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Opening address by Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade at NGO Human Rights Forum

Governance, Speeches, Global, 2012



Distinguished Guests, Ambassadors, President of the Irish Human Rights Commission, Dr. Maurice Manning, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to be here today to open the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade NGO Forum on Human Rights.  May I welcome you all to historic Dublin Castle. I would like to especially thank those who have agreed to act as moderators, contributors and rapporteurs.  .

This year’s Forum is focussing on the Review of the White Paper on Irish Aid, the Irish Government’s development cooperation programme. Ireland has a long-standing commitment to the promotion and realisation of human rights in the developing world.  When we joined the United Nations in 1955, we helped to promote decolonisation, disarmament and peace-keeping. With the emergence of newly independent States in the 1960s, we took up issues of development and in time established our own bilateral aid programme. Today’s Forum is well placed to provide a tangible input into the ongoing Review of the White Paper on Irish Aid, an exercise which has been launched by this Government and which will help shape the direction of our development cooperation programme over the coming years.


Human Rights developments – past year and year ahead

Over the past year or so, we have seen astonishing changes in the international landscape.  Across the Middle East and North Africa, there have been sweeping transformations as people have stood up and stood together to assert their basic rights and freedoms. Much work needs to be done to ensure that, in the unstable political environments which have generally accompanied these changes, human rights are fully protected and a basis laid for the development of peaceful and democratic societies.



In June 2011, we saw a profound advancement for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community with the passing of an historic Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This was the first time that a UN resolution explicitly acknowledged human rights protection as covering sexual orientation. It demonstrates the increasing commitment on the part of the international community to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all persons, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity. I am very proud that Ireland was a co-sponsor of this Resolution.



On 6 October 2011, Ireland faced examination for the first time under the UN Human Rights Council mechanism of the Universal Periodic Review. This unique peer review process reviews the domestic human rights records of all 192 UN Member States. The active engagement by Irish civil society representatives in Ireland’s review was greatly appreciated, and I thank you all for your ongoing work in this area.     


UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Bodies

November 2011 saw the hosting by Ireland of a meeting known as “Dublin 2”. This meeting was the second in a series of gatherings which brought together members of UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Bodies. There are now nine such Treaty Monitoring Bodies which monitor the implementation of UN human rights conventions and examine reports by States on their implementation of these conventions. As more States ratify the conventions, however, the Treaty Bodies are facing the challenge of a considerable increase in workload. Coupled with an inadequacy of resources, this has resulted in a significant backlog in their consideration of reports and of individual complaints.

The Irish Government provided financial support to facilitate two important meetings here which are paving the way for necessary reform.  These meetings. known as “Dublin 1” and “Dublin 2”, brought together Treaty Body members to explore ways in which the system could be strengthened and improved and to make concrete recommendations. Later this year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, will present a report with costed recommendations for improving the system and I have no doubt that the contributions from Dublin 1 and 2 will be evident in her report.



The year which has just begun presents further opportunities for Ireland in the human rights area. I have been since 1 January 2012 the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body whose remit includes a strong emphasis on human rights issues. With 56 participating States covering most of the northern hemisphere, the OSCE is the world’s largest intergovernmental regional security organisation. It has a very broad agenda which spans human rights, conflict prevention, democratisation and arms control.

Our Chairmanship enables us to assume a leadership role in the OSCE and to manage and guide the work which is being done under these various headings. Ireland’s own experience in the area of conflict resolution will be an important asset. Our leadership of the Organisation is also consistent with Ireland’s firm commitment to multilateralism and to the promotion of human rights and democratic values. We plan to use our Chairmanship to highlight, in particular , the threat to internet freedom.


Candidature for the UN Human Rights Council

Later this year, Ireland will seek election for the first time to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council is the primary international forum for advancing respect for human rights and promoting compliance with the key international instruments. We have a strong domestic record and have also clearly demonstrated our commitment to the strengthening of human rights at the global level. No country, of course, has a perfect performance in the area of human rights. We recognise that there is still much work to be done in Ireland by Government and civil society in order to achieve our common objectives. But there is nevertheless a solid basis of achievement and of common endeavour.   

