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