20. Memorandum from the Northern
Ireland Human Rights Commission
As requested, the Commission is responding primarily
by addressing the questions set out in the paper published by
the Joint Committee on 5 April 2001. But we have added a number
of appendices. Appendix 1
consists of he UN's Principles Relating to the Status of National
Human Rights Institutions (the so-called Paris Principles), which
date from 1993. Appendix 2
provides a list of the activities which the Commission has engaged
in since its inception in March 1999. Appendix 3
is the Memorandum of Understanding agreed between the NIHRC and
the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Appendix 4
comprises Background Information on the Northern Ireland Human
Rights Commission and Appendix 5
is a copy of a report which the Commission submitted to the Secretary
of State for Northern Ireland on 28 February 2001 in line with
its duty to do so under section 69(2) of the Northern Ireland
Act 1998. (The report examines the adequacy and effectiveness
of the powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
We are not expecting a formal response from the Secretary of State
until the autumn of this year.)
The Commission stands ready to assist the Joint
Committee in whatever further way the Committee might deem helpful.
If, for example, members of the Joint Committee would like to
visit the Commission we would be only too pleased to host such
a visit. We would also, of course, be prepared to supply oral
evidence if requested to do so.
1. What (if anything) do you think a
Human Rights Commission might add to the current methods of protecting
human rights in the United Kingdom? In particular, are there useful
functions in connection with protecting human rights and developing
a culture of human rights which do not fall within the remit of
any existing agency in the United Kingdom such as:
(a) fostering a human rights culture in
the United Kingdom;
(b) education in human rights;
(c) advising and assisting people who
claim to be victims of violations of their Convention rights;
(d) developing expertise in human rights;
(e) bringing legal proceedings on human
rights issues in the public interest?
As noted in our answer to question 4 below,
the NIHRC is not in favour of a Human Rights Commission being
established for the whole of the United Kingdomwe prefer
the creation of Commissions within each jurisdiction of the Kingdom.
But wherever a Commission is established, we believe that it would
add considerably to the current methods of protecting human rights
for the society in question by performing the functions listed
in (a) to (e) above. We make the following comments in relation
to each of them:
(a) fostering a human rights culture
in the United Kingdom: an "official" body such as
a Human Rights Commission can carry more weight in this context
than NGOs, however capable and efficient they may be; an official
body is more likely to be able to engage with other public bodies
when calling for greater adherence to domestic and international
human rights standards; through its work in supporting marginalised
and vulnerable individuals a Human Rights Commission can also
make a contribution to helping people become real players in how
(b) education in human rights; a
Human Rights Commission can operate systematically to influence
the depth and breadth of human rights education in all walks of
life; while the Commission will not by any means be able itself
to provide all the education required, it can valuably act as
a co-ordinating body lending weight and credibility to the values
underpinning the protection of human rights;
(c) advising and assisting people who
claim to be victims of violations of their Convention rights:
there is at present no agency in the UK (apart from ourselves
in Northern Ireland) which advises and assists people across the
board on Convention rights and other human rights; NGOs such as
Liberty are severely strapped for cash and can therefore assist
only the most emblematic of cases; more run of the mill violations
tend to be ignored in a way which does not happen with, for example,
allegations of gender and race discrimination, where the EOC and
CRE respectively can and do play a significant role;
(d) developing expertise in human rights:
while an expertise in certain aspects of human rights has unquestionably
developed within existing agencies such as the EOC, the CRE and
the Criminal Cases Review Commission, there are still many other
aspects of human rights which are not covered by official agencies;
(e) bringing legal proceedings on human
rights issues in the public interest: again, there is a gap
in the current provision in that legal proceedings relating to
many human rights issues (such as inhuman and degrading treatment,
deprivation of liberty, family life, freedom of assembly, right
to peaceful enjoyment of possessions, right to effective education,
etc) are not adequately catered for by any public body; a Human
Rights Commission could provide a very valuable service in bringing
legal proceedings on such matters.
