Joint Committee On Human Rights Fourteenth Report

1. Introduction


1. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), envisaged as part of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement ("the Agreement"), was established by section 68 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It has been in operation since 1999 as an independent body accountable to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Commission has a full time Chief Commissioner, twelve part time members, a Chief Executive and a staff of fourteen.[1] The function of the Commission under its founding legislation is, broadly, to further the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland. It works alongside a single Northern Ireland Equalities Commission, also established under the Agreement.

2. The NIHRC breaks new ground as the first Human Rights Commission to be established in the United Kingdom. As an institution it has many precedents in Human Rights Commissions around the world. But for the UK it is a first. For Northern Ireland, the NIHRC is a fundamental element of the political settlement and a foundation stone for what the Agreement describes as "a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning".

3. Our terms of reference are to consider matters relating to human rights within the United Kingdom. Reflecting this, several of our inquiries have looked at the institutional mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights in the UK. We have conducted an ongoing overview of the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998, considering education, training, auditing and advice in central and local government and public services. We have also reported on the case for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission in Great Britain,[2] and on the case for a Children's Commissioner for England.[3] In all of this work, we have drawn attention to the need for improved structures to promote and protect human rights in the UK. In this report, we hope to bring to Parliament a greater awareness of the work of the NIHRC in promoting and protecting human rights in Northern Ireland.

4. This report follows from an inquiry based on the NIHRC's Annual Report for 2001-2002, and considers the first three years of the Commission's operation. We first visited the NIHRC in February 2002, as part of our inquiry into the case for a human rights commission or commissions for the UK as a whole. In November 2002, we returned to Belfast to take oral evidence for this present inquiry from the Commission, and from two former Commissioners of the NIHRC, Professor Christine Bell and Dr Inez McCormack. In December 2002, we took oral evidence from the then Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Des Browne MP. In response to our call for evidence, we received written evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals, most of which is printed with this Report.

Remit and objectives

5. In embarking on this inquiry, we are aware of the political sensitivities that attend the work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the challenge of creating shared ownership of universal human rights in a divided society. This report starts from the premise that the protection and promotion of human rights is to be supported, as providing a framework for the exercise of rights and responsibilities, to the potential benefit of all individuals and communities in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, our inquiry into the case for a Human Rights Commission (or Commissions) for the United Kingdom as a whole has convinced us of the importance of such bodies in ensuring effective implementation of the Human Rights Act. We also recognise that the effective protection of human rights, and the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, were important elements of the Agreement.

6. We do not question the establishment of the NIHRC. Our purpose is confined to considering how the Commission can fulfil its mandate most effectively. Our recommendations for action by the Commission, and the UK Government, take account of the proposals made in the review of the Commission's powers required to be carried out under section 69 of the Northern Ireland Act. They also take into account the independent review report prepared for the Commissioners by Mr Peter Hosking ("the Hosking Report"). We recognise the important work which the Commission has already begun to do. We also recognise that a number of factors, both internal and external to the Commission, have inhibited its work. In making our recommendations, we are acutely conscious of the difficulty of furthering human rights in a divided society, with a relatively recent history of violent political conflict, a legacy of distrust, grief and pain, and a very fragile peace process.

7. While much can be learned from the experience of establishing a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland, the specific context of its formation arising from a history of violent conflict in a divided society is unique within the United Kingdom. Caution is required in drawing direct comparisons for the purposes of making recommendations concerning the establishment of Commissions in other parts of the UK.

1   As of March 2002. Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2002. Following the resignations of Professor Christine Bell and Dr Inez McCormack (September 2002) and Mr Patrick Yu (July 2003), there are currently nine part-time Commissioners. Back

2   Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, The Case for a Human Rights Commission, HL Paper 67-I/HC 489-I Back

3   Ninth Report of Session 2002-03, The Case for a Children's Commissioner for England, HL Paper 96/HC 666 Back

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