Background information for UN human rights review of Ireland

by Michael Nugent on April 8, 2016

unhrcThis page describes human rights breaches in Ireland that Sir Nigel Rodley has described as being connected to:

“The institutional belief system that has predominated in the State Party, and which occasionally has sought to dominate the State Party”

The page is for a resource United Nations delegates who are preparing for their States to question Ireland in May under the Universal Periodic Review Process. We have published this on the Atheist Ireland website and have provided links to the page to the State delegations that we have met or addressed in Geneva.

  1. Suggestion for composite recommendation on secularism
  2. Atheist Ireland’s contribution to UPR pre-session meeting in Geneva in 2016
  3. Sir Nigel Rodley’s concluding remarks to UN Human Rights Committee 2014
  4. Waleed Sadi’s concluding remarks to the UN ESC Rights Committee 2015
  5. Ireland accepts majority votes cannot be used to deny human rights 2014
  6. Yuval Shany asks about blasphemy and religious oaths UNHRC 2014
  7. Yuval Shany asks about religious discrimination in schools UNHRC 2014
  8. Yuval Shany asks about religious discrimination against teachers 2014

1. Suggestion for composite recommendation on secularism

As well as the specific recommendations that we made during the Pre-Session meeting, another idea arose during our bilateral meetings with State delegates. A composite recommendation could be put forward, that recognises the interconnectedness of the problems arising from lack of separation of church and state in Ireland. We suggest something like:

“That the State makes all legal and constitutional changes necessary to comply with its UN human rights obligations, in order to fully respect the right to freedom of religion and equality before the law without any discrimination on the ground of religion, in the areas of the education system, blasphemy law, religious oaths, abortion law, and redress for institutional abuse.”

2. Atheist Ireland’s contribution to UPR pre-session meeting 2016

Our four main areas of concern, with recommendations in the video, are:

  1. Freedom of religion and belief, including the State’s claim that it is constitutionally obliged to maintain religious discrimination against atheists and minority faith members, in order to buttress religion.
  2. The Irish blasphemy law, which has implications in Ireland and internationally, with Islamic States citing it at the UN in support of spreading blasphemy laws internationally.
  3. Religious discrimination in the education system, where the State funds the Roman Catholic Church to run 90% of our primary schools, with exemptions from equality laws to allow them to discriminate against students, parents and teachers.
  4. Religious oaths for high political and legal offices, that prevent conscientious atheists from talking up these posts.

We also raised Ireland’s abortion laws and redress for institutional abuse, which were outlined in more detail by the Irish Family Planning Association and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

3. Sir Nigel Rodley’s concluding remarks to UNHRC 2014

In 2014, when the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights questioned Ireland, the chairperson Nigel Rodley said:

“Then there remain the many social issues that have been raised by colleagues. The Magdalene laundries, the Mother and Baby homes, the child abuse, the symphysiotomy. It is quite a collection, and it is a collection that has carried on beyond any period that it is hard to imagine any State Party tolerating. And I can’t prevent myself from observing that all of them are not disconnected from the institutional belief system that has predominated in the State Party, and which occasionally has sought to dominate the State Party.”

4. Waleed Sadi’s concluding remarks to UNESCR 2015

In 2015, when the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights questioned Ireland, the chairperson Waleed Sadi said:

“In a developing country this would not be unusual but by European standards it is almost sacrosanct, this division between Church and state. Your country, Ireland, poses a unique situation. Is it a uni-cultural or multi-cultural society? It seems to me to be more a uni-cultural society. If so what happens to minorities in your country?”

5. Ireland accepts majority votes cannot be used to deny human rights 2014

This is the hugely significant exchange in Geneva in July, where the Irish Government formally accepted that the will of the Irish people as expressed in a referendum or parliamentary vote cannot be used to deny human rights, including on abortion. The UNHRC asked Ireland why it was in breach of the human right of pregnant women to an abortion in wider circumstances than allowed by Irish law.

The Irish State replied that Irish abortion law reflects the will of the Irish people, as allowed under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Human Rights Committee said that that was a completely unacceptable reason for denying human rights, and that the very core of human rights law is a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority.

After a break in the session, the Irish Justice Minister Frances FitzGerald formally withdrew the remark and told the UNHRC:

“On question 12, I would want to begin my comments in relation to this by referring to the comments of Mr Shany, Mr Iwasawa and Mr Flinterman. And I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government of Ireland recognises entirely the points made by the members of the Committee in relation to Article 25, that the majority will does not and can not derogate from human rights obligations, and I hope that’s a very clear statement of our position.”

However, Ireland still continues to discriminate on the ground of religion, using majority votes as its excuse, saying that it is constitutionally obliged to maintain religious discrimination in order to buttress religion.

6. Yuval Shany asks about blasphemy and religious oaths UNHRC 2014

The UN Human Rights Committee has told Ireland to remove religious oaths for public office and to remove the law against blasphemy, reflecting concerns raised by Atheist Ireland at the questioning session in Geneva. The Committee concluded:

“Religious Oaths: The Human Rights Committee is concerned at the slow pace of progress in amending the Constitutional provisions that oblige individuals wishing to take up senior public office positions such as President, members of the Council of State and members of the judiciary to take religious oaths. Ireland should amend articles 12, 31 and 34 of the Constitution that require religious oaths to take up senior public office positions, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 22 (1993) concerning the right not to be compelled to reveal one’s thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief in public.

