Mr John O'Donoghue, T.D.
Minster for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Head of Delegation
World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Durban, South Africa
Saturday 1 September 2001
Distinguished Chair, Fellow Ministers, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
We meet here in Durban in the new millennium to re?affirm our common humanity. In doing so, our purpose must be to move beyond rhetoric to action. This Conference is a landmark event for our hosts, South Africa, which endured for an unconscionable time the evils of an institutionalised system of human rights denial. It is a landmark event for each participating country as we all can learn from each other's experiences and apply those lessons for the betterment of our societies. And also, it is a further landmark in the evolution of the United Nations Organisation to which we look so often as the means to preserve and protect our most basic human rights and which, justifiably, looks to us, its sovereign states members, to provide the direction and resources to fulfil its mandate under the Charter.
The Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has been prodigious in his efforts to point the way forward to the international community as we move through the twenty?first century. From his monumental report "We the Peoples", charting the future direction of the United Nations to his report to the Security Council on conflict prevention, the Secretary General has taken the dominant issues and challenges which face us, globalisation and conflict, and engaged with us on them so that we might avoid repeating the failures of the past and seize the opportunities of the future.
So it is with the World Conference Against Racism. This is another crucial element in our definition of ourselves as a community of nations at this point in history. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, in her tireless efforts to impress upon us the potential for good that the Conference presents has asked us to be forward?looking and action?oriented while drawing on the past in the resolve that the injustices of those times will never be allowed to happen again. I support her wholeheartedly in this approach.
None of us has any reason to be complacent. History tells us that nineteenth century attempts to abolish the slave trade through international agreement achieved little. Instead slavery waned because it became uneconomic. What relevance does this have for us in Durban? Simply this. Sceptics, and there are many, look at the treaties that were concluded under the auspices of the UN following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ask what the point of it all was as there is no direct way of enforcing them? Therefore, they argue that international behaviour will still be dictated primarily by self?interest backed by economic and military power.
But there is a difference. There is a growing recognition that the promotion and protection of rights is a key element in enhancing collective security. Our Conference presents us with an opportunity to build on that recognition by taking steps to eliminate the scourge of racism from our societies thereby creating a better quality of life for all members of those societies. This surely is enlightened self?interest at work
We in Ireland do not accept that racism is innate. Racism is an ideology which developed in particular historical periods and which served to justify the expropriation of land and the enslavement, subjugation or genocide of peoples on the basis that they were biologically or otherwise inferior. Like all ideologies, it took on a life of its own and persists after the conditions, which gave rise to it have changed. For obvious historical reasons, we in Ireland are sensitive to the complex political, economic, social, cultural and psychological legacy of colonialism and that the legacy can remain for years after the ending of colonial status. Historical injustices must be acknowledged honestly and condemned, if we are to deal effectively with their legacy, and to prevent their recurrence.
It is only in the last few years, as a result of unprecedented economic growth and massive job creation, that Ireland has been transformed from a country of emigration to a country of immigration both as a result of economic migration and as a result of the increase in numbers of refugees and asylum seekers entering the country. Last year nearly 11,000 persons sought asylum in Ireland and 18,000 work permits were issued to nationals from outside the European Economic Area, coming from 120 different countries. This presents everyone in Ireland with new opportunities and challenges. In addition in Ireland, like in many European countries, the arrival of an increased number of asylum seekers has generated controversy and, in some cases, hostility of a racist or xenophobic kind.
