UN report criticises barriers for human rights defenders in Ireland

4 March 2013

Legal rights group FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) has welcomed a report on the situation of human rights defenders in Ireland by the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Margaret Sekaggya. The Ugandan lawyer compiled her report following her visit to Ireland in November 2012 and delivered it this afternoon to the UN Human Rights Council, of which Ireland is a newly appointed member.

In general, Ms Sekaggya found that Irish human rights defenders - people who defend the rights of others - were able to go about their work with relative ease. However, she warned that there were barriers in the system for those who championed the rights of others and in addition, certain categories of people were vulnerable.

"While most of the Special Rapporteur’s work is carried out in countries where democracy and the rule of law are visibly under threat, this report identifies ways in which even developed democracies must be careful not to obstruct  human rights and those who work to advance them," cautioned FLAC Director General Noeline Blackwell.

The report highlights how underfunding of the equality and human rights infrastructure undermines bodies fighting for human rights of particular groups. In addition, the UN representative expressed concern that those who promoted human rights were denied the protection of Irish charity law and that legal costs constituted a chilling effect on those who want to use the courts to promote human rights.

Ms Sekaggya also raised concerns about a wide range of marginalised human rights defenders including those promoting environmental and reproductive rights.

Her main recommendations focus on strengthening the state's human rights infrastructure to allow groups that defend human rights to do their work. In particular, she calls on Ireland to introduce a National Action Plan on Human Rights with a specific section on Human Rights Defenders.

"Given Ireland's position as a member of the UN Human Rights Council and in view of the country's standing as an enduring donor and supporter of human rights defenders abroad, we support Ms Sekaggya's recommendations to enhance the position of human rights defenders at home," said Ms Blackwell.

"This report is a very useful and clear-eyed account of how it is necessary to remain vigilant to ensure that those who champion the human rights of others are properly protected at home. The government must act on Ms Sekaggya's very even-handed recommendations if it wishes to protect its reputation internationally”” she concluded"



Editors’ notes:

  1. FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is a human rights organisation which exists to promote equal access to justice for all. As an NGO, FLAC relies on a combination of statutory funding, contributions from the legal professions and donations from individuals and grant-making foundations to support its work.
  2. We offer free, confidential basic legal information on our lo-call telephone line at 1890 350 250, and free legal advice through a nationwide network of volunteer evening advice centres (see for a full listing). FLAC also campaigns for legal reforms on a range of issues including personal debt, fairness in social welfare law, public interest law and civil legal aid.
  3. The UN Rapporteur on HRD's report was issued on 26 February 2013 and presented to the Human Rights Council today (4/3/2013).It is available online. The Special Rapporteur’s visit last November was facilitated by FLAC, which provided meeting space, and by Front Line Defenders, the Dublin based international organisation for human rights defenders at risk.
  4. This press release is being issued at the same time as a press release from Front Line Defenders which has also highlighted a number of issues relevant to their work.
  5. The section dealing with the public interest angle on the cost of human rights casework is para. 103 & 104:

103. During her visit, the Special Rapporteur also received information about the challenges faced by defenders and legal advocates working in class or public interest litigation, often relating to human rights issues, which cannot easily be undertaken owing to the high costs associated. In the current framework, plaintiffs pursuing such cases risk having to pay the costs of the case if they lose at trial (which could easily amount to a sum of six figures). This could have a chilling effect on those who might wish to challenge the Government.

104. The Legal Services Bill of 2011, introduced to increase competition in the legal sector, includes a provision stating that whoever wins the suit will have their costs covered by the opposing side. This provision could be amended to include a protective cost order in cases of public interest so that either side could apply to the court at the beginning of a case to have the costs either capped or waived.

  1. The section dealing with charity law is at para. 28-30:

29. The Special Rapporteur notes with concern that section 3, paragraph 11 of the Act fails to recognize the promotion of human rights as “a purpose that is beneficial to the community”, therefore, effectively excluding organizations that work on the protection and promotion of human rights from being able to register as charities.

30. Moreover, to date, the Charities Act has not been fully implemented; it was reported that this would happen in stages. The Special Rapporteur is concerned that, as a result of the progressive implementation of the Act and the consequent absence of a comprehensive regulatory authority of the charitable sector, many organizations operating on a not-for-profit basis are forced to register as companies limited by guarantee in order to satisfy funding requirements. This has reportedly resulted in the organizations being unable to benefit from charitable status, including being eligible for tax exemption and being considered a legitimate charity for fundraising purposes.

  1. The section dealing with the Human Rights and Equality Commission is at para. 41-50. There are recommendations around human rights defenders in the refugee and asylum-seeking community at para. 96-98:

96. Ireland has traditionally been an open and welcoming country for those at risk in other parts of the world, and began receiving refugees in the mid-1990s. Asylum seekers in Ireland face significant challenges, some of which affect a number of them who might be regarded as human rights defenders.

97. The absence of a single determination procedure causes excessive delays in granting effective protection for those who need it most. In addition, the rate of recognition is one of the lowest in Europe, and there is room for improving the quality of decision-making in the status determination process. In this connection, the Special Rapporteur was pleased to learn that the Government is working closely with UNCHR through the Quality Initiative to enhance various aspects of the determination process.

98. The Special Rapporteur was, however, concerned to receive reliable information indicating that asylum seekers using direct public provision services, which include reception and accommodation, sometimes fear retaliation, for instance in the form of unannounced transfers, if they attempt to claim their rights, or those of their fellow asylum seekers, to privacy, an adequate standard of living and adequate standards of physical and mental health. She encourages the authorities to take all the measures necessary to ensure that refugees working for the rights of their community in Ireland are able to claim their rights without facing obstacles of any sort.