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Address at the Amnesty International Lunch


It is a pleasure and an honour to be here this afternoon, especially in this year of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Five years ago, at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the international community spoke with one voice in declaring that:

"Human Rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings: their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments."

I believe it is a timely moment to re-affirm my personal commitment, and that of the Irish Government, to our responsibility: the task of defending and vindicating human rights.

As we in Government go about our work in the fields of economic and social policy, as we pursue our political and economic interests abroad, and in particular, as we build upon the achievements and challenges of the Belfast Agreement, an important defining principle underlying our actions must be the protection and promotion of all human rights. As a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, the Universal Declaration acts both as a guide for us, and a benchmark against which we can measure the progress achieved, in making universal observance of human rights a reality.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The American novelist, Herman Melville once wrote that:

'The past is the textbook of tyrants, the future is the Bible of the free'.

At the end of the Second World War, it would have been understandable if only a handful of people could have had such faith in the future, or indeed, in our collective ability to build a new future for humankind, based upon freedom rather than tyranny. Yet, an exceptional group of people possessed just such a belief in a better future - the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In less than three years, from February 1946 to 10 December 1948, they crafted a most remarkable and radical document.

Based upon the premise 'the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech, belief, and freedom from fear and want', the Universal Declaration was the first truly international annunciation of the rights and freedoms of all human beings, universal in both its scope and its application. These rights apply to everyone, everywhere.

The pillars of the Declaration have served the world well over the years. However, they must be defended against those who, for their own purposes, seek to use cultural differences or other such concepts, to water down these rights. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan once said that:

"It was never the people who complained of the universality of human rights, nor did the people consider human rights as a Western or Northern imposition. It was often their leaders who did so."

As this century has shown us, decade after decade, region by region, there are no monopolies in this world on barbarity or suffering. Hunger, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, discrimination, and fear - irrespective of your colour, race, sexual orientation, gender, political persuasion or cultural background, these feel the same the world over.

Human Rights Defenders

I understand that on the actual anniversary date itself, 10th December next, the UN General Assembly is set to adopt a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This is to be greatly welcomed, as it focuses on the need to protect NGO and human rights activists, as they go about their important work. It sets out the right and the responsibility, of individuals and groups, to promote and protect universally recognised rights. I believe that this is a most appropriate and progressive way to mark the anniversary.

It is not, of course, just organisations like Amnesty who are Human Rights Defenders. The Declaration calls upon each and every one of us, to be 'human rights defenders'. The Declaration asks every individual, each member of society, to promote respect for rights and freedoms. The Universal Declaration is not a museum piece, to be enshrined and put safely to one side, then dusted down every few years and admired. It is a living document, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and our former President Mary Robinson has rightly pointed out. It is at least as relevant, radical and as challenging a statement now, as it was half a century ago.

Ireland & Human Rights

There is always the danger in the developed world, however, of assuming that all shortcomings in the area of human rights occur in societies other than our own. While we have much to be proud of in our human rights record, there are those who would argue that we still have some way to go, to demonstrate our genuine commitment to the Universal Declaration.

Our rapid social and economic development left us unprepared for some of the unfamiliar responsibilities that have come with it. I am glad to say that at Government level, despite initial problems, a system is now in place which gives every asylum seeker a fair hearing, and all the safeguards he or she is entitled to. When a person has been recognised as a refugee, or given leave to remain in the State on humanitarian grounds, all appropriate assistance will be given by the public bodies concerned, to facilitate his or her full integration into Irish society.

It should, of course, be recognised, that if our processing system is a credible one, there will be those who do not meet the criteria laid down by the Geneva Convention on Refugees. In those cases, for the integrity of the system to be preserved, the protection of the State cannot be offered. However, the genuine cases, those who have been persecuted because of their religion, their gender, their political affiliations, or their ethnic origins, will find us fair and ready in meeting their needs.

I should point out that as a Government, we can sign treaties, conventions and declarations; we can introduce legislation to enshrine rights in law. Ultimately, however, the real expression of Irish Human Rights lies with our people. Recently, we have seen a growing number of refugees coming to Ireland. Unfortunately, they have not all received the welcome which they have a right to expect. The Irish people are renowned throughout the world as a warm, welcoming and friendly race. It would be a tragedy if this was to be marred by the words or actions of a few misled individuals, labouring under the misconception that by welcoming refugees we are in some way impoverishing our society. We as a Government, cannot force people to change long held beliefs, to change their view points. We can, however, educate, we can inform; and we can lead by example.

On the domestic front, one of the priorities in the Government's human rights policy is the ratification of those UN human rights treaties which Ireland has signed, but not yet ratified. In particular, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which will be ratified as soon as the Equal Status Bill is enacted; and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. I understand that legislation is currently being prepared by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which will pave the way for ratification of this Convention in the near future.

Furthermore, on taking office last year, I appointed a specific Minister with responsibility for human rights, Ms. Liz O'Donnell, T.D. There have been several initiatives within the Department of Foreign Affairs, to place human rights issues at the centre of foreign policy formulation. These include the recently established Human Rights Unit, the Standing Interdepartmental Committee on Human Rights, and the Joint Department of Foreign Affairs/Non-Governmental Organisations Committee. I am pleased to say that Amnesty International is a key member of this Committee.

