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It is up to us to uphold human rights

Resource type: News

Irish Examiner |

Uprisings in North Africa show change only happens if we demand it, writes Colm O’Gorman.

IN just five months ordinary men and women have overall thrown governments in Egypt and Tunisia. Right now others are fighting, and dying, to oust Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. In Bahrain, Syria and Yemen they are taking to the streets in defiance of tanks, thugs and torturers.

This year marks Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary, and not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such serious challenges to their grip on power. Launching our global annual report today examining the state of human rights in more than 150 countries, it is clear that the success of this human rights revolution is by no means certain.

Even where dictators have fallen, the institutions that supported them still need to be dismantled. Repressive governments such as China and Iran are trying to pre-empt any similar revolutions in their countries.

A critical battle is under way for control of access to information. As seen in Tunisia and Egypt, efforts to block internet access or cut mobile phone networks can backfire – but governments are scrambling to regain the initiative or to use this technology against activists.

The international community must ensure that 2011 is not a false dawn for human rights.

As Ireland launches its candidacy next year for the UN Human Rights Council, it can play a role on the global stage in ensuring those campaigning for human rights are supported and protected.

Abuses of human rights do not just happen in foreign countries; they are real for many thousands of Irish people.

Our annual report’s examination of Ireland emphasises yet again the failure to properly protect children in this country. Despite all the reports on the failure by the state to stop the systematic abuse of tens of thousands of children over decades, progress on ensuring this never happens again has been slow.

Legislation to give child protection guidelines a statutory basis has still not appeared. Recommendations from the Ryan Report in 2009 have still not been implemented. And 13 years after a government first promised that a referendum to enshrine the rights of children in our constitution was a key priority, we are still waiting.

The appointment of a Cabinet level Minister for Children is to be welcomed and there are also plans for big changes in our child protection services. These are all positive signs from the Government, but to drive those changes we need to ensure children’s rights are at the heart of the constitution. We need a wording, and a date, for a children’s rights referendum.

Action is also needed to improve our mental health services to ensure the rights of people with mental health problems are protected. Conditions in some in-patient centres have been described as “entirely unacceptable and inhumane”.

Excessive cuts in staffing levels have meant that the roll out of community mental health teams is not happening fast enough. Without these teams we will find ourselves going back to a more custodial form of mental health service, which service users have been campaigning to change for years.

Serious overcrowding in our prisons, and the practice of “slopping out” in Mountjoy, Limerick and Cork mean that many prisoners are held in conditions that are “inhumane and degrading”.

When we look at what people no different to us, lacking many of the tools we have and in the face of enormous brutality, have accomplished in the Middle East and North Africa, can this not inspire us? In the middle of our economic crisis we need to ensure human rights protections in Ireland remain strong so the most vulnerable in Irish society are protected. The promises to protect our children, to improve our mental health services, must be delivered.

Change only happens when people demand it. That’s a lesson we can learn from the people of Egypt and Tunisia.

Amnesty International is an Atlantic grantee.

This article appeared in the Irish Examiner, 13 May 2011 edition. It is currently not available online.