As a small State which emerged from a history of conflict and oppression, we are strong believers in the community of nations working together to advance the values which lie at the heart of the UN Charter. We are proud of our record in the promotion of human rights at the UN, notably our contribution to the UN stand against apartheid. If we are to contribute further to the strengthening of human rights internationally, we need to be at the heart of the Human Rights Council.

Civil society plays a very positive role in upholding and promoting human rights in Ireland. I believe that Ireland’s chances of success will be increased with the support of and encouragement from the human rights community, both nationally and internationally.  

We are standing against four other States in the Western Europe and Others Group, each of whom is a formidable competitor. In the current budgetary circumstances, resources for the campaign are inevitably constrained. The diplomatic lobbying effort is being led by our Permanent Representatives to the UN in New York and in Geneva, assisted by our network of Embassies.  Government Ministers are lobbying their counterparts from other countries when they meet. The protection of human rights resonates strongly with the Irish people and membership of the Human Rights Council would be a valuable opportunity for this country to play its part in the development of human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the world.

The White Paper Review

I would now like to address the topic selected for this year’s Forum.  The first White Paper on Irish Aid was published by the then Government in 2006. A Review of this White Paper is being led by my colleague, the Minister of State for Trade and Development, Mr. Joe Costello T.D., who will be speaking in the panel discussion.

The Irish Government’s programme of assistance to the poorest people in the world represents our contribution to the fight against global poverty. Our aid programme, which is inseparable from Irish foreign policy, is a practical expression of Ireland’s values as a nation and it belongs to the Irish people. This year it is delivering €639 million in assistance to some of the poorest countries in the world.

The Review of the White Paper is one of the commitments made in the Programme for Government. The aim is to examine the changing context, at home and more globally, and to learn from what works best in delivering real results for poor people on the ground.  The Review will set out clear priorities for our aid programme over the coming years. It will involve wide consultations, both at home and with our partners abroad, to ensure that our development programme builds on its strong reputation for quality and effectiveness.

Ireland has a proud record of providing assistance to developing countries, even in the most difficult of times. As well as our official aid programme, there is a long tradition of engagement and action overseas by Irish organisations including missionary work, volunteering and highly skilled professional development workers in reducing poverty and responding to humanitarian crises.

It is crucial to ensure that we can maximise our impact at a time of great change, at home and abroad. We must also be able to measure and communicate the impact of money spent on reducing poverty and hunger in developing countries, whether that comes from donor governments, NGOs, partner governments, or others.

Today’s reflection on the Review of the White Paper is an important part of the Government’s efforts to consult widely on the future direction of our aid programme, to consolidate on our successes to date and to build on the level of public and cross-party support for these efforts.  This Forum provides an opportunity for us to hear the views and learn from the experiences of others.  

The focus on human rights today will be important. I believe that an effective aid programme needs to have human rights, democracy and governance generally as a core value.

Human rights have intrinsic value, and achieving them is an objective in its own right. But human rights, including gender equality, are also a critical factor for the long-term sustainability of development gains. In Ireland, civil society organisations play a key role in building public awareness and understanding of international development, human rights and Ireland’s role in development cooperation.  There is a wealth of experience in implementing a human rights centred approach domestically, and in other countries.  We very much value the contribution to be made by everyone in attendance today.

The opening discussion will set the scene for the Review of the White Paper on Irish Aid, with panellists including Minister of State Costello, the Director General of the International Development Law Organisation, Ms. Irene Khan, and the Director of Trocaire, Mr. Justin Kilcullen. 

The panel discussion will be followed by three parallel workshops looking at the themes of the Role of Human Rights in Development Aid -- the Experience from other Aid Agencies, the Space for Civil Society as well as Human Rights Institutions and Human Rights Defenders, and the Role of Human Rights in Ireland’s Foreign Policy.


In closing, Ladies and Gentlemen, today is an opportunity to share knowledge and experiences. I hope it can be a day of challenging discussion and that you will find the workshops productive and informative.   

In order to face the challenges which lie before us, it is essential for Government and civil society to work together. I would like to wish you every success in today’s discussions and to thank you once again for the important contribution which you are each making.