The dangers of complacency

Alex Hayes questions whether China’s recent censorship of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabo is an isolated case, or are other countries including Ireland guilty of human right violations.

Liu Xiabo is serving an eleven-year prison term in China. He is the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize last month, in recognition of ‘his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China’. Officially, the crime for which he was imprisoned was “spreading a message to subvert the country and authority”; however, in reality he co-authored a document calling for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and democratic elections. These are all things we take for granted in our western democracies, in China however, calling for such fundamental rights carries the threat of incarceration or worse.

The selection of Liu Xiabo was met with outrage from Chinese government, followed by complete censorship of the story.  Both Liu Xiabo and Nobel Peace Prize were blocked by Chinese search engines on the day the story broke, effectively cutting off any chance at public awareness of the award.

Freedom of speech is a core democratic ideal. It is also one of the most important ones, especially in a political context. Freedom of speech is freedom of dissent, allowing the people to voice their concerns and discomforts without consequence.

The recent Irish blasphemy law introduced a penalty of up to €25,000 for anything considered ‘grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion’ constitutes a dangerous encroachment on a fundamental, constitutionally protected right that allows subjective ideas of offence to trump an objective and vital liberty.

Consider the Islamic Republic of Iran, where eighteen-year-old Ebrahim Hamidi faces execution for lavat, or sodomy. Ebrahim is in fact, straight, but he was convicted under ‘judge’s knowledge’, a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings, even when no conclusive evidence is present. Ignoring for a moment, the heinous miscarriage of justice that is his sentencing and conviction, the fact that sodomy is a crime punishable by death is horrendous. This kind of legislated homophobia is a perfect example why separation of church and state is vital for fair and judicious government.

Adultery is punishable by execution in Iran, and is a charge often levelled against rape victims, citing sexual activity out of wedlock as sufficiently criminal behaviour to warrant execution.  The punishment of both of these ‘offences’ constitutes a clear and repulsive attack on the rights of the LGBT community and women – who suffer most under the law regarding adultery.

Even at home we cannot afford the luxury of considering ourselves much better. Legally, LGBT relationships are still considered second-class, with couples forced to accept ‘separate but equal’ civil partnerships. Despite a 2008 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights giving same-sex couples the right to adopt a child they cannot currently do so under Irish law.

Only married, same-sex couples or single applicants (regardless of sexuality) may adopt a child. In addition to this, the IBTS refuses to allow openly gay men who have admitted to ever engaging in sexual activity with other men to give blood, citing a need to ‘protect the blood supply’ as reasonable cause to allow baseless homophobia to dictate policy.

In this country we still deny women their basic reproductive rights. Abortion is illegal, except in cases where the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. This is patronising, legislated subjectivism, interfering with the objective right of a woman to make her own decisions in regards to her own body.

It is imperative that we, comfortable with our supposedly constitutionally protected rights, do not become too complacent. We do not have to struggle for the basic freedoms brutally denied to so many, and we must be careful not to trivialise what others fight so diligently for. We must remember to be constantly vigilant in our pursuit of a better, more legitimately democratic society. It is vital to continually expose and condemn human rights abuses wherever we can, but even more important to examine ourselves when doing so.

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