UN criticises ‘disproportionate’ state focus on cuts during austerity
22 June 2015
A top UN body has criticised the Irish state for its response to the economic and financial crisis in cutting public expenditure, especially in housing, healthcare, social security and education, with disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today issued its Concluding Observations on the state’s performance over the past decade. Earlier this month it questioned an Irish government delegation led by Minister of State Sean Sherlock on how Ireland is meeting its obligations under the International Covenant, a treaty on human rights to which Ireland is a signatory since 1989.
Welcoming the Committee’s observations, FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) Director General Noeline Blackwell noted its grave concerns at the consequences of austerity measures in Ireland, with a focus on groups most impacted, some of whom had already been severely disadvantaged before the recession and some who were made poor during it.
“The Committee makes strong recommendations for state action on adequate housing to protect people’s right to a secure home, right from an adequate supply of social housing through to rent controls to better regulation of banks in relation to mortgages – all part of the continuum of basic housing rights,” said Ms Blackwell.
The Committee reiterated its concerns at the current lack of capacity for people to raise issues under the Covenant in Ireland, via either domestic or international mechanisms, and called on the State to ratify the Optional Protocol which allows people to make complaints under the Covenant, and to incorporate the Covenant into domestic law.
“The Committee highlights problems in the protection of rights across all the areas covered by the Covenant. This is a comprehensive blueprint for government action; we are very grateful to the Committee for the enormous work they have done in considering the wealth of state and civil society evidence presented to them.
“Civil society groups expect the government to take this objective assessment from the most important UN expert body in this area very seriously. Ireland has signed up to and agreed to the jurisdiction of these UN experts to consider such key matters. It is now incumbent on the state to consider and implement the recommendations - or in the alternative, to demonstrate why it is not suitable to implement them,” she concluded.
As a human rights organisation promoting equal access to justice, FLAC was particularly happy to see strong recommendations from the Committee around measures that will help make state systems and access to remedies more accessible and transparent. These included expanding the remit of the civil legal aid scheme, more consistent and transparent decisions on social welfare appeals at first instance, an independent appeal mechanism for borrowers in mortgage arrears and an effective complaints mechanism for local authority tenants.
FLAC had travelled to Geneva on 8 June as part of a civil society delegation voicing concerns to the Committee on the protection of basic human rights in Ireland. Through its Public interest Law Alliance, FLAC had coordinated a Parallel Report called ‘Our Voice, Our Rights’ which summarised evidence submitted by more than 80 Irish civil society organisations on how rights in health, education, housing, social security, family life, cultural life were being protected on the ground.
The UN Committee strongly recommends that the State upgrade its infrastructure for implementing, promoting and monitoring its progress on realising rights, such as better and disaggregated data collection and a wider jurisdiction of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on all areas of rights. In particular, it stresses that austerity measures must be temporary, proportionate and only implemented where strictly necessary; it says all state policies should be proofed for possible impact in terms of inequality and discrimination and to ensure compliance with human rights standards; and that the state must identify a minimum social protection floor for all Covenant rights, to be protected at all times.
- FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is a human rights organisation which exists to promote equal access to justice for all. Apart from providing general legal information and advice to the public, FLAC works strategically on consumer credit law, personal debt law, civil legal aid and social welfare law. FLAC is an NGO that relies on a combination of statutory funding, contributions from the legal professions and donations from individuals and grant-making foundations to support its work. Our project, PILA (Public Interest Law Alliance), matches social justice legal need to pro bono legal assistance, and coordinated the Irish civil society response.
- The Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on Ireland’s examination under ICESCR are at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%20C.12%20IRL%20CO%203&Lang=en
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protects rights to health, housing, work, education, family life, social security, cultural life and adequate living standards. The UN is conducting its Periodic Review of Ireland’s compliance with the Covenant, the last examination having taken place in 2002.
- Over two days of public hearing in Geneva, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights questioned a 22-person government delegation, led by Minister of State Sean Sherlock, on what the state had been doing since 2002 to protect basic levels of rights in areas like education, social security, family life and adequate living standard, especially for more vulnerable groups.
- Irish civil society groups also attended and presented to the Committee separately, having submitted independent reports on the protection of rights covered by the treaty on the ground. The main civil society report, Our Voice, Our Rights, was coordinated by FLAC through its PILA project, containing contributions from more than 80 organisations and individuals. An Update from civil society, covering evidence and data from 1 October 2014 to 1 May 2015 and submitted to the UN on 8 May, is also available to download at http://www.ourvoiceourrights.ie/resources/update-to-our-voice-our-rights-may-2015/ . These reports cover the rights to health, housing, decent working conditions, education, family life, social security and cultural life. Groups involved include those working with children, older people, rural communities, Travellers, migrants and women.
- The IHREC also attended and voiced concerns as well as submitting its own reports.
- A briefing on the parallel reporting process and a summary of civil society findings and recommendations is at http://www.ourvoiceourrights.ie/resources/briefing-on-our-voice-our-rights/
- The UN’s summary of the hearing is at http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16060&LangID=E . FLAC ran a liveblog of the event at https://storify.com/FlacIreland/un-examination-of-ireland-on-icescr
- Summaries of the Committee’s questions and government delegation responses were prepared by delegation member Dr Liam Thornton of UCD at http://humanrights.ie/category/socio-economic-rights/. Questions of the Committee to the state delegation as given above are at http://humanrights.ie/socio-economic-rights/unirl-update-no-5-the-committee-questions-minister-sherlock/
- Responses of the state delegation are at http://humanrights.ie/socio-economic-rights/unirl-update-no-6-minister-sherlock-irish-delegation-responds-to-icescr-committee/
- The reports filed in relation to the hearing by the Irish state, the UN, IHREC and Irish civil society are at http://www.ourvoiceourrights.ie/news-events/2015/06/05/un-to-quiz-irish-government-on-track-record/
- The civil society delegation in Geneva for the hearing was composed of FLAC, PILA, Threshold, Irish Family Planning Association, Atheist Ireland, Justice for Magdalenes Research, Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre, Abortion Rights Campaign, Tallaght Trialogue, Community Law & Mediation and Dr Liam Thornton of UCD Human Rights Network.