In parallel with the international human rights instruments, our national legal systems must be continually reviewed. Ireland has addressed and will continue to respond to the challenges presented by the emergence of a multi?ethnic and multicultural Ireland. Necessary legal and administrative structures have been put in place. We have enacted legislation in the past three years outlawing discrimination on nine grounds, including the ground of race or ethnic origin in employment, vocational training, the provision of goods and services (including public services), housing and education. To support the legislation we have created an institutional structure involving an Equality Authority and a Director of Equality Investigations, which offer free and speedy redress for victims of discrimination. Legislation on its own, however, while necessary is not sufficient to prevent racism or xenophobia. To deal with these challenges, we intend to learn from the experience of other countries. We also aim to build a national consensus on the way forward. In Ireland we attribute much of our recent social and economic advance to the partnership structures enabling the social partners and non?governmental organisations to participate in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of economic and social policy. Our national delegation here reflects our commitment to participation by all sectors of society, in the fight against racism and xenophobia being representative of Government and opposition members of Parliament, relevant officials, and representatives of the police, trade unions, equality institutions, youth and non?governmental organisations, members of ethnic minorities, refugees and Travellers.
Also a powerful new independent body the Human Rights Commission of Ireland was established in July 2001 under the Human Rights Act, 2000 and is charged with keeping under review the promotion, protection, and development of human rights not only in Ireland but jointly with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in the island of Ireland. The Commission will also have an international role through its participation in European and international human rights events.
In addition to our Equality and Human Rights bodies, we have a dedicated partnership body, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) which facilitates key actors from the statutory sector, civil society and ethnic minority organisations (including Traveller organisations) in informing policy development in this area and in building consensus, in relation to strategic priorities.
Ireland places a high priority on maintaining an asylum process which is both fair and transparent in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 Convention and which is geared towards providing protection to those in genuine need of such protection as quickly as possible. The Refugee Act is wide ranging, dealing as it does in a comprehensive manner with first instance decisions, appeals, right to legal representation, right to interpretation and providing specifically for a direct contribution to be made by the UNHCR to the determination process. The processing of applications for refugee status is carried out by two independent statutory offices, one for first instance decisions and one for appeals. It is my intention that asylum seekers would have a final decision on their application within six months. We have also a dedicated agency, the Refugee Integration Agency, to coordinate services for asylum seekers and refugees.
In preparation for the World Conference Ireland held a national Preparatory Conference at which Ireland's input to the European Regional Conference at Strasbourg was prepared. The NCCRI also organised an NGO forum to co?ordinate advice to the Irish Delegation at the Preparatory Conferences.
One of the key themes to emerge from our National Conference was the need for institutional change and mainstreaming of policies on anti?racism and interculturalism. Positive action and a need to focus on outcomes were also recommended. Earlier this year, all our political parties represented in the Irish Parliament signed an Anti?Racism Protocol for Political Parties and a Declaration of Intent for Candidates for Elections which had been introduced by the NCCRI. The initiative is modelled on a Europe?wide initiative called the Charter of Political Parties for a Non?Racist society.
Our national police force, the Garda Siochana, is determined to learn from the experience of other countries. They have established a Garda Racial and Intercultural Office. The Garda Siochana have adopted a Strategy for dealing with Racial and Intercultural Issues, to protect the human rights of the entire population without discrimination and to value ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.
We in Ireland are determined that our society will not be blighted by racism. The Irish Government is funding a three year National Anti?Racism Awareness Programme to combat racism and promote an appreciation of the benefits of a diverse and multi?cultural society. We are anxious to learn from the experience of other countries, from all parts of the world, many of which have been successful multi?ethnic and multi?cultural societies for many years. I mentioned earlier that sceptics have questioned the effectiveness of international law as it cannot be enforced in the way, for example, that police forces preserve national laws. In refuting this facile argument, which has implications for the success of our Conference, we should remember that national legal systems, if they are to work, do not rely on coercion but on a communal sense of social obligation and self?respect. In the same way, international law is generally observed and we must invoke these same motives in achieving here a meaningful political declaration and a comprehensive programme of action.
Too much is at stake here to allow disagreement [, on issues that can be pursued honourably in other fora,] to prevent us making a collective stand against racism at the beginning of the twenty?first century. The Secretary General and the High Commissioner have pointed the way. We must not fail them, the United Nations Organisation and ourselves. The UN General Assembly will hold a special session on children in the coming weeks. We must not fail them, the children, the inheritors of our societies. Let us work for success for them.