We would stress that the United Nations' Paris
Principles (see Appendix I) set down basic minimal functions which
all national human rights institutions are expected to be able
2. If a Human Rights Commission were
established, how should its role and functions relate to those
of the Committee?
This would be a matter for a Protocol or Memorandum
of Understanding between the two bodies. Obviously it does not
make sense for work to be duplicated. The Committee may be better
placed to consider the compatibility of draft legislation with
human rights standards. The Commission, on the other hand, will
be better placed to deal with the bringing of legal proceedings.
On other matters, such as promoting awareness of the importance
of human rights and conducting inquiries, it would be necessary
for agreement to be reached between the two institutions.
3. In what order of priority would you
arrange the functions of such a Commission? If you think that
a Commission should examine a range of issues, to which issue
or issues do you think that the Commission should give priority?
There is a strong argument for requiring Human
Rights Commissions to give a high priority to the function of
ensuring Government compliance with international human rights
obligations, especially those which have not yet been incorporated
into domestic law and which are therefore difficult to enforce
through the courts. Commissions within the UK could write reports
about the UK Government's performance in this regard for international
treaty monitoring bodies such as the UN's Human Rights Committee
and Committee on the Rights of the Child. They could also appear
before such Committees. The NIHRC, for example, makes a statement
every year at the UN's Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. As
regards priority issues, the promotion and protection of social
and economic rights is particularly worthy of emphasis since they
have traditionally been under-valued within the jurisdictions
of the UK.
Appendix 2 to this submission provides an indication
of the range of activities which this Commission has been able
to undertake in its first 28 months of existence.
4. If a Human Rights Commission were
to be established, should there be single body with a jurisdiction
extending to all parts of the United Kingdom, or separate bodies
for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or both a United
Kingdom body and bodies with territorial responsibilities? (The
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission must continue to exist,
as this is one of the requirements of the United Kingdom's agreement
with Ireland about the future of Northern Ireland).
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
is in favour of separate Human Rights Commissions for each legal
jurisdiction within the United Kingdom. With the recent devolution
of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be
retrogressive to create a single Commission for the whole of the
United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Commission can deal with
non-devolved as well as devolved matters as far as the protection
of human rights in Northern Ireland is concerned. We think that
that is how it should be in the other constituent parts of the
United Kingdom also. This Commission has recently responded in
this vein to the Scottish Executive's Consultation Paper on a
Human Rights Commission for Scotland and we have in the past supported
the idea that a Human Rights Commission should be created for
5. If there were to be a Human Rights
Commission with responsibilities for the whole United Kingdom
(whether or not it operated alongside other bodies with responsibility
for just one part of the United Kingdom), what relationship should
there be between its work in respect of Northern Ireland and the
work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (and similar
Commissions in Scotland and Wales if they are established at some
time in the future)?
We are not in favour of a Human Rights Commission
being created for the whole of the United Kingdom. If nevertheless
one were established, the NIHRC would seek to develop a Memorandum
of Understanding with the UK body so that work was not duplicated.
6. If a Human Rights Commission were
established, how should its work relate to that of other bodies
with special responsibility for particular rights, such as the
Information Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the
Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission,
and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland? In particular:
(a) Should a Human Rights Commission perform
functions now performed by existing specialist Commissions, or
should it co-exist with them? If they were to co-exist, what roles
would they perform in areas where their responsibilities might
be expected to develop?
(b) If a Human Rights Commission were
to co-exist with the existing equality Commissions, should issues
relating to equal opportunities be excluded from the remit of
the Human Rights Commission and be given to the equality Commissions?
We believe that a Human Rights Commission should
and can co-exist with other bodies dealing with the protection
of rights. The relationship between the bodies in question should
be dealt with by Memoranda of Understanding. The Northern Ireland
Human Rights Commission has agreed such a Memorandum with the
Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and (almost) with the
Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland: a copy of the former is
contained in Appendix 3. This Memorandum does not preclude the
NIHRC from working on matters which are also of concern to the
Equality Commission, but the two institutions liaise closely to
avoid duplication of effort. On some matters (eg racism) the Human
Rights Commission has decided to do very little work because we
know it is one of the core concerns of the Equality Commission.
