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7th August 2015, 16:17:07 UTC

“Campaigning for Human Rights in the Contemporary World”

Opening address by President Michael D. Higgins

On the occasion of Amnesty International’s International Council Meeting Dublin

Friday, 7th August, 2015

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for your invitation to be here with you today to mark the opening of your International Council Meeting. As President of Ireland, I am delighted that this important event is taking place in our capital city and may I extend my most sincere and warmest welcome to you all – céad míle fáilte romhaibh go léir!

Over a lifetime in politics and public life, I have seen at firsthand the courageous and essential work of Amnesty International in protecting human rights and human rights defenders in Central and South America, in Africa and in Asia. I have witnessed the terrible destruction of culture, of life, and of potential, when violations of human rights are allowed to prevail. I have also seen the precious hope and joy that follow when those rights are able to take root once more; and I am aware of the grief that ensues when what was won was not allowed to endure.

The achievements of Amnesty International are an important pillar of the wider achievements of the international human rights movement. Progress towards highlighting and securing the liberation of political prisoners, the prohibition and progress towards ending the use of torture, working for legislation to protect rights of association and assembly, progress towards abolition of the death penalty, drawing international attention to forced disappearances, and standing for the rights of refugees and displaced persons – in countries in every region of the world, Amnesty International has contributed to advances in the protection of each of these fundamental human rights over more than half a century. You have a record of achievement which has inspired millions around the world to take up the cause of dignity, equality and justice.

Your International Council Meeting, then, which will chart a possible new direction for the organisation, is of interest and importance to us all. There is much to celebrate, but as the title of my address today suggests, I propose that this is an apposite moment – 70 years on from the UDHR and 54 years from the publication of Peter Benenson’s seminal letter – to take stock and consider again how those of us who are committed to human rights can work more effectively in the global context in which we find ourselves.

We live in an age characterised by intolerable global inequality, widespread political alienation and disillusionment, rising intolerance where faith-based systems are distorted and abused into extremism, and resulting unprecedented levels of human displacement. The world around is changing within an acceptance of this model of inequality, with ever more rapidly emerging developments in technology and science presenting new challenges and opportunities, but also new fissures in society and community solidarity.

We live in an age characterised by intolerable global inequality

The impending catastrophe of climate change confronts the global community with an existential threat at a time when it has been shedding its moral and intellectual capacity to critique the assumptions underpinning our shared life, not to speak of our capacity to achieve a new paradigm that would combine ecology, human rights and economy.

If we are to understand the contemporary global context, we must recognise not only these great challenges that face us, but also acknowledge the ground that we are losing because of an intellectual capitulation to an almost medievalist view of human nature and human existence; a view which accommodates the reduction of all areas of existence to that which is measurable, as Professor Becker would put it.

In the face of these challenges, we must remember that the international system of human rights, founded at one of the darkest moments in human history, has proven to be the most complete and coherent expression of a richer view of existence and of mankind’s aspiration and impulse towards the good – towards the values of dignity, equality, freedom, solidarity, and tolerance. Human rights has provided a powerful ethical and moral framework which stands against the unrestrained impulses of greed and insatiable consumption, with their consequences – division, domination, hatred and intolerance.

The achievements of the body of human rights laws and institutions, and of human rights discourse, are well established, but human rights is also an evolving discourse and one that is open to constant review. As your programme demonstrates, questions about where the boundaries of human rights should be drawn, or even whether there should be any boundaries at all, remain relevant.

In reframing and strengthening our approach to advocating and campaigning for human rights at this critical moment, we must then ask ourselves a number of fundamental questions:

• How might we set about bolstering and enhancing our systems for the protection of human rights?

• What are the forces that pose the greatest threat to undermine the protection of human rights, and how do they relate to our political discourse and how can they be resisted?

• What are the gravest and most difficult human rights issues confronting us and how should we go about addressing them?

• What actions or changes must we make as human rights activists and as a movement to meet these challenges?

These are questions which I believe are urgent, and the issues they raise have clearly informed the Strategic Goals you have for the period 2016-2019 and which you will be discussing over this morning and the coming days. I believe that all of these questions will yield the richest answers if we approach them in a critical manner and face up to issues of context and contingency.

Human Rights Structures

One of the main themes identified in your Strategic Goals document relates to “Ensuring Accountability”, and this addresses the need to protect and strengthen structures for the protection of rights at the national and international level. We must begin by recognising that in many parts of the world and within the multilateral system itself, institutions for the protection of human rights are being undermined.

