Today, Ireland is having its performance on human rights assessed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council under its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Three times every year, for two weeks, the HRC meets to review a selection of countries, with a view to reviewing all of them on a five year cycle.
How does this work? In short, Ireland writes a report against its previous reviews and the ‘progress’ it has made. The Human Rights Council provides an overview of how it has seen progress since the last reviews. Also, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission provides a shadow report detailing how it sees Ireland’s progress since the last review. Additionally, other stakeholders are allowed to make submissions, either alone or in groups (Joint Submissions), which are then kept on file but also compiled by the HRC into a neat short summary report.
A troika of countries selected randomly from the standing committee of 47 countries on the HRC then listens to Ireland present its report and asks questions and reads statements from the other stakeholders, and then finally, an outcome document is agreed very quickly after the session. Ireland is being reviewed by Germany, the Sudan and the Ukraine. The question of countries with dubious human rights records reviewing other countries is an open discussion.
Then the 5-year cycle begins again.
It is now five years since Ireland’s last review, and much has changed since 2016. In previous reviews, Ireland’s restrictive abortion regime was a major subject of attention. With the removal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and the introduction of one of the most liberal abortion regimes in the world, the expectation would be that the focus of any human rights concerns on this subject would come from the perspective of the child rather than the continued demands for further liberalisation of the laws in place.
Quite the opposite in fact. Of all the 35 stakeholders submissions – primarily from NGOs/charities, often funded by taxes – at least 1/3 of those raised the issue of restrictions on abortion in Ireland with a number of submissions almost completely focussed on the issue – representing groups who were at the forefront of the repeal campaign, seeking to justify their continued existence despite having succeeded in removing all but a sliver of protections from the unborn child.
More concerning is the continued focus from wider human and civil-rights type groups on this issue. Amnesty International, another organisation who has tirelessly campaigned for the removal of all human rights protections for the unborn child, continues to lobby for ‘a fully human rights-compliant framework for abortion care’. Although the framework remains undefined, some of Amnesty’s demands include the removal of the three-day waiting period after initially requesting abortion (even though recent figures provided to Carol Nolan suggesting this may have resulted in 1,000 fewer abortions than if was not in place), the allowance for abortion for less severe disabilities, and the risk that healthcare professionals may be criminalised for providing abortions other than those allowed by the law – essentially moving in the direction of seeking the decriminalisation of abortion for providers in all cases.
The Amnesty Submission reflects much of what is demanded in ‘Joint Submission 5’, which was led by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, along with other activist organisations. Included in this submission is a request for the government to implement ‘safe zones’, a restriction on the civil liberty to protest and gather, a liberty that would be considered one of the fundamental civil and political rights in a human rights framework.
The compilation of stakeholder submissions by the Committee, summarised the range of issues being raised by ‘rights’ groups on abortion in a few paragraphs.
“JS3 (Joint Submission 3) noted that patients in Ireland had to navigate a complex system of healthcare characterized by poor geographic distribution of services. Telemedicine or “remote” provision of medications for early abortion, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, had improved the accessibility of abortion care. JS3 argued that the Act provision allowing doctors to refuse care by claiming conscientious objection hampered abortion access within the 12-week limit. Ireland was due to review the Act in 2021. JS3, JS5 and IFPA recommended to decriminalise abortion in all circumstances.
JS3 recommended to: improve the geographic distribution of care providers; increase access by authorising nurses, midwives, and other medics to provide abortion care; maintain telemedicine as a permanent feature of abortion care; repeal the 12-week limit, the three-day waiting period, ambiguous wording regarding abortions for health risks and ‘fatal’ foetal diagnoses, and refusal of care; make explicit the right of transgender people to access abortions; and provide free contraception to all. JS3 and IFPA recommended that Ireland hold an open review of the Act. AI
(Amnesty International) recommended ensuring the review provides a human rights-compliant framework. JS5 noted that anti-abortion activity outside healthcare providers aimed to deter individuals from accessing health care. JS3 and JS5 recommended that Ireland enact legislation providing safe zones around abortion providers.”
However, it also pithily added that there were other stakeholders who submitted on the subject but neglected to state that they had submitted from the human rights perspective of the unborn child, stating merely that: “ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) and ECLJ (European Centre for Law and Justice) also made comments and recommendations on abortion-related issues.”
For reasons unstated, their perspectives, comments and recommendations were not elaborated in the summary report compiled by the UN body, giving the impression that the only view in Ireland is one that sees abortion as a human right and the child an obstacle to achieving that right.
This inversion of rights is increasingly common under discussions that view rights as a series of entitlements that are in competition with liberties and freedoms of others. Abortion remains the most contested area despite the narrative framed by these processes, where the rights of the unborn have been systematically defeated through the lens of democracy with the support of human rights bodies, frameworks and activists.
With the repeal of the 8th, and the subsequent celebrations at Dublin Castle, it may have been expected that abortion would only be viewed now as a human rights issue from the perspective of the child given the expansive liberal abortion legislation enacted in 2019, however this is not case. Clearly in the ascendancy, groups that describe themselves as human rights organisations, who say they advocate for, protect and promote human rights, have moved far from a discussion about competing rights into the sphere of power and control.
That the issue of abortion was framed as a human rights issue – a right to abortion or a right to life – is understandable, and whether the UN or Ireland or these interest groups were on the right side of that argument is a separate discussion, but what is clear now is that the narrative has moved far from a battle over competing rights into one of an assertion of power.
The rights of the unborn have been obliterated, and any remaining legal protections for the unborn child are now to be annihilated. Issues of three-day waiting periods are not about human rights but are about removing any semblance of residual protections of the unborn child. Just as requests for amendments to the law for pain relief for babies being aborted were denied, any nod toward the humanity of the unborn child by activist groups or the law, is a reminder that there is a human person on the receiving end of the unrestricted freedoms. Any restriction, any pretence of compassion, any demonstration of humanity in the law, indicates that there is more than just a clump of cells being removed.
Ultimately, such an approach by organisations that describe themselves as human rights advocates, using human rights mechanisms and frameworks, devalues and undermines the moral standing of these international human treaties, placing them as instruments of power and politics and against the weak and voiceless.
These UN processes have been and still can be, a soft power for good, to foster positive change, but when they are co-opted by partisan interest groups who place an agenda ahead of humanity, moving their decisions far from the wording of the Treaties and Conventions they are based upon, they will become increasingly suspect as partisan instruments of political battles, not only by States and political parties, but by NGOs, charities and other interest groups.