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The United Nations independent expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda, issued the following statement on her recent mission to Ireland.

I would like to start by sincerely thanking the Government of Ireland for inviting me and for fully supporting my visit. I have very much appreciated the spirit of openness and cooperation shown during my stay in the country. I fully recognize all the efforts undertaken by several Departments and agencies to provide me with the information and materials that I needed.

During my stay, I met with various Government authorities, including the Minister for Equality, Human Rights and Integration, Ms. Mary White, and representatives of the Departments of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister); Foreign Affairs; Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs; Social Protection; Justice and Law Reform; Health and Children; Environment, Heritage and Local Government; and Education and Skills. I also met with representatives of the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority, the Family Support Agency, the National Disability Authority, the Training and Employment Authority (FÁS), the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, and the Reception and Integration Agency, as well as the office of the Ombudsman for Children. The delegation also held meetings with representatives of the Oireachtas (National Parliament); the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Overseas Development and the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs; representatives of Irish Aid; and coordinators of the RAPID Programme, based in Limerick City Council, and the Dublin Homeless Consultative Forum.

My team and I also met with many representatives of international organizations and non-governmental organizations 1, community activists, and academic experts. Most importantly, we met with numerous people who are living in poverty and experiencing social exclusion. I would like to particularly thank them for warmly receiving the mission in their communities and sharing their personal experiences of struggling with the plight of poverty and social exclusion.

I will now limit myself to a few preliminary and provisional remarks on some of the issues that, along with others, will be explored in more detail in my final report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2011.

For years Ireland benefited from a sustained economic boom (“Celtic Tiger years”) that enabled the Government to implement several social protection strategies that significantly diminished the level of poverty. While these measures were quite effective in reducing the “risk of poverty” of important sectors of the population, not all members of society equally benefited from the economic growth. In this context, the current economic and financial crisis poses a disproportionate threat to those who did not benefit much from the Irish economic boom, and it is a serious threat to the milestones achieved in social protection.

While the need for the Irish Government to make savings at this time is real and understandable, the responses to the crisis must be in full compliance with human rights standards and must promote gender equality. Overall, this means that specific measures must be taken to ensure that the recovery plan does not disproportionately impact the poorest sector of society, pushing them deeper into poverty and increasing their social exclusion.

Ireland’s problems in the long term will not be solved if inequality increases or if the most vulnerable members of society do not have the resources to have a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally. In this regard, it is a matter of deep concern that the Government’s recovery measures have not included a comprehensive and consistent policy to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

I am especially concerned about the upcoming cuts in expenditure on social protection and public services that are likely to have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty and suffering from social exclusion. The cuts to the general social welfare payment, jobseekers’ allowance, one parent family payment, disability allowance, community and voluntary services, and adult literacy funding, among other measures, will have a significant impact on the living standards of the most vulnerable groups.

Moreover, vulnerable groups would be seriously and disproportionately affected by cuts to public services as they depend on these services more than better off segments of society. I share the serious fears expressed by several civil society organizations and people living in poverty that despite the Government’s aim to improve performance and delivery, reductions in funding will mean a decline in services and an increase in cost for accessing them, which will lead to further poverty and social exclusion. Such measures would greatly affect the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights of the poorest segments of society.

Recent budgetary cuts in some institutions and the dismantling of others have also reduced the State capacity to protect vulnerable groups. I was concerned to hear about the dismantling of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) and the Combat Poverty Agency. The former has not been replaced, and the functions of the Combat Poverty Agency were integrated into the Office for Social Inclusion which is now part of the department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. This change means that in practice there is no stand-alone statutory body dealing exclusively with poverty, reducing the availability of independent research and monitoring of poverty from a human rights perspective.
The Government has also reduced the budget of key bodies established to protect the most vulnerable, such as the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission. While it is necessary that the burden of austerity must be shared, the Government must ensure that the measures do not affect the work of institutions that are crucial to protect the most vulnerable, monitor compliance with human rights, and ensure equality. In this regard, the Government should also commit to maintain current levels of funding and resources aimed at providing free legal aid, access to which is vital for those living in poverty.

Human rights are not dispensable and cannot be disregarded in times of economic uncertainty. On the contrary, these are times in which people become more susceptible to potential infringements on their basic rights and have higher risks of falling into poverty. Therefore, they must be particularly protected and governments must be vigilant in their compliance with human rights obligations. From a human rights perspective, before designing and implementing any policy measures aimed at the recovery, policy makers must assess the impact of the measures on the most vulnerable groups of society, assess the appropriateness of the measures, and examine alternative policy options that would protect vulnerable sectors of society as a matter of priority over those who are better off. According to international human rights obligations, any deliberately retrogressive measures in the enjoyment of any economic, social and cultural rights need to be fully justified and in the context of the maximum available resources.

The Government must commit to a human rights-based recovery, where all economic, social and cultural rights are ensured without discrimination of any kind, in which there is equality of access to public services and where participation of civil society actors is guaranteed in all levels of decision making structures.