Of course, institutions are not losing the power to regulate by accident. The International Criminal Court and the entire system of international criminal justice face serious threats to their legitimacy and authority by those who would seek impunity. Within institutions such as the Human Rights Council and in other UN fora, the concepts of culture, tradition and faith are being manipulated by the powerful to deny rights to the weak. In Europe, the most sophisticated and advanced regional structure for the protection of human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg Court – are being openly challenged by national governments appealing to shallow populism. Globally, international flows of unaccountable capital have demonstrated a destructive power, assisted by technology, that mocks the international architecture of 1945.

In such a difficult environment, Amnesty and other leading human rights NGOs have a key role to play in continuing to champion the need for a true internationalism and a universality of rights. Political leadership requires that those states which are committed to human rights must defend and strengthen the institutions and agreements for which they fought so hard – and these states must be held to account.

For its part, since taking up membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council in January 2013, Ireland has striven to deepen its contribution to the international human rights infrastructure. This has included providing resources to mandate holders within the UN system and also to providing financial support to the functioning of the European Court of Human Rights.

For several decades the promotion and protection of human rights has been a stated central objective of Ireland’s foreign policy. But for any state to have credibility or moral authority on the world stage, external positions must be supported by domestic practice; what you refer to in your Strategic Goals as the importance of creating and nurturing a culture of rights, or “Reclaiming freedoms”.

In Ireland, some progress can be reported in the strengthening of our national systems for the protection of rights. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, recently established in accordance with the Paris Principles for National Human Rights Institutions, continues to extend and deepen the previous work of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority.

A significant innovation in the new legislation for the merged body is the positive duty on public bodies to place equality and human rights at the heart of public decision making, thus ensuring that human rights are an integral part of the daily work of every public body. Of course, the transformation in culture, policy and belief that this requires is challenged, in Ireland and elsewhere, by entrenched cultures of hierarchy, patriarchy and petty privilege.

In tackling these barriers to the protection of human rights, institutions are important, but it is also imperative that states create and maintain, in law and practice, a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate effectively. It is civil society, understood in the widest sense, which bring rights to life.

Given their critical role assumed in facilitating community solidarity, in building pluralistic societies and in holding governments to account, it is of great concern to me that the effective functioning of civil society is becoming increasingly restricted in many parts of the world. I am particularly concerned at the ongoing reprisals against human rights defenders in all regions, including against those who seek to co-operate with UN Special Rapporteurs and to participate in the work of the UN Human Rights Council.

For its part, Ireland has prioritised the protection of civil society space and human rights defenders in its work on the Human Rights Council, and I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the long-standing work of Frontline Defenders, an international NGO which is based in Ireland, in this area over many years.

Standing with those who defend the vulnerable in the face of persecution must remain at the very heart of human rights campaigning work, and I congratulate Amnesty on the focus you have given to human rights defenders in your current Strategic Plan. I note that you have focussed in particular on the new threats to civil society presented by technological forms of monitoring and control. This is an excellent example of how the original mission of Amnesty has been reconfigured to meet contemporary needs.

Human rights and democracy

I believe that this issue of supporting civil society cannot and should not be seen as being separate from wider questions about the health of our democratic systems of politics. It is much more than an academic question to ask if it is possible to be neutral in relation to systems of government and economics, while claiming to be an advocate of civil society. A political paradigm dominated by a single version of human life within the tendentious definitions of “progress”, “development”, “growth” and “prosperity” can just as surely have the effect of quenching dissent and critical thought, while also having the effect of masking inequality and exclusion from the possibilities of a life shared.

As President of Ireland, in addresses to both the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I have expressed concern about the current health of parliamentary democracy in this region of the world, and of the consequences this brings to the protection of rights. I believe that we are sleepwalking into a great alienation of our European publics. Specifically, I have spoken of how the legitimacy of our systems of government can come into question when the imperatives of a single hegemonic model of economics take precedence over the needs and expressed wants of the people, creating a crisis of legitimacy and accountability.

When I was elected in November 2011, I set out in my Inauguration Address an invitation to the Irish public to build a Real Republic in Ireland. In bringing forward this idea of re-involving ourselves in the building of a Real Republic, I had in mind the harm that could been done to our republic and our democracy by dominant and unaccountable economic forces, and in particular the undemocratic nature of a public discourse where assumptions and the theoretical models from which they flow remain undeclared.

The incomplete nature of a republic where rights were still not fully extended to all sections of our society seemed to me to contradict the concept of republic itself. Our State was, from our first revolutionary declaration of independence, founded on the values and principles of rights; but as we prepare for the centenary of our independence, I have come to agree with Lawrence Hamilton’s view of how we should define “freedom”. The concept of “freedom from” is, I believe, insufficient for a republic; rather a true republic requires a definition of freedom informed by an understanding of power, and which extends to the freedom to create and participate.

At the national level, I have sought to advocate such a broader view of freedom and rights by focussing on themes of inclusive citizenship, participative democracy, and the need for an ethical public discourse. In each of these areas, I believe that human rights provide a mechanism for recalibrating our political systems around the essential and fundamental needs of the fully participative citizen. In particular, human rights treaties provide a robust ethical foundation to engage directly with complex issues of economic and social policy.

