Joint Committee on Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from the Committee on Administration of Justice to the Chairman of the Committee

  Let me start by saying that CAJ was very pleased to see that a Joint Committee on Human Rights has been created, and we were delighted that you took an early opportunity to reach out to groups like CAJ to contribute to your work. For those of the Committee members that do not know us already, let me briefly explain that the CAJ is an independent cross-community group working to protect and promote the human rights of all in Northern Ireland. We were awarded the Council of Europe Human Rights Prize in 1998 by the then 40 member states for our human rights activities. Our work covers the more obvious conflict-related issues of policing, emergency law, and prisoners, but also rights issues concerning gender, disability, juvenile justice etc. A copy of our most recent annual report and a publications catalogue is being sent by post.

  You have indicated that there are to be three priority work areas up until Easter, and wanted in particular our reactions to the implications of the Human Rights Act to date.

  Of course the Human Rights Act is of relatively recent date in Northern Ireland, and we have none of the extensive experience of our colleagues in Scotland. No doubt, particularly given the composition of your Committee, you will have already made contact with groups such as the Scottish Human Rights Centre. However, we would suggest that you might want to pursue at least two issues with regard to the Act's implementation in Northern Ireland.

  Firstly, CAJ has expressed concern on a number of occasions about the Task Force which was established to oversee the implementation of the Human Rights Act. In particular, we have been concerned that, for quite some time, the Northern Ireland Office did not attend the Task Force meetings. This was despite the fact that there was direct representation on the Task Force from the Scottish and Welsh Offices, as well as the Home Office. Consequently, we feel that the arrangements and measures put into place in Britain have not been fully replicated in Northern Ireland.

  In response to our concerns, the government appeared to suggest that the implementation of the Human Rights Act was a matter for the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland. This is, in our view, entirely unacceptable, in that the primary responsibility for this work must, and must be seen to, lie clearly with the government.

  In due course, the NIO, and representatives of the devolved administration, began to attend meetings of the Task Force. However, we feel that the long delay means that Northern Ireland lagged somewhat behind other jurisdictions. In view of this problem, the Parliamentary Committee may want to explore whether there is a value in, even now, establishing a Task Force to work specifically on Northern Ireland.

  Secondly, though we would be unhappy at the NI Human Rights Commission playing the primary role in ensuring implementation of the Human Rights Act, it does of course have an important role to play in advising and overseeing government efforts in this area. It is our view however that the Commission may have neither the necessary resources nor the necessary powers to carry out such a role very effectively. Your Committee will have contacted the NIHRC already about their work on the Human Rights Act, and—since the Commission is currently engaged in a review of its powers—they will hopefully address these broader concerns when responding to you.

  More specifically, you will presumably be aware that parliament has already—in the course of the debate around the Police (NI) Bill—discussed an assessment carried out by the Commission into police training on the Human Rights Act. The assessment was very critical of that training. We are uncertain as to whether this was a one-off evaluation or part of a continuing study of Human Rights Act training for the police. We are also unclear as to whether or not the Commission has monitored training on the Act for other public bodies.

  I imagine that you will write again nearer the time if you need any input into the other topics your Committee will be discussing. Already I can, however, indicate that CAJ is aware of some very interesting work carried out by the organisation Justice on the human rights auditing of legislation. I am not sure if they have looked specifically at the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, but I am quite sure that our sister organisations—Liberty and the Scottish Human Rights Centre—will have done some work in this area as well.

  As to an inquiry into the case for a Human Rights Commission for the UK, we presume that, particularly given the sensitivities surrounding the devolved jurisdictions, you will be particularly interested in examining closely the experience to date of the Northern Ireland Commission. The review mentioned earlier will presumably be very timely in this regard. CAJ was very centrally involved in efforts to secure the establishment of the NI Human Rights Commission and was closely involved in discussions with government about how to operationalise this element in the Agreement. We were particularly active in trying to ensure that the UN (Paris) Principles for National Human Rights Institutions would be the minimal benchmarks when establishing the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately we were not entirely successful in this regard, so we will be very interested in closely following your own debates on this topic.

  I will conclude by wishing you and the Committee well in your important work. There are of course many serious human rights concerns in Northern Ireland, and there is a lot of experience that can be drawn upon in determining how best to protect and promote rights in future. At the same time, Northern Ireland has made significant human rights advances thanks to a number of provisions in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. This jurisdiction has much to offer elsewhere both in terms of what must be avoided and in terms of models of good practice.

Martin O'Brien


7 March 2001

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