Majority votes cannot deny human rights: UN questions to Ireland reflect Atheist Ireland briefing in Geneva

Jane Donnelly and I, representing Atheist Ireland, briefed the UN Human Rights Committee this week in Geneva about religious discrimination in Ireland, particularly in the education system. The issues we raised in our briefing were directly reflected in many of the UN’s questions to the Irish State delegation, led by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

Atheist Ireland raised secular issues alongside independent academic Alison Mawhinney, and other Irish advocacy groups also briefed the UN on their areas of concern. Atheist Alliance International officer M. Quavami Tehrani also participated, to compile information to help other atheist groups to plan for such UN interventions with regard to their own countries.

The overall tone of the UN’s questions was strongly critical of Ireland’s human rights record, and of Ireland’s failure to address human rights breaches that the UN has repeatedly brought to its attention. Ireland’s oral responses to the UN’s questions were incomplete and evasive, and will have to be supplemented by written responses within two days.

Majority votes cannot deny human rights

Most fundamentally, the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in Parliament, and that the whole point of international human rights law is to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

For example, Ireland denies pregnant women their abortion rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Ireland told the UN that the reason was because they are expressing the will of the people. The UN said that this reason is totally unacceptable, and told Ireland to withdraw it as a reason, which Ireland did.

Religious oaths and blasphemy

The UN asked why has the Government not yet changed the obligatory religious oaths for Judges, which was first raised by the UN as a breach of human rights in 1993? And will the state also change the obligatory religious oaths for president and others as well as judges?

The UN also asked why has the Irish Government not responded to the UN on its commitment to remove the Irish blasphemy law?

Non-denominational schools

The UN previously asked Ireland to ensure that non-denominational primary education is widely available in all regions of Ireland. The UN now asked why this has not yet happened, with most new schools being multi denominational, not non-denominational.

Ireland said that there was no obstacle to non-denominational schools if there was sufficient demand in a local area. The UN asked how can insufficient demand be used to justify no provision of nondenominational schools?

As Atheist Ireland had told the UN, this ‘local demand’ argument means that fundamental human rights are available to some citizens, but not to others, depending on the views of their neighbours.

Denominational schools

The UN also asked, with regard to denominational schools, does the State believe it is required to ensure a neutral teaching environment outside of the religious instruction classes that children can be opted out of?

Specifically, the UN asked will the State remove Rule 68 of National Schools, which enforces an integrated religious curriculum?

Discrimination in the Education Act

The UN previously asked the State to provide information on steps being taken to ensure that the right of children of minority religions or non-faith are recognised in the Education Act 1998.

The UN now asked how does the State explain the compatibility with Covenant obligations of private schools with near monopoly of providing a vital public service being allowed to openly discriminate against children on the basis of their parents religious convictions?

With regard to the new Admissions to Schools Bill, the UN asked are non-faith families still discriminated against in admission to schools under this Bill?

Discrimination against atheist teachers

The Government is proposing a new Bill on Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which allows religious schools to discriminate against teachers on the ground of religion.

The UN asked how does this Bill protect atheist teachers, as distinct from LGBT teachers?

This is the first time that this issue has been raised by the UN, and it was raised on the basis of the concerns expressed by Atheist Ireland in our briefing.

Written responses by Ireland due tomorrow

Ireland has until Thursday to provide written responses to the UN’s questions. The UN will then prepare a report making recommendations for Ireland to implement.

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16 Comments

  1. Well done Atheist Ireland for fighting for the rights of rational thinkers and against bigotry and ignorance.

  2. You Say
    “Ireland denies pregnant women their abortion rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.

    I have read the Covenant and there is absolutely nothing whatsoever giving any “abortion rights” so if you are wrong on that aspect of your analysis of the Human Rights Committee why should we accept the rest of your analysis ?

  3. Neil, you are making the same argument that an Irish NGO made in Geneva, an argument that was described as displaying “breathtaking arrogance” by the chairperson of the Human Rights Committee.

    So if you don’t think that pregnant women have abortion rights under the ICCPR that Ireland has denied them, then your argument is with the UN Human Rights Committee rather than with me.

  4. So you aggree that there is nothing in the ICCPR that speaks about “abortion rights”

    Ireland signed up to a Convention in the terms set out in that Convention. If there is “breathtaking arrogance” then that comes from those who are attempting to read into that Convention rights and conditions that are not in it and which Ireland would never have signed up to

    Incidentally the Human Rights Committee is not the UN it is a Committee of the UN

  5. The “breathtaking arrogance” is in the assumption that denying women access to safe abortions does not result in violations of the rights contained within ICCPR. The Human Rights Committee has dealt with a number of individual cases from women and girls who have been denied abortions and suffered horrendous consequences as a result.

    They have found states to have violated Article 7 of ICCPR which is freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. For example, a case in Peru in 2006 involving a young girl carrying a fetus with anencephaly. They have also ruled on cases where someone was pregnant as a result of rape in relation to Article 7 and Article 17 (right to privacy). Denial of an abortion that subsequently ends in a woman dying also presents potential violations of Article 6 ICCPR – the right to life.

