26 June 2014

Minister Fitzgerald's speech on UN Day in Support of Torture Victims

Remarks by Ms. Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality,
on the occasion of the United Nations Day in Support of Victims of Torture (26 June 2014).

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am very pleased to be here with you today for the United Nations Day in Support of Victims of Torture and I was very happy to accept the invitation to this event from the Director of SPIRASI, Mr. Greg Straton. I think it’s important that, at a national level, we mark this day and I thank SPIRASI for organising today’s events.


In the first instance, I should like to publically acknowledge all the staff and volunteers of SPIRASI who do so much to help those who have been victims of torture and the work they do in helping such people to move from being victims to survivors. SPIRASI is unique on the island of Ireland in its work with victims of torture and it is a member of the global rehabilitation movement, the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture. 

As you may already know, here in Ireland access to health services for asylum seekers and refugees is provided on the same basis as for Irish citizens. For those asylum seekers who have suffered torture or trauma, the medical screening teams, General Practitioners or hospital medical personnel etc, can refer them to specialist medical services in Dublin or other areas, as appropriate. SPIRASI is one such organisation, working with over 600 victims of torture annually.

Of course, one of the most obvious manifestations of SPIRASI’s work is to be seen in its role in supporting applicants for international protection in Ireland, by arranging for the submission of medico-legal reports to the relevant State agency in support of an individual’s application. These reports, prepared in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol, are considered along with all the other material submitted in support of a claim by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and  the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. The potential persuasive effect of such reports in the asylum process is self-evident and SPIRASI is the main provider of such reports for the Irish international protection determination process. As such, their work in this field is a significant and invaluable support to the international protection determination agencies whose work is generally acknowledged to be complex and which must be carried out with the utmost care and attention given the life changing consequences their decisions will have for the people directly affected by them. SPIRASI has also provided training to officials in the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner on the issue of survivors of torture and the medico-legal report system. I particularly welcome this kind of initiative, whereby experts in civil society provide specific and specialised training to officials in the protection system who are  faced with the difficult and complex responsibility of determining if someone is in need of international protection or not.

As some of you may know, substantial changes were introduced last year concerning how applications for subsidiary protection are dealt with. Under the European Union (Subsidiary Protection) Regulations 2013 responsibility for the processing of applications for subsidiary protection was transferred from my Department to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner with appeals to be dealt with by the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.  Both of these bodies are independent in the exercise of their statutory functions and they have substantial experience in the area of asylum investigations and appeals, respectively.  The Regulations also provide for an interview and oral appeal for all applicants, which was not the case previously. I understand that SPIRASI is actively involved in providing their services to applicants for subsidiary protection under the new system and has already provided medico-legal reports to the Refugee Applications Commissioner in support of applicants’ claims. I am confident that substantial inroads will be made to the existing backlog of subsidiary protection applications by the end of this year, and that those who meet the criteria for subsidiary protection will be granted status. In this regard, I understand that the Refugee Applications Commissioner is currently prioritising applications for subsidiary protection where a medico-legal report has been furnished by SPIRASI. Such prioritisation will obviously allow those individuals who have been the victims of torture to be more quickly identified and, if they meet the relevant criteria, to be granted subsidiary protection status.

On a related note, I am of course aware that there has been criticism from many individuals and organisations about the current lack of a single procedure in Ireland for the determination of applications for international protection. I remain committed, as did my predecessor, to introducing legislation to provide for such a single procedure and it remains a key priority.  The Government is committed under the Programme for Government to comprehensively reform the current immigration, residence and protection systems.  Since my appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality, I have been considering the many and varied issues that have arisen, and continue to arise, in relation to this key area of statutory reform. Quite clearly significant legislative reform is required in this area - not least because of evolving jurisprudence and developments elsewhere.  Moreover, some of the reform measures required are patently more urgent than others. For example, legislating to provide the means for a single procedure and related issues to deal with all protection claims is of priority in that it will provide the legislative framework for removing the structural delays which are a feature of our existing protection system.  I am particularly anxious, therefore, to ensure that legislation to deal at least with the more urgent issues is brought forward this year.  In that respect work by my officials on legislative reform in this area continues.

But back to today’s event; it is indeed a sobering thought to realise that since 1999, SPIRASI has provided rehabilitative supports to over 3,600 survivors of torture and over 20,000 asylum seekers and refugees. SPIRASI, and organisations like it, therefore provide a fundamental human and compassionate response to the brutal reality of torture. 

In Remarks on accepting the 2006 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Alberto J. Mora, the former U.S. Navy General Counsel said that:

"Cruelty disfigures our national character. It is incompatible with our constitutional order, with our laws, and with our most prized values ...there is no more fundamental right than to be safe from cruel and inhumane treatment. Where cruelty exists, law does not."

While he was talking specifically about his experiences from an American perspective, his comments have universal value. Our response when we are confronted with the reality that people are tortured every day somewhere in the world is often one of disbelief. This disbelief can stem from the fact that we in Ireland are very fortunate to live in a civilised country where we have laws and national authorities directed towards the protection of the fundamental rights of our citizens including the right to be protected from torture.  It is also the case that our courts have identified the right to freedom from torture and from inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment as one of the unspecified personal rights guaranteed under our Constitution. Unfortunately, and as is apparent from the accounts of persons seeking protection who present at the Offices of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, many people around the world do not enjoy such protection. Instead, they live in fear of despicable acts committed by their fellow countrymen acting on behalf of oppressive regimes which are, sadly, still all too prevalent in the world today.  No country can claim to have rule by law if it resorts to torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment against those it considers a threat or a problem.

As the vast majority of us rarely encounter accounts of such acts in our everyday lives, it is particularly incumbent on those who become aware of such incidents, to ensure that we support those victims who make the difficult decision to flee their own country, a place where they ought to feel safe and protected, in order to be relieved of the fear of living in circumstances where the ongoing threat of torture or other forms of serious harm exist. 

The clearest expression of our opposition to the reality and immense damage caused by torture and other forms of inhuman or degrading treatment is our commitment to the international frameworks that have been developed to prevent torture.  The United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations was drawn up to provide an international system under which a person who has committed an act of torture could find no safe haven. The enactment of the Criminal Justice (United Nations Convention against Torture) Act 2000 enabled Ireland to ratify the Convention on the 11 April 2002. 

The 2000 Act does not countenance the use of torture in any context. It does not, for example, allow for a defence of “following orders” or of exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency.

Another notable aspect of our legislation is that it is not limited to acts of torture which occur in the State. Universal jurisdiction applies so that acts of torture committed outside the State by a person of any nationality may be prosecuted in the State. In this respect the legislation goes further than the minimum obligation in the Convention, which is to establish jurisdiction over offences committed in our own territory or outside the State if committed by or against an Irish citizen.

The physical wounds of torture can often be healed by medical treatment, but unseen psychological scarring is much more difficult to both recognise and treat. For victims of torture, having the opportunity to share their experiences is often the beginning of a long journey to recovery.  That and public acknowledgement and recognition by events such as today’s also play a vital role.  Such events ensure vigilance and prevent complacency in tackling the abhorrent practices associated with torture.

Finally, I must again commend SPIRASI for all their work in this area. I am confident that they will continue to ensure that the voices of those who come to Ireland will always have available to them a compassionate and empathetic service which listens, supports and seeks to work on their behalf. I particularly wish to thank them for their work in support of the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal and the solemn task they are charged with undertaking.

I hope that today’s event helps raise the profile of torture survivors and their needs and I am sure that it will make a positive contribution to helping survivors reach some sort of closure in their ongoing journey of recovery and rehabilitation.

Thank you."