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Budget 2014: Ireland and Human Rights Budgeting

Equality Budgeting CampaignThese are my very brief remarks on Human Rights and Budgeting  for the Equality Budgeting Campaign/Public Interest Law Alliance event NGO Budgeting Response  that is taking place today in the Mansion House. Slides can be accessed here: Human Rights Budgeting.

Today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Budget 2014 will impact “from cradle to grave”. A theme this year includes giving people, in particular those living in poverty a voice. (Being a well paid  lecturer in the university sector, I am not that voice). We need to be aware that the political choices over successive budgets have favoured some and greatly disadvantaged others.

Ireland has obligations under international human rights law, European human rights law, and our own domestic system of rights protections. Human rights apply regardless of economic models utilised or scarcity of resources. While admittedly there are significant challenges, political choices in Budget 2014 were designed to reward or further impoverish, discriminate or protect dignity,and as you know better than I, Budget 2014 will have significant and multiple impacts on those already at the margins. You are all very well aware of the Irish context to Budget 2014 and the cumulative impacts of several budgets over the last number of years. Deprivation. Poverty. Social Exclusion and Inequality. Political decisions as regards resource allocation have had enormous impacts on those on the very margins of our society.

So what role then for human rights in the face of these political choices within the domestic budgeting process? I recognise that human rights exist in the broader sense, by those seeking to take ownership of that term and speak to power. But here I am speaking about human rights in its more limited, yet, at times, effective, legal sense.

Ireland has freely accepted and undertook international obligations by signing up to a variety of international and European human rights treaties that protect the social, economic and cultural rights of all those in the State: the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and parts of the Revised European Social Charter. (For discussion on socio-economic rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, see my draft paper here). Our own constitution speaks of how we are all equal and distinctions in treatment must be justified (Article 40.1) and how the State by its laws must protect and vindicate the personal rights of citizens (Article 40.3). Although the Directive Principles of Social Policy under Article 45 cannot be directly relied upon before our courts, the State has a duty to “promote the welfare of the whole people”. As Chief Justice Denham stated in 2001 in the Sinnott case (at para 193):

The Constitution is a constitution of the people expressing principles for its society. It sets the norms for the community. It is a document for the people of Ireland, not an economy or a commercial company.

Why should human rights be seen as necessary to consider in the budgeting process? The State, freely and without compulsion, undertook international obligations to ensure that rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, healthcare, protection of the social and economic rights of children, women and those from minority backgrounds apply to this State.

These legal rights are guided by several principles, including:

  • The dignity of all;
  • Equality as a social good that needs to be upheld and enforced;
  • Non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights, unless distinctions can be justified as legitimate and proportionate;
  • Very importantly, consultation-that does not mean one vote at the ballot box every few years, but an on-going dialogue between all as regards the political choices and legal human rights obligations that should attach to the budgetary process.

Under international human rights law the State has several tiered duties, to respect, protect, promote and fulfil its international obligations as regards social and economic rights. This includes obligations as regards non-retrogression of social and economic rights, while not absolute, exceptions to this general principle would not, I argue, be applicable in Ireland.

We are often reminded by Leinster House of our international obligations to the IMF and European Commission, well it’s now time to remind Leinster House of our other international obligations under human rights law. It is time for various government departments to take their obligations seriously and put human rights and equality based budgeting on the agenda.

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