    The Human Rights Committee have made all of this very clear in their jurisprudence, General Comments and Concluding Observations which constitute soft law and are as important as the treaty itself in terms of understanding the implementation of rights when applied to real situations like abortion.

    So to say there are no abortion rights in ICCPR is a ridiculous statement. It’s like saying there is no right to legal aid – maybe the treaty doesn’t mention legal aid by name but without legal aid huge numbers of people would be denied their right to a fair trial so it would lead to violations.

    A human rights treaty is not intended to name every situation that will engage these rights – the application of the rights is for the soft law and the jurispdrudence of the committee to expand on and they have made it clear over many years that abortion presents a situation where human rights violations have occurred when access is restricted or denied.

  6. No we should accept the wording of the Convention.

    Do you seriously suggest that Ireland would have signed the Convention if it had included the right to an Abortion ? Would most of the countries that signed it ??

    For groups like the UN Committee to attempt to change an International Convention so that it means mean what the Committee think it ought to mean is subversive of the entire notion of International Law or indeed any type of law worthy of the name.

    If Atheist Ireland, or other organisations are able to persuade the people of Ireland to legalise Abortion then so be it you are entitled to do so but attempting to do it through the back door by subverting the clear wording of an International Convention shows a sad contempt for Democracy and the rule of law

  7. Neil, the Human Rights Committee is the body that monitors implementation of the Covenant by its State parties.

    And the essence of protecting human rights is that you don’t have to persuade a majority not to deny the rights.

    The whole point is to be able to protect the rights of minorities from majorities who would deny them their rights.

  8. Neil did you even read my comment? This is not a situation of twisting words in a treaty. The Committee’s job is to look at situations that are brought before them either on an individual or a state level and decide if those situations engage and/or violate the rights contained in the treaty. The Human Rights Committee have consistently over years and years made it clear that denial of abortion is a situation that both engages and in some cases violates rights in ICCPR. Applying the rights to real situations is their job. Without that authoritative interpretation there would be no accountability as every state would just decide for themselves what they thought constituted compliance. It’s not rocket science.

  9. Sorry Michael but the whole point is that Ireland signed a Convention in Good Faith. That Convention does not say anything about Abortion and Ireland would not have signed the Convention if it had included a right to Abortion. Therefore to write into the Convention a right that does not exist is dishonest and subversive of the entire notion of International Law and International treaties.

    There is not international Convention or treaty which has made Abortion a “Human Right” in International Law therefore the majority are not denying the minority a “right” because that right simply does not exist in Law.

  10. Firstly, what I said is “Ireland denies pregnant women their abortion rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” I didn’t say those rights are unrestricted. I said that Ireland denies pregnant women those rights that exist under the ICCPR.

    Secondly, the UN has already told Ireland in 2008 to bring our abortion laws into line with Covenant rights. Ireland did not deny that our abortion laws were out of line with the Covenant rights.

    Ireland said that our abortion laws were in line with another Covenant Article, about expressing the will of the people. The UNHRC said that was a completely unacceptable reason, and Ireland then withdrew it as a reason.

  11. There are no Abortion |Rights under the ICCPR thats the point there are none and Ireland would not have signed the Convention if there had been any right to Abortion in the Convention. The fact that the Committee is attempting to pretend that there is a right to Abortion is what I am complaining about.

    The Irish Government should have told the Committee that its interpretation was incorrect and subversive of Democracy and International Law and should have ignored what the Committee said.

  12. So you are now disagreeing with both the Committee’s interpretation of the Covenant that it is established to monitor, and also with the Irish Government for not ignoring the Committee’s interpretation of the Covenant that it is established to monitor.

    So who should interpret the Covenant, then? You?

    PS It’s NOT a Convention, it’s a Covenant !!
    And it’s NOT its, it’s it’s !!
    Yet I think we understand what we are saying !!

  13. I disagree with the Committee because I am looking at the wording of the Covenant. If the Covenant was intended to include Abortion it should have said so not been smuggled in by the back door and twisting of the words of the Covenant

    I am disagreeing with the Irish Government for not having the guts to stand its ground. In 2 years time Ireland will be celebrating the 100 anniversary of the Easter rising to obtain national independence and for the Irish people to make the laws they chose. What on earth was the point of the rising if Ireland is simply to give in and allow its laws to be dictated by others.

    Whether you or I agree with Abortion is not the point, whether Ireland should or should not have an Abortion law is not the point, the point is that the decision should be made by the Irish people through their representatives and their Constitution. Abortion should not be imposed on Ireland by the UN or a Committee of the UN and the Irish Government should have said that and stood by the right of the Irish people to make their own decision

    (At which point I have to leave this discussion to return to work. Even though we clearly disagree it has been a pleasure to at least have a civilised debate on this difficult but important issue so best wishes anyway)

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