The Irish Government has established important economic and social benchmarks in various key documents such as the National Development Plan 2007-2013, the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016, and the National Social Partnership Agreement Towards 2016, and it should honor these commitments, even in times of crisis. The high level goals included in these documents must continue to be the primary target for Government policies. In this regard, I was pleased to hear the assurances of the Government that the goal of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016 remains a Government priority.

During the visit I met with several groups that are vulnerable to poverty and are suffering the impact of the crisis in a disproportionate manner, such as children, lone parents, persons with disabilities, migrants,  Travellers, homeless people, the working poor, people living in rural areas and refugees and asylum seekers.  While in my report I will refer to all of them in some detail with reference to Ireland’s human rights obligations, in this brief statement I can only make some preliminary comments that will be supported in the final report.

Children continue to be the group most at risk of poverty in Ireland, with families – in particular single parent families – struggling to ensure food, appropriate housing, heating and decent winter clothing. The substantial cuts in child payments in recent budgets are of particular concern as they can exacerbate the situation of children and lead to an increase in child poverty rates, which are already worryingly high. This would represent a major step backward for children’s rights in Ireland.

Additionally, the cuts in public services for children have a potential detrimental impact on several areas affecting them, such as health, education and child protection. I recall that Ireland is a State party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to which it must ensure that each and every child in the country has a standard of living adequate for his or her physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. I note that the process to amend the Irish Constitution to include children’s rights is advancing and I call on the Government to conclude this process as soon as possible.

Particularly in time of crisis, child benefits remain crucial to tackling poverty and benefiting families with the lowest incomes. While I welcome some recent measures, such as the one year pre-school education, I would like to stress that this measure is an example that even during an economic downturn, when political will exists, it is possible to strengthen the protection of the most vulnerable. I take this opportunity to call on the Government to ensure that early childhood education commitments are not only fully implemented, but also expanded.

I am also concerned about the impact of the recent budgetary measures on lone parents and the working poor. The decrease in the minimum wage, the extension of the tax base by lowering the entering threshold, the cut in child benefits, and the new universal social charge, among other measures, will hit lone parents and the working poor disproportionately hard. The cumulative effect of all these measures can have devastating consequences on their standard of living and their capacity to escape from poverty.

While I welcome the generosity of Ireland in responsibility sharing and solidarity with regard to refugees and asylum seekers, I am particularly concerned about the fact that the Direct Provision system aimed at supporting asylum seekers only for a short period of time (up to 6 months) is now the only system provided, when more than one third of the asylum seekers spend more than 3 years in such accommodation. This raises serious concerns as to the autonomy and enjoyment of human rights of asylum seekers, in particular their right to privacy and family life, adequate standard of living and adequate standards of physical and mental health. I call on the Government to quickly adopt a single procedure for status determination with strong protection elements and to ensure that asylum seekers enjoy the full range of economic, social and cultural rights. I also strongly call on the Government to allow asylum seekers their  right to work - as established under human rights obligations- and to “opt in” to the European Union Asylum Procedures Directives. I welcome the system of foster care for unaccompanied separated children, and I call on the Government to ensure that appropriate monitoring mechanisms are in place to ensure that the best interest of the child is being protected in foster homes.

I am also concerned about the Habitual Residence Condition as a qualifying condition for social welfare payments, which effectively excludes a number of vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers, EU migrant workers, job seekers, victims of domestic violence and returning Irish migrants from access to most social welfare support. This creates inequalities between the general population and already vulnerable groups, and cuts off avenues of support to those who need it most.

Despite the range of measures taken by the Government, the Traveller community continues to encounter high levels of discrimination, as a consequence of which they experience inequalities in the enjoyment of several economic, social and cultural rights. I am particularly concerned about their poorer health status compared with the rest of the population, and I call on the Government to take immediate measures to address their health situation without delay.

The Government must ensure that even in difficult economic times, Travellers enjoy the same opportunities as the rest of the population. In several cases, this would require actively creating an enabling environment to ensure equal access to public services and equal opportunities in education and employment. Moreover, Travellers must be ensured greater participation and representation in decision making bodies affecting their lives.

During the mission, I had the opportunity to visit and be informed about several regeneration processes. I was particularly impressed with the Fatima project. This project provides a good example of community participation in the decision-making process that should be ensured in other projects, such as the Dolphin House project in the Rialto area. I encourage the Government to consider the proposal of adopting a legislative framework for a national Public Housing Estates Regeneration Programme, to ensure that international human rights standards and community participation are ensured in all regeneration projects in the country. The right to adequate housing entails human rights obligations that Ireland must respect and ensure.

