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Irish President on human rights

- By Reshma Lakha-Singh

Human rights stalwart and activist, the President of Ireland, the Honourable Michael D Higgins addressed students and members of the law fraternity on International Human Rights and Global Development at the Wits School of Law.

His address focused on the disparity between human rights and development. “Development initiatives have directly contributed to violations of human rights. This should be the central task of the post 2015 Millennium Development Goals and the development agenda. Ireland and Kenya are co-facilitators for this process, and it is essential for African states to have a leading voice. The traditional dichotomy between the north and south is breaking down. The rise of economic power in Africa alters power dynamics at the global level, and the voice of Africa can be stronger than ever,” he said.

He added that the message that Africa must articulate is the need to redefine development in a way that respects rights and culture.

He emphasised that the South African Constitution has acted as a beacon for human rights protection not only in Africa but around the world. “Your Constitution was a key influencing factor in the consideration of the Irish constitutional protection of economic and social rights.”

The President stressed that Ireland has much to learn from Africa in terms of bottom-up and innovation approaches to political participation in the construction of human rights. “The anti-apartheid movement was not only about civil liberties but the conditions necessary to enjoy these freedoms in human dignity, freedom to flourish. In doing so, it reaffirmed that civil and political rights alone are not enough for the realisation of socio-economic rights, and that democratic processes alone do not lead to development.”

He used the Treatment Action Campaign as a great example of an organisation standing up for the human rights of all. “South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) not only held the State to account, but also multi-national pharmaceutical corporations. They reaffirmed that public service delivery, a critical issue during the anti-apartheid struggle, continues to be at the heart of realising socio-economic rights.”

Higgins, an activist at heart, stressed that there is a need for a new form of activism in the world: “Activism that is radical, well informed, research based and having taken lessons taken from President Nelson Mandela.”

The President’s visit forms part of a three country visit to Africa with the aim of strengthening bilateral partnerships for the future of Africa. “We now face a turning point in the relationship between Ireland and Africa; a relationship which in this Century will be increasingly about partnership, cooperation, and a fair and just trade. Based on our history, Ireland has a strong reputation in Africa and as Africa advances, we are in a strong position to work together in friendship.”

Wits luminaries Advocate George Bizos and Advocate Denis Kuny also attended the lecture.