Ireland must do more to raise awareness of human rights defenders – UN expert

23 November 2012

An independent United Nations expert today stressed that although the environment in Ireland is favourable for human rights defenders, the country could do more to raise awareness among its citizens of their role in society.

“Ireland should be more active in raising awareness about the UN Declaration on human rights defenders at the domestic level and about the definition and role of defenders in society,” said the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, who just finished a five-day mission to the country.

Ms. Sekaggya expressed concern about the challenges faced by certain groups of defenders, particularly those working on environmental rights, in exercising their legitimate right to protest. She also drew attention to the plight of sexual and reproductive rights defenders, who are victims of smear campaigns, and those working for the rights of the ethnic minority Traveller community, who are excluded from policymaking bodies.

The independent expert called on the Government to make additional efforts to equip and instruct the police, known as the Garda Síochána, on how to handle protests and support and protect those who could be intimidated or harassed in connection to their human rights activities.

In addition, she noted that blasphemy is currently a criminal offence in the country, but its codification seems “vague, unclear and no longer appropriate,” and welcomed recent steps by the Government to remove it from its legal framework.

During her mission, Ms. Sekaggya met with President Michael D. Higgins, representatives of the legislative and judicial branches, members of the Irish Human Rights Commission, and a broad range of civil society actors.

She praised the country for championing the protection of defenders at risk in other countries under the European Union Guidelines on human rights defenders, and acknowledged the Government’s efforts to integrate and promote the protection of defenders through its development aid.

“Ireland has a unique opportunity to bring human right issues forward now that it has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council and will have the Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2013,” she said. “In this context, I suggest a first assessment of the implementation of the EU Guidelines on human rights defenders.”

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed in an honorary capacity by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. Ms. Sekaggya is scheduled to present her findings to the Council next March.

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