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Existential threat to human rights says Chief Justice
Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell, Judge Síofra O’Leary and Judge Robert Spano, incoming and outgoing presidents of the European Court of Human Rights, in Dublin on 21 October 2022 Pic: Alan Betson, courtesy of The Irish Times

21 Oct 2022 / rule of law Print

Rule of law facing ‘almost unimaginable challenges’

Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell has said that threats to the rule of law in Europe are not confined to one or two countries.

While rights such as those of liberty, free speech, freedom of association, and freedom from torture might have been regarded as battles that had been won, the Chief Justice warned that they were now facing “almost unimaginable threats and challenges”. 

“It’s really an existential challenge to the values that we hold dear,” he said.

Vigorous defence

Basic human rights must be defended, and we must use our capacity to reason to do so, with vigour and robustness, the Chief Justice stated.

The collective commitment to rigorous analysis of the law must be renewed, he added.


Giving opening remarks at the Heaney Theatre in DCU this morning (21 October) at a public conference entitled ‘Human Rights in a Time of Change: Perspectives from Ireland and from Strasbourg’, the Chief Justice said that the election of Judge Siofra O’Leary, as President of the European Court of Human Rights, had not received sufficient attention or acclaim in this country.

The election of an Irishwoman had been received with delight elsewhere throughout Europe, he said, and Judge O’Leary had jurisdiction over 675 million people in 46 countries.

Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell, Judge Síofra O’Leary and Judge Robert Spano, incoming and outgoing presidents of European Court of Human Rights, in Dublin on 21 October 2022

The legal community in Ireland had felt enormous pride at the news of her election by her judicial colleagues, he stated. 

No rebuke

That cases passed through the Irish judicial systems before going to the ECtHR was not in any sense a rebuke to the work of the Irish courts, the Chief Justice said.

It would be wrong to look this relationship through the prism of occasional high-profile cases at the ECtHR giving rise to controversy or disagreement, but rather to the long periods of contented companionship and silence that were key to any functioning relationship, he said.

“There has never been discussion of ‘divorce’, or obtaining a ‘barring order’,” he joked. “And that is no small achievement. We have done much more than just muddle along together,” he added.

The relationship between Ireland and the ECtHR was one of equals, he said, adding that was not hierarchical, but had constant movement and mutual influence.

The Chief Justice stated that Ireland should be proud of its defence of human rights in the 98 years since the establishment of Irish courts in 1924.

Unimaginable threats

He concluded by saying that the late poet Seamus Heaney was a personal hero of his, since he first encountered him as a primary-school pupil.

The North had been a severe testing ground for the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights, he added – notably in relation to internment and deaths at the hands of the forces of law.

The convention was also central to the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, he added.

The courts here had also received invaluable assistance from judgments given in the North’s courts, when considering the interpretation of human rights, the Chief Justice said.

Addressing the conference, outgoing ECtHR President Robert Spano said that the European Convention of Human Rights was one of the greatest peace projects in history, and a factor of stability, security and peace.

His successor as predient, Judge Siofra O'Leary, told the conference that judicial protection of human rights must be protected, despite being under greater stress than ever before.

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