living in direct provision.

Political intervention

The death of Jonathan Corrie last week could not have been more real. Nor could the shock at the threshold for political intervention. There is something confounding about the proximity of this human tragedy to our national parliament.

There is a great appetite for social justice in Ireland, a great appetite for accountability from the State as duty bearer for human rights.

Political engagement with equality and human rights needs to change. One way to start is to establish a dedicated Oireachtas Committee on equality and human rights in the next Dáil. Emily Logan is chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

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