Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

8. Memorandum from Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ)

  The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has prepared several papers which are relevant to the inquiry by the Joint Committee into the NI Human Rights Commission. We would in particular draw your attention to the following which relates directly to the work, powers and resources of NIHRC:

    —  Submission to the NIHRC on its review of powers (June 2001)

    —  Submission to the government's response to NIHRC review (July 2002)

    —  Letter to the NIHRC on its response to government (August 2002)

    —  Responses to NIHRC Strategic Plans (November 1999 and July 2002)

and the following relating directly to the NIHRC and its Bill of Rights efforts—

    —  Preliminary submission to NIHRC on a Bill of Rights (March 2001)

    —  Submission to NIHRC on their draft Bill of Rights (Jan 2002)

  There are a variety of other documents that we could draw to your attention but the above are the most immediately relevant to your inquiry. We would urge you to study the enclosed material closely[90]but in an attempt to facilitate your work, I have sought to distil these numerous commentaries into this two page summary and I will thereby seek to address your four questions in turn.

  As to effectiveness, CAJ believes that the NIHRC has made important efforts to further the protection and promotion of human rights in Northern Ireland. The factors inhibiting the Commission's success have lain in the government's unwillingness to provide it with the necessary powers and resources (see on), a persistent campaign from the outset by leading members of the Ulster Unionist Party to undermine its credibility both by way of parliamentary debate, and the Commission's own temerity and lack of strategic alliance building. In CAJ's response to the Commission's first Strategic Plan (and again in July of this year) we called for it to take a more strategic focus and to set realistic—as well as ambitious—goals for itself. We have criticised the government for not being sufficiently supportive (see on), and have criticised the Commission for not being more assertive in their relations with government. In our view, the Commission should also develop more strategic alliances with the many individuals and groups committed to working alongside them to protect and promote rights, thereby using limited resources to greatest effect.

  As to the powers of the Commission, CAJ has consistently argued that the Northern Ireland Act did not provide the NIHRC with the powers necessary for it to comply with the minimal standards established for national human rights institutions by the UN Paris Principles. The review carried out by the Commission two years into its working life confirmed CAJ's concerns about the limitations placed on its powers. We believe that as a minimum the Commission must have the powers to compel witnesses and documents if it is to comply with basic UN standards and carry out its functions effectively.

  The resources of the Commission have been insufficient in our view. Moreover, government failed to fund the Bill of Rights work as a discrete programme imposing particularly large financial demands on the new Commission. A commitment to this end had been made in the course of the parliamentary exchanges around the Northern Ireland Act but was not operationalised until relatively recently. Apart from the overall monies, parliament must never allow the Commission's funding arrangements to be overly influenced by government priorities. CAJ has been concerned that the NIO may have been unduly interventionist in funding discussions, thereby bringing into question the very independence of the Commission itself.

  As to the development of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, CAJ would commend the NIHRC's efforts to make this debate wide and deep, while recognising that this was a project way beyond the capacity of any one single agency. The failure of the Commission to develop a much broader ownership of the project is unfortunate but was perhaps inevitable given earlier concerns raised regarding the climate within which it has had to work. CAJ believes that there are serious flaws in the draft text the Commission has developed, and that the process of debate needs to be further widened and deepened. The suspension of the Assembly should, in our view, be used positively as an opportunity to engage actively with all the political parties, with key social institutions like the churches, trade unions and others, and the broader civil society to ensure that human rights—and the creation of a Bill of Rights—is seen as something that is beneficial to all. The Commission, in such a scenario, has a unique role to play but should not be the sole motor.

  Obviously, one of the key failings to date has been the lack of serious involvement by political parties in the debate, and it is clear that some mechanism is required to ensure that there is full engagement on this issue in a debate between political parties and civil society.

21 November 2002

90   Not printed. Back

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