Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

6. Memorandum from CARE


  1.  Care is pleased to have this opportunity to comment on the operation and effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to date, its functions, powers and resources.

  2.  We would like to emphasise in the first instance that the work of the Commission must be viewed in the context of the commitments made in the Belfast Agreement, the wider democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, and the development of equality and human rights legislation both prior to the signing of the Belfast Agreement and since.


  3.  Care is concerned that the perception that the NIHRC is unrepresentative hinders their work and the development of trust and good work relationships within the wider society.

  4.  This perception may reflect concern regarding the process of appointments to the Commission and the extent to which the Commission as a body represents the community balance. However, we are also aware of concern caused by the Commission's choice of issues to investigate and causes to champion.


  5.  The Commission submitted a review of its powers and effectiveness to the Secretary of State in March 2001. CARE agreed with the Secretary of State's proposal to deal with most of the recommendations through administrative instead of legislative changes.

  6.  We were particularly pleased that the Government has rejected Recommendation 11 demanding privileged access to draft laws and policies. We are concerned that such an amendment to the Northern Ireland Act would actually have the effect of undermining the work, and indeed the democracy of the Assembly and Parliament. We believe that it is inappropriate for any Non-Departmental Public Body to receive copies of draft laws and policies prior to the introduction in the Assembly or Parliament.

  7.  We support the Government's assertion[87] (point 62, page 17) that ultimately it will remain "the responsibility of Government and Parliament to take decisions about how best to determine policy and frame legislation, within the context set by the Human Rights Act". We agree that it would be inappropriate for the Commission's role to go beyond providing advice to the Government and the Executive. We would not like the distinction between role of the Government and the role of the Commission to be blurred, as may result from the implementation of the Commission's recommendation.

  8.  We do not agree that the Commission should be able to bring proceedings in it's own name[88] and we were pleased that the Government rejected that suggestion for the reasons they outlined in their report.

  9.  CARE does not agree that the NIHRC should have a specific role in shaping the educational curriculum[89]. CARE is concerned that the NIHRC may press an agenda of human rights education that does not allow for adequate critical consideration of human rights as either an ideology or system of beliefs.

  10.  There are many public bodies, organisations and individuals who provide advice and assistance to the Department of Education with reference to all aspects of education and the Curriculum—this is particularly evident from the vast number of responses received by the Department regarding the Burns Review of Post-Primary Education. The NIHRC obviously has a role to play in providing such comment and advice, but we do not consider it appropriate for the Commission to be given a privileged role.

  11.  CARE support the position taken by the Government in rejecting recommendations 22, 23 and 24. We believe that it is essential that the role of the Commission remains distinct from those of the court, the police and other Commissions and Ombudsmen. Granting such extensive investigative powers would clearly necessitate an entire review of the role and accountability of the Commission.


  12.  We believe that the Commission must work within the financial constraints of the budget it has been set and bid for any additional money as is currently the practice. We believe the Commission overstepped its remit in drafting a Bill of Rights and this may be the reason why it is finding it difficult to keep to the budget it has been set.


  13.  It is CARE's opinion that the NIHRC has far exceeded its statutory duties in actually drafting a proposed bill of rights for Northern Ireland. The Belfast Agreement requires the NIHRC to advise the Secretary of State on the scope for defining in Westminster legislation rights supplemental to the ECHR to form a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

  14.  We therefore do not believe that the Commission should have drafted a bill of rights and we do not agree that the case has been proven that it is necessary for Northern Ireland to have its own bill of rights given that the ECHR has been incorporated into domestic law. CARE believes that the European Charter of Human Rights, incorporated into domestic law as the Human Rights Act 1998, is a balanced and effective document.

  15.  CARE does not consider that the NIHRC has made a good case for the addition of any more provisions on the basis that they are specifically relating to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.

  16.  The Commission has not persuaded us that there is a need to comprehensively supplement the provisions of the ECHR. Indeed, we are concerned that the Commission's proposals will only serve to bind the hands of current and future elected representatives on specific policy issues. The Commission has not set out principles but a list of rules.

  17.  CARE does not believe that it is appropriate that legitimate matters for political discussion and decision should be usurped by either unelected human rights commissioner nor unelected judges. We have been disappointed that the Commission has sought to short-circuit current and future consultation processes by the highly detailed provisions set out within their proposed draft bill of rights.

  18.  We entirely agree with the Commission that it is essential that rights are balanced with responsibilities. However, we have observed that throughout this document very little mention has been made of the responsibilities that must be attached to each right.

  19.  We do not agree that this proposed bill of rights will be "a rallying point for all sections of the community regardless of their political beliefs or past grievances". We do not believe that the Commission's proposals will secure the support of a majority of people in Northern Ireland.

  20.  We have been disappointed by the brevity of the consultation period and the lack of clarity as to how the consultation responses will be considered and that indeed, the Commission has stated that nothing will be taken out of this proposed draft bill of rights, only that more will be added.

  21.  We have noted with concern that the NIHRC has sought to maximise out of proportion most of the provisions within the ECHR, except for the right most basic to the concept of human dignity, that of the right to life. Human dignity is an obsolete concept if human life is not respected. The principle of respecting and preserving human life is surely the linchpin of all other concerns. We are deeply disappointed that the Commission has not attempted to crystallise their deep concern for humanity by stating without reservation its respect for life from the moment of conception, irrespective of age, gender, ability and health.

87   The Government's Response to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's Review of Powers Recommendations, May 2002, point 62, page 17. Back

88   NIHRC Recommendation 17. Back

89   NIHRC Recommendation 21. Back

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