"The overall environment in which defenders operate in Ireland is in general conducive, although more should be done domestically to raise awareness about the profile and role of defenders," said today the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, at the end of her first fact-finding mission to the country.
"Ireland should be more active in raising awareness about the UN Declaration on human rights defenders at the domestic level and about the definition and role of defenders in society," noted Ms. Sekaggya, who during her five-day mission met groups of defenders facing important obstacles of different nature in their daily work. "In fact, the very term 'defender' is not always well understood, even among public officials."
The expert expressed concern about the challenges faced by certain groups of defenders, notably those working on environmental rights and who try to exercise their legitimate right to protest. She also drew attention to the plight of sexual and reproductive rights defenders who are victims of smear campaigns, and those working for the rights of the Traveller community who are excluded from policy making bodies, as well as 'whistle-blowers' who are not properly protected.
"The Government should make additional efforts in properly equipping and instructing the Garda Síochána (police) on how to handle protests but also in supporting and protecting those who could be intimidated or harassed in connection to their human rights activities," Ms. Sekaggya underlined.
The Special Rapporteur also stressed that "blasphemy is currently a criminal offence in Irish legal framework but its codification seems vague, unclear and no longer appropriate," and welcomed the Government's initiative to convene a Constitutional Convention which will contemplate the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the current legal framework.
The delay of the on-going merge of the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) with the Equality Authority is, in her opinion, causing unnecessary uncertainty. "I have received assurances at the highest political level that an interim body will be appointed to run both the IHCR and the Equality Authority in early 2013", stated the expert. She also called on the authorities to expedite the enactment of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) Bill, 2012.
Ms. Sekaggya recognized that Ireland has been a champion in the protection of defenders at risk in other countries under the European Union Guidelines on human rights defenders. She also acknowledged the Government's efforts in integrating and promoting the protection of defenders through its development aid.
"Ireland has a unique opportunity to bring human right issues forward now that it has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council and will have the Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2013," she said. "In this context, I suggest a first assessment of the implementation of the EU Guidelines on human rights defenders."
During her mission, the first by the expert to an EU member State, Ms. Sekaggya met with the President of the Republic, Michael D. Higgins, Government officials, representatives of the legislative and judicial branches, the Irish Human Rights Commission, a broad range of civil society actors and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.
The UN Special Rapporteur will present her findings in a report to the Human Rights Council in March 2013.
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