1 November 2014, Establishment Day of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission - IHREC - Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

1 November 2014, Establishment Day of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

Today marks the establishment in law of the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, an independent statutory body which I have been honoured to be appointed to, following an open and competitive process, a process cited by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.

The new body brings together the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority at a time when our nation begins to renew itself after years of austerity where equality and human rights were not always at the forefront of the public or political debate. Amongst the many equality and human rights issues this week alone we witnessed the UNICEF report on child poverty and the settling of a legal action by Lydia Foy on the basis of what the Court was told was the Government’s ‘firm intention’ to enact the Gender Recognition Bill 2014.

Human rights and equality are standards that apply universally but why is it that not everyone in Ireland experiences respect for their human rights?

Why is it that we face rising inequalities, homelessness, mental health and criminal justice crises? As we observe conflicts in other parts of the world from the safety of our democratic shores, we must not be complacent. Recent outbursts as witnessed in the deplorable scenes last weekend in Waterford where members of the Roma community were intimidated remind us that we need to be vigilant to defend hard won freedoms. When we speak at the United Nations about abuses in Syria or Ukraine, we should do so safe in the knowledge that rights and equality are fully respected at home.

It was clear to me when undertaking the inquiry into the taking into care of the two Roma children that the people I met from the Roma community are sadly accustomed to being treated badly and had never heard of equality and human rights concepts. They assumed that such standards would not include Roma. They were overwhelmed when the Minister for Justice actually met them and delivered a sensitive and respectful apology for the trauma experienced by their families. When the Minister asked if there was anything the State could do for their families, a most dignified response came from the mother of one of the children – she took the opportunity not to seek something for herself and her own family but to ask the Minister if there is anything she could do more generally to improve the treatment of Roma people living in Ireland.

The basis for the new Commission has its origins in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and is a requirement north and south of the island of Ireland. Our role, outlined in the legislation starting today, is to provide stronger protection and promotion of human rights and equality, and to grow a culture of respect for human rights, equality and intercultural understanding in Ireland. That all sounds fine but in reality what does it mean? The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has new and stronger legal powers, for example to make recommendations on legislation, to act as amicus curiae or ‘friend of the Court’, to offer legal assistance to people have been discriminated against or who experience human rights violations. We also have powers to undertake inquiries.  On reading the legislation you will notice the word ‘encourage’ is used in outlining our statutory functions. It is the spirit of this legislation that will guide how we will work. In particular, we hope to be encouraging in our role to educate and promote equality and human rights compliance and in our engagement with public bodies, civil society and members of the public.

I am very appreciative as Chief Commissioner to have substantial expertise in my colleagues on the Commission, I am also well aware that we need to be not only pro-active but interactive. This means hearing from people external to the organisation, the people themselves and civil society who may be closer to the communities who need our help. Having been Ombudsman for Children for ten years I have learned and observed how important it is to support people in the exercise of their own rights. Amongst other things, this is an imperative for the Commission.

Both the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission played important roles in protecting some of the most vulnerable groups in Irish society. We hope to build on that legacy and to accelerate the national debate on human rights and equality for all.  

                                                                                               

Emily Logan
Chief Commissioner
Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

This Opinion by the Chief Commissioner was published on 1 November 2014 in the Irish Independent                                               

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