I have also learned about the significant demand (waiting lists) for social housing that has increased as a consequence of the recession. The fact that these waiting lists are happening in a context in which the housing crisis has created a large surplus of housing stock throughout the country is evidence of the complexity of the problem. Ensuring that everyone in the country (Irish and non-Irish nationals) enjoys adequate accommodation is an obligation that Ireland must comply with without delay, giving priority to vulnerable groups such as families headed by lone parents, persons with disabilities, older people and the homeless.

In Dublin, I had the opportunity to visit innovative and encouraging homeless centers such as Sundial House. I welcome these types of centers, and call on the Government to ensure that these projects will continue to have sufficient resources to operate. The problem of homelessness requires innovative and comprehensive solutions that look beyond the provision of a single bed. I appeal to the Government to honor the commitment made in Towards 2016 to eliminate homelessness for people who are currently in long-term emergency accommodation by the end of 2010.

Meeting with several community and civil society organizations, I was very impressed with their commitment and the innovative services that they are providing to the community. In this context, I am deeply concerned that the significant reductions in funding available to the community and voluntary sector will impede their ability to provide important services in a cost efficient manner to the poorest sector of society, during a time in which many are relying on them. I also call on the Government to ensure active and meaningful participation of the community and voluntary sector in the design, implementation and evaluation of all public services. Nonetheless, I would like to stress that their work should not be considered as replacing the Government’s responsibility towards the delivery of quality and accountable social services.

I also welcome the existence of many participatory mechanisms for civil society organizations in decision making forums. I call on the Government not to neglect the great importance of civil society participation during this difficult economic time. Effective and meaningful participation is even more relevant in times of crisis when decisions have to be adopted with urgency. The Government should ensure that participation at the local and national level is preserved and encouraged.

I was glad to learn that despite the crisis and cuts in budgets that have also affected the Official Development Assistance (ODA), the government is still keeping its commitment to reach the target of 0.7% GNP on ODA. While now it has postponed the achievement of this goal from 2012 to 2015, it is crucial that it has not abandoned it. Keeping this ODA commitment seems to reflect the great value that Irish society assigns to international assistance and development for developing countries.

In times of scarce resources the Government must ensure that the money is there to help those in deeper need around the world, but also that there is the most efficient use of the available resources. ODA is an area in which Ireland has played a crucial role, and Ireland has a great reputation around the world. I am sure that, despite the domestic crisis, Ireland will continue to play a key role as international donor.

Ireland will be soon subject to examination under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Human Rights Council. I call on the Government to ensure that in preparation for the review, it undertakes a broad consultation process with civil society actors. The UPR also provides an opportunity to Ireland to make concrete and measureable voluntary commitments to promote and protect human rights. I particularly call on the Government to commit to develop a Human Rights Plan of Action and to fully incorporate international standards into their domestic law, in particular the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Ireland should also further its human rights commitments by ratifying international treaties to which it is not yet a State party, such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  

I was pleased to be informed by the Government that it is examining its domestic legislation to make it more in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I call on the Government to accelerate this process as well as to ratify this Convention and its Optional Protocol in the shortest period of time.

I will finish by reiterating my commitment to continuing the dialogue initiated during the visit and closely following the measures taken by the Irish Government to protect the most vulnerable groups from the impact of the crisis and improve the enjoyment of human rights by all.

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1. Social Justice Ireland, Community Workers’ Co-operative (CWC), European Anti Poverty Network Ireland (EAPN), Children’s Rights Alliance, Barnardos, One Parent Exchange Network (OPEN), Amnesty International Ireland, Age Action, Crosscare, Doras Luimni, Free Legal Advice Center (FLAC), Kilbarrac Community Development Programme, MakeRoom, TASC (Think Tank for Action on Social Change), National Association of Travellers, Galway Traveller Movement, Galaway Center for Independent Living, Domestic Violence Response, Action for Equality, Galway Refugee Support Group, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, National Women’s Council Ireland, Threshold, Irish Refugee Council, Irish Association of Older People, Disability Federation Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Irish Traveller Movement, Irish National Organization for the Unemployed (INOU), Vincentians Partnership for Social Justice, Vincent de Paul, Irish Rural Link (IRL), Galway Action for Equality, Depaul, Merchants Quay Ireland, Focus Ireland, Simon, National Association of Travellers Centres; Ireland Development NGOs including  Dóchas, Trócaire, Children in Crossfire, Concern, IDEA (Irish Development Education Association), Gorta, Trinity International Development Initiative (TIDI), Comhlámh, Irish Red Cross, Friends of Londiani, and CBM Ireland. The delegation also had the privilege of visiting the following community projects: in Dublin, Sundial House (Homeless Residence); the Focus Ireland Coffee Shop, the OPEN Lone Parent Centre, the Fatima Regeneration Project; the Dolphin’s House Regeneration Project in Rialto; in Navan, the Navan Travellers Community; in Limerick, the Southill Community development project and the Moyross Community Project; and in Longford, the Women’s Link Community Center. In addition, it visited the Carrowbrowne halting site and the Direct Provision Centre Lisbrook House in Galway.  The Independent expert also met with UNHCR Ireland.