Irish human rights priest blazed trail for us to follow

Posted By: December 25, 2016

Hugh Harkin. Irish Independent. Thursday, December 22, 2016

If we want a seat at the top table, Ireland needs to live up to its heroes. The international dimension of this year’s 1916 commemorations gave an opportunity for an early offensive in Ireland’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22.

Ireland needs to secure the support of more than 100 countries before the 2020 election. Given that, a majority of UN member states are former European colonies, mounting exhibitions on Roger Casement in Africa and Latin America will have been a useful exercise in ‘soft power persuasion’.

The image of a principled nation fighting for fundamental rights will have done Ireland no harm in its Security Council bid. However, a close look at the inaction of successive governments on a key United Nations Convention – and indeed one written by an Irishman – should make voting states wonder what principles this country will bring to the Security Council.

The International Convention against Disappearance would not exist were it not for Patrick Rice. Born in Fermoy, Co Cork – a relative of executed 1916 leader Thomas Kent – Fr. Rice went to South America as a missionary priest in 1972. Originally destined for a comfortable parish in one of Argentina’s wealthiest provinces, he opted instead for the poverty of a Buenos Aires shantytown.

A huge man, with curly red hair and a wide, disarming smile, Fr. Rice lived as his parishioners lived, and worked alongside them as a carpenter on a construction site. He learned to speak fluent Spanish with a Cork accent. He quickly earned the community’s affection and respect.

These were difficult times in Argentina, however, with paramilitaries of the left and right sowing terror and panic. In 1976, the military staged a coup, but rather than restore order they unleashed a killing spree. Disregarding his personal safety, Fr. Rice became an outspoken critic.

One evening, Fr. Rice and a young catechist were bundled at gunpoint into an unmarked car. Brought to a secret detention center, both were continually and brutally tortured over the following days. Frantic efforts to locate them led only to denials and dead ends.

Fr. Rice’s fate mirrored that of tens of thousands of innocents who were “disappeared” in this way by the Argentine military during those years and never heard from again. But he would be among the fortunate few. Thanks to the courageous journalism of the ‘Buenos Aires Herald’ and tenacity of Irish diplomats, word got out and pressure was brought to bear: after 56 days, Fr. Rice was released, and immediately deported to Ireland. Fr Rice moved first to London and then to Washington to campaign against what was happening in Argentina. Activists often operate on the basis of anger, but Fr. Rice did so from his firm belief in a better world. His calmness, intelligence and good humor set him apart, and he won over many influential figures.

Fr. Rice was involved in a memorable protest in Washington’s Cathedral, where the Argentine diplomatic and military delegation had come to celebrate their national day, but very soon walked out of the church when brought face to face with their crimes. The much-feared Argentine interior minister was infuriated. “That Irish priest! That terrible Irish priest!” he said.

In 1983, democracy returned to Argentina, and Fr. Rice went back to Buenos Aires, and later left the priesthood. He would eventually again meet Fátima Cabrera, the young woman who had been abducted alongside him. They married and had three children.

Fr. Rice, who died in 2010, devoted the rest of his life to the cause of justice for those disappeared and tortured worldwide, working with – and indeed often helping establish – organizations of relatives and survivors across Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

A lifelong Christian and idealist, Mr. Rice was ultimately a realist, who knew that protection lay in the rule of law. With secret detention continuing as a practice of repressive regimes, the United Nations eventually accepted the need for a Convention against Disappearance and Ireland nominated Fr. Rice as the Western Group’s representative in negotiations.

He played a key role in bringing the Convention into existence in 2006. Ireland signed in 2007 but has yet to ratify it.

Referring to the Security Council bid, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan told the Dáil in June of this year that we “will be basing our campaign on Ireland’s foreign policy credentials.” On whose coattails, minister?

“The one thing that Casement has shown us is that one person can make a difference,” Ambassador Seán Hoy said in Abuja, Nigeria, last month when opening the exhibition on Casement’s work in Africa.

Patrick Rice was also such a person. Whether it be as a tribute to his life and work or as a prudent affirmation of international law in this suddenly uncertain moral climate, it is high time Ireland ratified the International Convention against Disappearance.