7. If a Human Rights Commission were
to be established, how should its independence of Government be
preserved while ensuring an appropriate type and level of accountability?
(a) How should its Chair, members and
key staff be appointed?
(b) How should its funding be provided?
(c) To whom should it be accountable (for
example, to a parliamentary body)?
(d) How should the matters mentioned in
(a), (b) and (c) take account of devolution to Northern Ireland,
Scotland and Wales?
The NIHRC feels that the independence of the
Human Rights Commission from government can be preserved by removing
from government full control over the appointments process, the
financing process and the Commission's internal management processes.
Accountability can be ensured through requiring
an annual report and audited accounts to be provided to Parliament
and by subjecting the Commission to oversight by the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman), and therefore
potentially by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Administration.
We believe that the Chair and members of the
Commission should be appointed in accordance with the Nolan principles,
with the ultimate selection being made by a panel consisting of
representatives not just of the government but also of other Parliamentary
political parties and of civic society. The appointment of all
members of the Commission's staff should be the sole responsibility
of the Commission itself.
The funding of the Commission should be provided
by Parliament, ideally out of the Consolidated Fundie beyond
the control of any particular government department.
The appointments process, the funding system
and the accountability arrangements should take account of devolution
by allowing the local legislative bodies to be involved to a greater
or lesser extent in all three respects. In the case of the NIHRC
the Northern Ireland Assembly has not to date been involved (we
are answerable solely to Westminster), but we could envisage a
situation in future where accountability to the Assembly was also
required and we would not have a difficulty with that.
8. In the light of your answers to Questions
1 to 7, what is your estimate of the level of staffing which would
be required by the body or bodies you propose and what the annual
cost might be?
This is a very difficult question to answer.
As explained in Appendix 4 (Background Information) the NIHRC
currently has 13 staff posts. The gross annual cost of these posts
is £468,600. The Commission's annual budget is £750,000
which we feel is very inadequate to allow the Commission to fulfil
its statutory functions effectively. Clearly there would be economies
of scale if a Human Rights Commission were to be established for
the whole of the UK. We anticipate that a budget of at least £5
million would be required.
9. Some Commissions currently operating
in the fields related to human rights have a range of powers.
For example, they might be empowered to conduct investigations;
to require people to provide information; to issue notices requiring
people to cease conduct which the Commission considers to be unlawful;
to conduct legal proceedings; to assist other parties to legal
proceedings; to issue Codes of Practice; to conduct research;
and to engage in a range of activities designed to heighten awareness
of issues within their remits. If a Human Rights Commission were
to be established, what powers would it have?
The NIHRC is strongly in favour of a Human Rights
Commission having extensive powers, in line with what is required
by the UN's Paris Principles, although of course it must exercise
them judiciously. Of the powers mentioned in the question, we
would argue for the inclusion of all of them in the remit of a
UK (or jurisdiction-based) Human Rights Commission, except for
the power to issue notices requiring people to cease conduct which
the Commission considers to be unlawful. We believe that Human
Rights Commissions should not themselves have adjudicative or
determinative powers. These should be confined to courts and tribunals.
Otherwise the Commission itself could find itself acting in breach
of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right
to a fair hearing).
10. Are there other relevant issues or
considerations which have not been covered in answers to the earlier
We would refer the Committee to the report which
this Commission submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern
Ireland earlier this year on whether in its first two years of
existence it had found its powers to be adequate and effective
(see Appendix 5). We highlight there the difficulties the Commission
has encountered with respect to the judiciary in Northern Ireland,
especially regarding the Commission's inabilities to apply to
intervene as a third party in court proceedings and to serve an
amicus curiae. We are currently waiting to hear from the House
of Lords whether we have been granted leave to appeal against
a decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in this context.
2 July 2001
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