Ireland can become an international champion for human rights – Minister Varadkar

Posted November 22, 2016

The Irish people’s historic decision to pass the same-sex marriage referendum means Ireland can become an international champion for human rights, equality and diversity.

Mr Leo Varadkar, Minister for Social Protection, set this challenge while speaking at the University College Dublin seminar on equality, diversity and inclusion.

In May 2015, Ireland became the first country to approve of same-sex marriage by popular vote.

Mr Varadkar, who is the first openly gay Cabinet Minister in the State, said the referendum, passed by a large majority, will always remain a “high point” of the Fine Gael party’s time in government.

He said the result of the vote meant that the right to marry, previously the preserve of the majority – heterosexual couples – had been extended to a minority – same-sex couples – and “no one was any the worse off for it”.

Commenting on equality in the wider context of international politics, Minister Varadkar said that it would be “wrong” not to make any reference to the rise of right-wing governments in the United States, Russia, Turkey and Central Europe.

It was important that human rights and equality were not upheld just for the sake of it and were only valuable when they genuinely improved people’s lives.

“We must not allow human rights and equality to become latter-day secular religions, replete with their own doctrine in the form of conventions and even their own clergy and inquisition to silence dissenters and opponents,” he said.

“Human rights and equality should not be doctrines or fundamental truths to be upheld for their own sake.  Human rights and equality are only of value if they impact in a meaningful way, and for the better, on the lives of people and citizens.”

People were “rightly” outraged by some of the views expressed by US President-elect Donal Trump and Vice-President-elect Mike Pence on women, gay people and different ethnic groups during the US presidential election campaign, he continued.

But the only way to change other people’s views was to “talk and engage” with them.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence is of Irish descent. He has vehemently opposed same-sex marriage in the state of Indiana where he still serves as governor.

Minister Varadkar said the best thing for the cause of equality, human rights and diversity in the United States might be for Mr Pence to come here and see how “we have embraced marriage equality…diversity and respect”.

“How a country that was once one of the most conservative and closed in the world, when it came to social issues, has changed because the key issues were debated in a spirit of toleration and respect, not by shunning or abusing those with other points of view.” 

“We have it in our power to be an eloquent champion of human rights, equality and diversity. We should do it by articulating and defending the values we believe in.”

Regarding the State’s own commitments in the area of human rights, Minister Varadkar pointed out that Ireland has not yet ratified two of the United Nations treaties that the state has already signed – Enforced Disappearances and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

He noted that Ireland was the last EU member to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and acknowledged that “it has taken far too long to get to this point”.

However, he said the government was making progress in this area and was carrying out work “behind the scenes” to overcome many outstanding barriers to the ratification of the convention.

This work included signing into law legislation such as The Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 which is a comprehensive reform of the law on decision-making capacity.

“Different countries take different approaches to ratification of international human rights conventions.  We sign conventions as a declaration of our commitment that we want to apply the convention in Ireland, but we ratify when we can satisfy our international partners that we are meeting our commitments,” he added.

By Jamie Deasy, digital journalist, UCD University Relations