Northern Ireland

In recent times, an important focus of successive Governments in the human rights area has been on Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which offers so much hope to everyone on this island, represents a major advance in the protection of human rights throughout Ireland. All sides agreed on 10th April, that any new institutional arrangements must be complemented and underpinned by the systematic and effective protection of human rights. Human rights are not solely the preserve of any nationalist or unionist agenda: they apply to all people of this island. The Irish Government is committed to taking steps to further strengthen the protection of human rights in this jurisdiction.

For example, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are currently working on the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, with a mandate and remit equivalent to that of the proposed Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland. I understand that the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform hopes to be in a position to bring heads of a Bill to Government in the near future.

This work, in establishing a Human Rights Commission, has involved extensive contact and co-operation with relevant agencies in the neighbouring jurisdiction, in view of the commonality of the commitments entered into by both Governments in this area. We will, of course, take note of any views expressed by other interested groups in regard to the proposed Commission.

A meeting has already taken place, for example, at official level with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to discuss the proposals in broad outline. Furthermore, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has already been in contact with organisations which have a particular interest in this area.

The other main commitment in the Good Friday Agreement concerning human rights is the question of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is being examined in this jurisdiction, in the context of strengthening the protection of human rights, taking account of the Report of the Constitution Review Group and the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. The United Kingdom will shortly complete the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into their own domestic legislation.


My experiences in helping to broker the Good Friday Agreement, have also had an effect on my dealings with other Government leaders. This year, in addition to my visits to Europe, I was invited to visit the People's Republic of China. Indeed, I had the honour of being the first Taoiseach to visit that country, and the first of six EU leaders to visit China this year.

I believe that, as in Northern Ireland, the only way forward when addressing human rights issues, is to talk, to create the appropriate environment for dialogue to take place. I have been encouraged over the past year, by the important steps which the People's Republic of China has taken in relation to human rights. Among these improvements are:

  • The resumption of EU-China Human Rights Dialogue and the establishment of a regular pattern of meetings;
  • the granting of access for visits to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
  • China's signature of both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and
  • The first successful EU-China Summit in April of this year.

In addition to these progressive measures, the visit to China by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, including her visit to Tibet in early September, has been very significant. I hope that it will assist and intensify constructive dialogue between China and the International Community on human rights, and Ireland like the other EU countries stands ready to assist China in any way we can to build sound democratic structures.

You will recall that I spoke earlier about the need to enter into dialogue with all parties to a dispute, if a viable and just solution is to be found. In visiting China, I had the opportunity to raise our concerns regarding human rights, directly with the Chinese leadership.

With regard to Tibet, the human rights situation there continues to be a matter of great concern to the Irish Government and to our partners in Europe, a fact I conveyed to Premier Zhu Rongji during our discussions. While the brutal oppression which occurred during the Cultural Revolution is no longer evident, there continues to be widespread reports of suppression of free speech and association. Furthermore, the number of political prisoners remains alarmingly high.

On behalf of the Government and all Irish people, I voiced our deep concern at the reported human rights abuses and proposed to the Chinese authorities, that they should be willing to talk directly to the Dalai Lama as a means of resolving these issues. I drew parallels with what had been achieved in the Northern Ireland peace process, as a result of the willingness of all the participants to talk to, and negotiate with, all parties involved in the dispute. I believe that the Dalai Lama is a voice for moderation among exiled Tibetans, and that direct negotiations are essential if the Tibetan issue is to be resolved without loss of life or further abuses.

Amnesty's Role in Raising Awareness

It is commitment to human rights which has brought us all here today - the commitment by Amnesty International, to speak out for those who are prevented from speaking for themselves. I would like, therefore, to take this opportunity to pay a personal tribute to Amnesty International, which, since its establishment in 1961, has pursued some 43,000 cases of human rights abuses. I understand that you have succeeded in bringing about nearly 42,000 of these to closure. By any standard, this is a remarkable achievement and I congratulate you for it.

I am also keenly aware of the commitment of the Director, Ms. Mary Lawlor and all the hardworking team of Amnesty International's Irish Section. You have done so much, not only to raise awareness and understanding of human rights concerns, but also to remind us, both Government and the wider public, of our duties and responsibilities in this area. World-wide, Amnesty has been, and continues to be, a challenging and at times uncomfortable presence, in the working lives of political leaders, journalists, business people, and civil servants alike. For this, for your tenacity, for all your work over the last 37 years, thank you.

In this regard, I am delighted to hear that Amnesty's Campaign (One Million Signatures - One Powerful Message) to collect 1 million signatures in support of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, is well on the way to being achieved. I understand that earlier this week, over 700,000 signatures had been counted, - my own included, and during my Ard Fhéis speech last Saturday I urged everyone to sign up to it too.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that these are not just the signatures of politicians, church and business leaders. These are the signatures of the people of Ireland. In the referendum on the Northern Ireland Agreement, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly for peace in this country, and now, through the Amnesty International Campaign, they have shown that they specifically want human rights issues to be addressed.

If our commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration is to have any real meaning, we must all respond to this imperative, in whatever way we can, both at home, and in our working lives.