Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

24.  Memorandum from Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)

  1.  The Social Democratic and Labour Party has been since its inception and remains firmly committed to the protection of human rights. We have consistently highlighted the importance of international human rights standards and international best practice in resolving the deep-rooted political problems in Northern Ireland and the island as a whole. This short submission is our response to the detailed call for evidence from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

  2.  We have deliberately refrained from dealing with the specific questions raised in the call for evidence. However, our response has obvious implications in relation to Questions 4 and 5. We believe many of the issues raised in your questions are matters for the political communities of Britain. Our concern in this submission is to stress the importance of having due regard to developments in Northern Ireland since the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish dimension of the Agreement in relation to rights is in its early stages and should not be compromised by a UK-wide approach which does not give sufficient regard to the particular circumstances of Ireland (North and South).

  3.  The Good Friday Agreement provided the basis for the establishment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Irish Human Rights Commission. The development of Human Rights Commissions is very much part of an international trend. The Good Friday Agreement secured the overwhelming support of the people of Ireland for a new beginning. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a central part of this.

  4.  We believe that there is much work for the respective Commissions to do. The Commission in the Republic of Ireland is only now being placed on a proper statutory footing. The Agreement specifically provides for the creation of a Joint Committee of the two Commissions on the island of Ireland. The idea is clearly to ensure proper and effective all-Ireland co-operation on human rights matters. This is, however, still at a very early stage and we would emphasise the fundamental importance of this all-Ireland dimension. In particular, we urge the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Irish Human Rights Commission to move speedily to work on the Charter of Rights which is mentioned in the Agreement.

  5.  In relation to the powers of the respective Commissions, there is work to be done. We remain deeply concerned about the powers of the Northern Commission and the current lack of resources. We would like to see the British government grant more effective powers to the Commission, consistent with the Commission's recent report. We want to see the British government properly fund the Commission so that it can carry out its vital work in an effective way.

  6.  While we wish to see all enjoy effective human rights protection, we oppose any proposal to submerge the Northern Ireland Commission within a UK-wide system of human rights protection. This would not recognise the particular rights issues relevant to Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland generally. We are not satisfied that such proposals would sit easily with the structures, intentions and workings of the Good Friday Agreement. This approach has operated satisfactorily in relation to other structures within Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales respectively.

  7.  We are in principle, therefore, opposed to the idea of a single UK-wide Human Rights Commission. We would recommend the establishment of a Commission or Commissions for Scotland, England and Wales, in structures to be agreed by those communities. It should be for the local Commissions to decide how they wish to structure their interactions with each other, and with all the sectors which have an interest in human rights matters. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has created a useful precedent, although not without flaws.

  8.  The Good Friday Agreement envisages extensive North-South (Ireland) co-operation on human rights. This is still at a very early stage. We urge the Joint Committee on Human Rights to ensure that in its work it pays due regard to the Agreement, and respects the need for the Commissions on the island of Ireland to work effectively together to ensure a co-ordinated all-Ireland approach to human rights protection.

2 July 2001

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