Blasphemy law: The Committee is concerned that that blasphemy continues to be an offence under article 40.6.1(i) of the Constitution and section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 (art. 19). Ireland should consider removing the prohibition of blasphemy from the Constitution as recommended by the Constitutional Convention, and taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) concerning the incompatibility of blasphemy laws with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2 of the Covenant.”

Here are questions that the Committee asked Ireland about religious oaths, in the session in Geneva that led to the above recommendation.

“The issue of religious oaths was first raised in this Committee with Ireland during the very first Periodic Review of the reports of Ireland in 1993, namely, quite some time ago. And to the best of our understanding, the matter has yet to be fully addressed. I have not seen anything on the Convention on the Constitution website that suggests that the matter of religious oaths is under active consideration. Neither have I seen any specific information that suggests that a referendum on this issue is pending. And I would be glad if the Delegation could enlighten the Committee in this respect, and please clarify whether any of the anticipated changes would include, in addition to judges, also other senior office holders in the Irish State including the President, the Attorney General, etc.

7. Yuval Shany asks about religious discrimination in schools UNHRC 2014

The UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland to stop breaching the human rights of atheists and minority faiths in the education system, reflecting concerns raised by Atheist Ireland at the questioning session in Geneva. The Committee concluded:

Ireland should introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religion, belief or other status, and ensure that there are diverse school types and curriculum options available throughout the State party to meet the needs of minority faith or non-faith children.

Here are questions that Yuval Shany of the Committee asked Ireland about religious discrimination in schools:

The number of nondenominational schools in Ireland is still minuscule, and it is our understanding that most of the new schools that have been opened have been multi-denominational and not non-denominational. It is also our understanding that there are no current plans to create non-denominational schools by way of transfer of control in those areas where it has been deemed, following the recommendations of the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary sector, that there is no sufficient demand for such education.

  • Could you please explain to the the Committee how the notion of insufficient demand would not justify the establishment of non-denominational primary schools?
  • And what would be the fate of parents and children in those areas, in the no-demand areas, what would be their fate in terms of access to non-denominational education?
  • This also goes to non-surveyed parents living in rural areas where there is also a likelihood of limited numbers of parents and children who would demand, in accordance with these standards, non-denominational education.
  • Is it true that even under the new Draft general Scheme Bill, children of non-Christian families or atheist families may be discriminated against in admission to denominational schools if they do not fit with its ethos, provided a preference to the school’s denomination children is stated explicitly in the admissions policy of that school?
  • And going forward, how is the State Party planning to deal with the possibility and the demand for non-denominational education in the future?
  • How does the Delegation explain the compatibility with the Covenant of a state of affairs that allows private schools, which have a near monopoly in Ireland on a vital public service, to openly discriminate in admission policies between children on the basis of their parents’ religious convictions?
  • And whether the State believes or not that it is required to ensure a neutral studying environment in those schools, in denominational schools, outside the confines of religious instruction classes that can be opted out from?”

8. Yuval Shany asks about religious discrimination against teachers UNHRC 2014

The UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland to stop breaching the human rights of atheists and minority faith teachers and health workers, reflecting concerns raised by Atheist Ireland at the questioning session in Geneva. The Committee concluded:

The Human Rights Committee is concerned that under Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts, religious-owned institutions, including in the fields of education and health, can discriminate against employees or prospective employees to protect the religious ethos of the institution (arts.2, 18, 25 and 27). Ireland should amend Section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Acts in a way that bars all forms of discrimination in employment in the fields of education and health.

Here are questions that Yuval Shany of the Committee asked Ireland about this discrimination, in the session in Geneva that led to the above recommendation.

I am grateful for the Minister’s reaction to the issue of Article 37 of the Employment Equality Act from 1998, and the concerns that it allows for discrimination in hiring of teachers to denominational schools, and I appreciate the Government’s interest in reforming the law in this regard. We in the Committee have not seen the draft Bill, and we would appreciate if the Delegation would provide us with a copy.

I would also appreciate if you could, in your response, address the concerns that have already been raised with respect to this new draft Bill, that it would protect the rights of some groups that are currently discriminated against, such as LGBTs, but would not deal with the question of discrimination on the basis of religious conviction, namely that it would not protect the rights of non-Christian teachers or atheist teachers.

Note: this Bill has since been passed, and it does not deal with the question of discrimination on the basis of religious conviction. The State took the position that it is constitutionally obliged to allow these State-funded schools to discriminate on the ground of religion.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 John Colgan April 9, 2016 at 12:43 pm

This is a fine précis of how Ireland stands; thanks Michael. It does not augur well for human rights in Ireland that a putative Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, when Minister for Foreign Affairs, sought a guarantee from his EU peers that they would not interfere in Ireland’s social and educational affairs, as a sop towards securing a ‘Yes’ vote in a repeat Referendum on an EU Treaty, He purported to argue that such matters were of concern to the Irish people, whereas, the contrary was true according to research carried out for the EU Commission into the reason(s) why Irish citizens voted ‘No’ first time round. The real opposition to EU ‘interference’ was expressed in oral presentations made by the then Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Brady; by an English Catholic zealot here for the purpose; and by the usual Irish ‘suspects’ who were granted a hearing by the rather obscure Oireachtas Committee on the Future of Ireland in Europe. It is from those Minister Martin took his cue.

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