The Sheehy Skeffington School is an annual conference on social justice and human rights and this year the focus was on human rights and migration. The conference aims to be a bridge between human rights, academia, and activism, and featured presentations and performances by academics, activists and artists on the theme of a humane approach to migration. As chair of the first session Carol Coulter noted, the theme is not just relevant on a global scale but in Ireland too; the 2016 Census revealed that 17.3% of the Irish population was not born in Ireland.
Prof Conor Gearty of London School of Economics gave a keynote address on human rights, migration and racism. He argued that until recently, racists felt that they had to hide behind intellectual arguments, but they no longer feel the need to. He suggested that the enduring legacy of Trump will be “a vulgarisation of politics”, and that Brexit was about a hatred of “the other”. Prof. Gearty argued that there is a dangerous idea that human rights is part of one culture but not another, that human rights does not apply to other cultures because “they’re not us”, citing the example of Israel claiming to be in favour of human rights but not signing any human rights treaties.
Prof. Gearty also discussed how the language of human rights can be a “fabulous activist tool”. He advised people seeking to make people aware of the human rights implications of particular situations to “find the issue that really matters to people locally and bring in human rights, because it builds the wider support and gives a strong sense of demand”. For example, pollution is a human rights issue, it is the right to be healthy.
An activist perspective came from Edel McGinley, Director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. She highlighted that there are currently 63 million displaced people in the world, 24 million of whom are refugees. She remarked that societies need immigrants, that migration brings economic stability, and that there is a disconnect between xenophobia and racism and the needs of society. She argued that conservative voices are now seen as the middle ground and they are starting to frame the debate around migration. Edel concluded by calling for a legal framework for migration in Ireland.
Prof. Siobhan Mulally, a Professor of Human Rights Law in NUI Galway, spoke on workers rights, and how international and Irish laws interact to mitigate workers rights. She highlighted the power imbalance when employers get visas for their workers and can then threaten deportation. Prof. Mulally also drew our attention to the work of the Council of Europe on human trafficking.
Sorley McCaughey of Christian Aid spoke on the relationship between climate change and violence, looking at the relationship from both sides. He began by explaining the concept of “climate security”, where climate change is seen as a threat to global security, citing a 2014 report by the Pentagon. He noted that while the Pentagon might be defenders of climate science, they are not defenders of climate justice, and suggested that climate security and climate justice may be incompatible. Sorley made a number of points on the relationship between climate change and violence:
Does violence effect climate change?
- Violence weakens societal structures and traditional coping mechanisms don’t work e.g. in the case of the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 when Somalia was more affected than neighbouring countries.
- Violence destroys evidence of weather patterns
- Violence can mean that aid packages e.g. for drought, get diverted from people who need them
- He noted that climate adaptation is an inherently political process, citing the example of the Jordan Valley, where aquifiers were used as a bargaining tool in the Israeli-Palestine conflict
Does climate change effect violence?
- There is no direct causal link, but climate change is an aggravator of the drivers of conflict
- A 2014 IPCC report suggests that climate change will increase displacement of people
- Climate change leads to slow onset disasters like drought, so people move more slowly e.g. looking for work
- For example, in Syria, microfinance had been stoppped and co-operatives shut down, leaving people vulnerable when drought occured
Sorley lastly discussed the Christian Aid approach to dealing with climate change and violence, which is to develop resilience in tandem with confronting human rights issues, land rights, governance etc. He stressed that conflict resolution work will increasingly need to consider the impact of climate change.