At the European level, the protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom is an important, if nascent, development in this regard; and one which complements the more established system of protection of rights under the Revised European Social Charter. A recent report by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights implications of policies of austerity on the peoples of Europe provides a powerful illustration of the relevance of these standards to our current situation, though we may well ask why this topical report has not received more attention in our parliaments and in our media.

Taken together, these human rights treaties, and the growing body of law and interpretation around them, could play a crucial role in defining a social floor upon which future economic development might flourish; a form of development and growth that is also more just and sustainable. Such a social floor, based on human rights, would greatly assist in strengthening the legitimacy of, and support for, the European Union among its citizens.

In Ireland, Amnesty has advocated such an approach and has made important contributions to our national debate about the constitutional protection of economic, social and cultural rights. Amnesty has also conducted an important awareness-raising campaign about the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR.

This work has provoked some robust debate – and that is as it should be. Human rights campaigning, if it is to have credibility, should be about confronting the most contentious issues and very often this must involve making governments uncomfortable. However, I can report that this campaign has also proven that there is strong public support for the protection and implementation of these rights, demonstrating the relevance of these human rights to the lived experience of the people.

While the area of economic, social and cultural rights remains contentious, it is important to acknowledge that there have been a number of important advances in the protection of human rights more generally in Ireland in recent years, particularly in the area of equality and diversity. This reflects Ireland’s strong record internationally, for example in its work on the Human Rights Council, in promoting freedom of religion or belief, the rights of LGBTI persons, and on issues such as internet freedom.

This differential approach to rights is reflective, however, of a wider international reality, where economic, social and cultural rights remain neglected, or more bluntly, avoided or suppressed, and where the principle of indivisibility of rights is denied. Bunreacht na hÉireann as drafted, or even as amended, is not exceptional in this regard.

Conor Gearty has made the observation that: “The rights which have been most advanced over the decades since 1989 have tended to be the rights most amenable to the neo-liberal point of view, i.e. the rights which do not involve interferences with individual property rights or large amounts of public expenditure (e.g. education, healthcare etc.)”

The rights which have been most advanced over the decades since 1989 have tended to be the rights most amenable to the neo-liberal point of view

Conor Gearty

The cutting edge of human rights, then, is in the area of economic, social and cultural rights precisely because this is where the function of human rights as the primary moral standard against the excesses of neo-liberalism is most acutely felt. For example, economic, social and cultural rights, and its potential in mandating and guiding state action, is the area where we see laid bare how contemporary political and scholarly discourse have become dominated by a near intolerance to the role of the state. It is also the area where the most unaccountable forces of all – transnational corporations – are attempting to colonise the language of human rights into the services of their own ends in areas such as intellectual property, a type of colonisation of language we have seen previously with the concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘social responsibility’.

Displacement and Migration

Gearty also raises a further and, I believe, far more profound difficulty about the current position of human rights under neo-liberalism in the attempts he has identified to co-opt the concept of human rights as a cultural value that distinguishes “civilised” liberal states from “the other”, and the use of human rights rhetoric as ethical justification for domination, control or even to justify the waging of war. As Conor Gearty puts it,

“If we are not careful … human rights will have been transformed into a constitutional fashion accessory designed to hide a culture’s brutality from itself”

In the face of these stark warnings from such a respected authority and scholar, it is more important than ever that organisations such as Amnesty keep their courage in speaking truth to power, in whatever form and in whatever location, including on issues which others may seek to avoid in their fear of the wrath of populism, taking on those human rights violations which governments may shirk from.

One such issue at the present time is that of migration. Displacement is the source of the greatest human rights issue facing the world at this time and it is so welcome that you have named migration as a campaigning priority.

It is the essence of universalism that when states are unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to protect their citizens’ fundamental human rights, the international community must be available to ensure their safety and protection. Today, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol – based on the principle of non-refoulement – is as relevant and as essential as when it was first drafted. The nature and extent of states’ obligations under the Convention cannot be compromised, diluted or obfuscated.

As we meet, the rising level of conflict, particularly in many parts of Africa and the Middle East is creating extraordinary levels of displacement and upheaval. I fully share with others a great sense of horror and outrage at the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea – already over 2000 this year. This is a tragedy that was brought home to us all again in recent days as more lives have been lost off the coast of Libya.

Ireland has responded to the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean by deploying naval vessels on search and rescue duties, including taking part in the rescue of over 300 people from the latest dreadful sinking.Ireland has also undertaken to resettle 520 refugees in 2015-16 which is almost double the number allocated under the European Commission’s resettlement programme.

