This month sees the return of the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival, a collaboration between Smashing Times theatre company and Front Line Defenders, along with other rights and cultural organisations like the ICCL, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Trócaire and Poetry Ireland.
The timing of the festival could not be better. Through the last 19 months, we have all been starved of art and culture. We have also lost out on that artistic engagement with political issues that is a long-standing feature of Irish society.
As we emerge cautiously from Covid-19 restrictions with a new appreciation for cultural experiences, the festival’s chosen theme of “Hope, Courage and Resilience” seeks to ask whether a new human rights culture can take root in Ireland post-pandemic.
If ever such a development seemed likely, that time is now. Mindful of the devastation caused to so many by this terrible virus, we need to build upon the collective solidarity and sense of communal purpose that have got us so far.
In key public interest litigation, we have seen the power of human rights guarantees at work
Now is the time to shape a new future, one in which public services are prioritised, in which the State continues to take a central role in ensuring delivery of real change on housing, childcare and social care, climate action and public amenities. This is the new culture that we need.
We have had some very important moments in the past, pre-Covid times, where a new human rights culture appeared to be taking hold; where arts, theatre and civic spaces came together to celebrate the winning of enhanced protections for citizens against abuses of power through the use of key human rights documents like our Irish Constitution; and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Those moments have happened with key political developments, like the passing of constitutional referendums to provide for divorce in 1995, marriage equality in 2015 and women’s reproductive rights in 2018.
They have happened also with the judgments given in key human rights cases like the Mairin de Burca case on women’s rights in the 1970s, the David Norris case seeking decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1980s, the Lydia Foy case on transgender rights in the 1990s and most recently the 2020 Climate Case before the Supreme Court.
In key public interest litigation, we have seen the power of human rights guarantees at work. More awareness of human rights concepts, and indeed an increase in litigation, have thus ensued with the adoption of legal guarantees of human rights.
But the embedding of a rights culture is limited by the reality that both our Constitution, and the European Convention, only offer protection to a selection of individual, rather than collective rights; to what are called civil and political, rather than economic and social rights.
In order for the development of a genuine and effective human rights culture, it is argued that a fundamental re-evaluation of the conception of rights is required. The language of rights, as we know it, is just not sufficiently capable of having a real effect upon changing people’s lives.
This is because those rights protected in Articles 40-44 of our own Constitution are mostly first-generation civil and political rights. Often referred to as civil liberties, they include the freedom against torture or unlawful detention, or the freedoms of speech and of assembly – all vitally important freedoms which guarantee private individuals protection against the abuses of public or state power, but which do not impose any material obligations upon the state.
Theatre, performance, art and creativity help us move through the Covid crisis and beyond to create a more equal and inclusive society
However, according to a different rights perspective associated with social democratic thinking, a second generation of economic and social rights like the right to housing, to healthcare or to a living wage, should also have constitutional protection.
An extension of our conception of constitutional rights to cover economic rights like these would provide greater scope to address problems of economic inequality by obliging the state to make provision for those in need. Indeed, our Constitution already requires state intervention in order to protect the right of children to education – and there is increasingly widespread political acceptance of the need to introduce a new socio-economic right to a home.
A further extension of constitutional rights should also be proposed. Third generation or group rights include collective linguistic rights; the right of a community to a pollution-free environment or the right of future generations to inherit a liveable planet. Indeed, environmental campaigners are breathing new life into rights language.
Their activism shows the potential within our own Constitution, because although it remains based on a traditional civil-political model of rights, generations of litigants have shown how it can be used to enable the perspectives of disadvantaged persons – and crucially of entire communities – to shape change within our legal system.
In recent years, we have seen encouraging constitutional-based political engagement through the Constitutional Convention and Citizens’ Assembly processes. Most recently, the highly progressive 2018 Citizens’ Assembly recommendations on climate change offer policymakers a clear pathway for tackling the climate crisis.
All these developments provide optimistic signs of progress towards the emergence of a new human rights culture. As the festival reminds us, artistic and creative communities have a hugely significant role to play in developing this culture.
Just as artwork and story-telling took a central role in both the marriage equality and repeal referendum campaigns, so too can theatre, performance, art and creativity help us move through the Covid crisis and beyond to create a more equal and inclusive society in which human rights, both individual and collective, are truly valued and protected for all.
Ivana Bacik is Labour Party TD for Dublin Bay South