Monday, 1 December 2008

20th World Aids Day - Stigmatisation and Discrimination in Ireland

Today is International World Aids Day. Often portrayed as a health issue, it is far more complex than that involving important human rights issues in relation to such issues as discrimination, access to health services, and the provision of adequate support services.

In Ireland recent data shows that nearly 5,000 people had tested positive for HIV by June 2008, with 170 new cases being seen in the first half of the year. In the run up to the 20th World Aids Day the stigmatisation of those who live with HIV has been highlighted. In the first national report on HIV related stigma and discrimination published on November 26th by Stamp Out Stigma. Commenting on the report, Ciaran McKinney, vice-chair of the campaign stated “The studies found that people living with HIV experienced significant levels of stigma and discrimination across a wide range of areas: in families, among friends, in the workplace and in accessing health and social care services.”

Significantly, the findings include the fact that 49% of those living with HIV reported that they were discriminated against by their friends, and 28 % that they had experienced discrimination from their families. 54% of the general public and 84% of people living with HIV agreed that people with HIV are viewed negatively by society. Whilst the general public in the main felt that people with HIV should not feel ashamed of their condition, a significant proportion (23%) reported that they would worry about sharing a meal with someone with HIV, illustrating a worrying lack of understanding about the virus.

Discrimination against people living with HIV is of course illegal in Ireland under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Acts 2000 and 2004. In addition, the Equality Authority has previously indicated that it would take up cases of discrimination based on HIV and AIDS although no such cases have yet been seen. What is not clear is why that is the case, although stigmatisation and the fears of people living with HIV and AIDS may well be a factor. Clearly at a minimum more education and advocacy work about HIV and AIDS is needed to promote greater awareness and understanding. But with the recent budget cutting the Equality Authority’s budget by 43% spending in this area generally is unlikely to see a large increase in the near future.

However, whatever the financial climate it is important to remember that “The promotion and protection of human rights must be at the centre of all aspects of an effective response to HIV and AIDS” (Amnesty International).

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Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Indirect Discrimination in Denominational Schools' Admission Policies

The Jewish Free School (JFS) is considered the best Jewish school in the United Kingdom. As a result the school is over-subscribed. As in Ireland (under s. 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000), denominational schools in the UK are entitled to favour children of the same denomination as the school in enrollment procedures. In the case of the JFS one of the selection criteria was to “be recognised as being Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth” (JFS Admission Policy). It appears that the Chief Rabbi was, in the case of admissions to JFS, using a sub-rule for admissions that considered whether a child was ethnically Jewish (i.e. having at least one Jewish parent or grandparent), with ethnic Jews being preferred in the case of over subscription to the school.

Yesterday the Chief Schools Adjudicator ruled that the exclusion of a child whose mother (who incidentally is head of English at the school) was a convert to Judaism and not, therefore, ethnically Jewish, was “indirect” discrimination. Importantly, however, the CSA also held that there was no race-relations implication in preferring Jewish students over non-Jewish students, finding instead that this was a matter of religion.

The question of ‘indirect discrimination’ in school admission policies may become germane in Ireland as schools (particularly at primary level) continue to be oversubscribed. Can a Catholic school, for example, not only prefer Catholic children to non-Catholic children in its admission policies but then prefer some Catholic children to others if the number of applicants still out-strips the number of available places? Would it be permissible to narrow down the field of applicants based on the frequency of a child’s attendance at church services? Or based on whether their parents went to Catholic schools? Or based on whether their parents are Catholic? It is clear that the JFS admission criteria were not attempts to assess levels of genuineness of religious conviction or levels of religious conviction; Judaism is an ethnicity as well as a religion, the same is possibly not true of Catholicism (although see O’Toole, “Ethnic Catholicism in Boston” (1992) New England Quarterly 117 for an alternative view). However questions of indirect discrimination may begin to arise in Ireland, and the JFS case suggests that s. 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act may not allow for such admission policies on the part of denominational schools.

This story is also reported in The Guardian and Ha’aretz.

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Thursday, 15 November 2007

ECtHR Decision on Roma Education Rights in Czech Republic

The European Court of Human Rights last Tuesday handed down its judgment in DH & Others v Czech Republic concerning the segregated education of Roma children in the Czech Republic. The Court found that the education offered to the Roma children was substandard and was “not attended by safeguards [citations omitted] that would ensure that, in the exercise of its margin of appreciation in the education sphere, the State took into account their special needs as members of a disadvantaged class”. The segregation of the Roma children and their provision with lower quality education constituted a discriminatory violation of their right to education (Article 14 & Article 2, Protocol One) and the respondent state was ordered to pay 4,000 Euro to each child. Interestingly, the judgment makes extensive reference to EC law, international human rights law, non-binding reports and opinions on Roma education in the respondent state, as well as the Court’s own jurisprudence.

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