However, we must acknowledge that the European response as a whole has been grossly inadequate with Italy, Spain, Malta and Greece left struggling to cope with large influxes of refugees and migrants. This failure can only be described as shameful and undermines both the ideal of the European Union and any prospect of that Union being an exemplar for international law and its instruments.

The present crisis also raises profound questions as to what we mean by solidarity and universality of rights at the global level, particularly when we must acknowledge that the leading host countries for refugees internationally are not the most developed states but those poorer states on the borders of the conflicts, countries who receive grossly inadequate support.

In recent months I have experienced this reality at first hand in Gambella in Ethiopia where hundreds of thousands are fleeing the conflict in South Sudan and in Beirut, where I met many of those working to support some of the refugees from the Syrian conflict, who in Lebanon alone number more than 1.2 million.

Given this reality presented to us, on our screens, we must ask how so much of our discourse has focused on questions of security and border control, on alleged “pull factors”, to the neglect of the full and terrible reality of the conditions from which people are leaving, and the role of the wider world, including ourselves, in those zones of conflict, and of the conditions where they subsequently find themselves.

In the face of this reality, we must stand firmly and without equivocation in defence of universality – leadership must be shown and governments held to account as to their human rights obligations to migrants and refugees, particularly when narrow and short-term self interest, or even xenophobia, threaten to weaken resolve

The Human Rights Movement

Finally, we must reflect on ourselves as activists and on our own role in the promotion and protection of rights. Campaigning for human rights is about holding government to account, but we must also constantly examine and reflect on our own thinking and our own practice.

Your final strategic goal speaks to creating a “Truly Global Human Rights Movement”, and we must accept the challenge this requires of human rights advocates today. As many have convincingly argued, the “top-down” nature inherent in the international human rights architecture has often created a perception, and perhaps even it has been a reality, that the advance of human rights was conceived as the institutional expansion of western based and staffed structures and organisations.

The progress that Amnesty is now making in decentralising your work to all regions of the world is to be commended and supported. It is essential then that International NGOs and international institutions move to operate more extensively in what has previously been called the ‘global South’, and Amnesty has a leadership role to play in this regard.

In making this point, I recognise that our traditional understanding of the concepts of ‘North’ and ‘South’ must now be adapted to reflect the reality of contemporary globalisation. With the promotion of destructive patterns of consumption and development, elements of the ‘North’ are now evident in the ‘South’; and widening inequality has brought levels of poverty associated with the traditional ‘South’ into the cities of the ‘North’. The universal issue at stake is one of power.

In creating a truly global movement, then, we must also ensure that the work of indigenous civil society organisations is empowered and supported – an ideal easily said and so frequently left as an aspiration. Within international human rights structures, there has not always been an appropriate appreciation of the importance and potential of the variety of groups which have mobilised as social movements and civil society actors in the developing world. These include not just groups styled as human rights organisations but also women’s groups, groups organised around sexual or ethnic minorities, indigenous and induced or forced displaced peoples, or the rural poor, in all their complexity.

Empowerment must lie at the heart of good human rights practice. While it is important that we seek to speak for the marginalised, it is more important that we assist and support them to speak for themselves – for us to realise that theirs are silences that are not ours to break, their journeys are not for us to undertake ourselves.

Finally, we must practice tolerance and inclusivity in our advocacy, particularly in our interactions and discourse with those who share a commitment to the core values of human rights but who may take different interpretations of human rights standards.

Human rights advocacy should always be robust, passionate and respectful of difference. It is not enough to state that something is a human right standard, we must be able to constantly argue from first principles, to defend agreed standards by reference to the underlying values and the practical effects of protecting rights. We must seek to recover the plurality of ideas that is at the heart of human rights theory; and we should not be afraid to recognise that rights and the content of treaties are after all negotiated and should be open to review.

Any view of human rights as some sort of modern dogma or secular, infallible religion carries with it great dangers, not least the danger of promoting an atomistic view of society where concepts of the common good can be marginalised or even excluded. The human rights discourse is not entirely free from such tendencies. Their silos exist.

In conclusion, I would like to thank you for the work which you undertake on a daily basis in supporting and promoting equality, justice and respect for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised people around the world. You have given these new Strategic Goals the title – “Taking Injustice Personally”, and this reflects an essential truth about human rights work: that personal commitment at the moral and philosophical levels is at the heart of human rights protection.

While human rights may be applied and extended through legal instruments, and through innovative techniques and measurements, we must never forget that, at its essence, human rights is a discourse of ethics, its work is carried out by men and women who are driven by a thirst for justice. To take up this work carries with it great responsibility. The work of human rights campaigning and advocacy has never been more important or more challenging – and at its heart it is the most honourable of occupations.

I wish you every success with the rest of your busy conference schedule.

Thank you