In democracies, parliaments are crucial in balancing the use of power by the executive and overseeing the functioning of the State. In Ireland this balance is off – with the executive and civil service seemingly unwilling to cede any real control to oversight or accountability mechanisms. While the Oireachtas has been prominent as perhaps the only body able to publicly consider many of the difficult issues that have arisen this year – from whistleblowers to the charities sector – its role as an oversight mechanism is not being fully realised.
This week at the United Nations in Geneva, the results of an 18-month project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights will be launched. With my colleague, Dr Philippa Webb of King’s College London, we will put forward proposals aimed at encouraging parliaments to become more effective in their human rights work. A debate on this issue is urgently required in Ireland.
The events that have transpired so far this year highlight that is time to reopen the debate on whether we want to give more powers to the Oireachtas as an oversight and accountability mechanism. The rejected amendment to the Constitution to give the Oireachtas inquiry powers was somewhat marred by scare tactics about ‘kangaroo courts’ and the absence of sufficient time for any real debate. So instead of an Oireachtas with more powers to oversee the actions of the executive and state-funded bodies, we have been left in the situation that we have only ad-hoc mechanisms set up where the Government finds it expedient and on such terms as it wishes. Recent events have also thrown light on the inherent weaknesses in many of the independent state bodies set up for the purpose oversight and regulation. Their weaknesses, rectifiable through legislative amendment if there is political will, underscore the need for the Oireachtas to take a more active role. Now is the time to reopen the discussion in Ireland as to what powers we wish the Oireachtas to have for oversight and accountability.
While broader reforms are needed, a dedicated human rights mechanism in the Oireachtas – whether it is a committee, sub-committee or rapporteur, is urgently required. Whatever its form, it should have a clear goal. In our report, we propose what such a goal might look like:
To help ensure increased compliance with human rights and a better life for all the people in this country, through publicly examining existing or potential human rights deficits identified by parliamentarians, international organisations, the National Human Rights Institution, Civil Society Organisations, the media, the public, victims, whistleblowers and others; making proposals on areas for change or improvement; and calling the government to account for failures to protect the rights of the people of this country.
A clear goal for an Oireachtas human rights mechanism would help to provide focus, purpose and clarity to its work. In Geneva this week, we will be proposing other factors that are needed for parliamentary oversight mechanisms, such as a broad composition and stable mandate. But in addition any mechanism, parliamentarians also have individual responsibilities. Members of the Oireachtas should ensure they are educated on human rights standards, and aware of human rights issues. For both the mechanism and individual parliamentarians there must be engagement with independent oversight bodies in the State, as well as with Civil Society Organisations and victims’ groups. Members of the Oireachtas should take personal responsibility for the promotion of specific human rights issues, particularly those relevant to their constituents. How the Oireachtas can oversee human rights should be central to any debate on reform. I hope that the proposals we put forward in Geneva this week can contribute to making this much needed change.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual, institution or organisation.
*Kirsten Roberts is a doctoral researcher at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. From 2008-2013 she was Acting Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Research, Policy and Promotion at the Irish Human Rights Commission. She has been a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School and has worked for 15 years in human rights and international law including at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and with Amnesty International.
The Outcome Document of the Project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights can be found here: