Gone are the days when states and national governments can act with complete impunity. At least the better behaved ones. For over fifty years most countries have accepted the rule of international law. International law has long applied to such areas of life as maritime affairs, aviation, weather, international communications and the prevention of the spread of diseases. If international law did not exist we would not be able to post a letter or get on an airplane.
Since the 1920s international law has also applied to life in society, beginning with the area of work. The establishment of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for example, has led to the promulgation of ethical and workpractice standards governing virtually all areas of working life. As a result life in the workplace, in most countries, has become more humane and fairer approaches to remuneration have become the norm.
Human Rights Framework
In the last fifty years we have seen the emergence of a new body of international law, the human rights framework set out in the International Declaration of Human Rights (1948). A system of Treaty Body organisations linked to the United Nations polices this new set of internationally agreed standards determining how national governments are to treat their citizens.
The Universal Periodic Review
Since 2007 a new exists system for ensuring that all 192 member-states of the United Nations comply with the agreed international human rights standards. It is called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It is managed and overseen by the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Every four years national governments must present themselves in Geneva to provide to a jury of their peers a report on how they have implemented human rights standards in their jurisdiction. All areas of life covered by the human rights instruments (treaties, covenants, declarations) are relevant from education, through health care, to the treatment of people with disabilities.
Ireland takes part in the UPR for the first time
In October 2011 the Irish Government will present a report to the Human Rights Council for the first time. At present a variety of national organisations, national bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are preparing for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Why? Because the process affords all, both government and civil society organisations, with a unique opportunity to carry out a national examination of conscience. And the topic? Essentially, we are challenged to pass in review how we treat our fellow citizens. In a democracy we are all responsible and the Government is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the human rights of its citizens are promoted and protected. So, all of civil society, you and I included, are all invited to become involved in this process of the exercise of civic responsibility, towards one another, and especially in regard to vulnerable groups in our society.