Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

19. Memorandum from Sinn Fe«in

  With regard to the above, in your capacity as Committee chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights I would greatly appreciate it if you would accept this letter representing Sinn Fe«in's current views on the North's Human Rights Commission and enter these views for the Committee record—a procedure we have been afforded in the past.

  Firstly could I say that given the tight timeframe of the Joint Committee inquiry into the Human Rights Commission, we welcome the extension and the opportunity to make comment on this crucial component of the Good Friday Agreement.

  Sinn Fe«in would like to focus on a number of issues regarding the—

    —  powers

    —  effectiveness

    —  resources

    —  representation

    —  and independence of the Commission.

  We will also address the Commission's role in the Bill of Rights process.

  Another equally pressing matter we would urge the Committee to focus on is the role of the Northern Ireland Office as we believe the approach and intervention of the NIO has damaged and limited the effectiveness of the work of the Commission.

  Sinn Fe«in's political objective is to secure a United Ireland based on the central tenets of equality, justice and human rights for every citizen. We seek to secure consensus for this. Our party fully endorsed the establishment of a Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission under the Good Friday Agreement. We viewed these mechanisms—in tandem with others—as key components in addressing matters that for far too long had contributed to a society where a lack of human rights and inequality had fuelled many of the conditions for conflict. It is in this context that we have measured the effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission in contributing to the creation of a human rights culture and ethos in our society or whether—because of various reasons—it lacks the ability to do so.


  We have also pro-actively engaged with the Human Rights Commission on a range of human rights issues and have made two substantive submissions to the HRC in relation to the Bill of Rights.

  If we are to build on the opportunity of the Good Friday Agreement throughout the island of Ireland then the Bill of Rights that emerges must be comprehensive enough to command widespread community and political ownership and consensus. A Bill of Rights needs to add value to international human rights standards and must be tailored to address and reflect the particular circumstances of the North. At this juncture however, we believe that he Bill of Rights process and the Commission's role in it has ran into serious difficulties. I will turn to this later.

  In our submissions on the Bill of Rights Sinn Fe«in put forward recommendations under a wide range of headings dealing with equality and parity of esteem; of the need for the inclusion of social and economic rights, developmental rights; civil and political rights; children's rights etc. In addition, we have argued for a constitutional court/human rights court—a position supported by key NGO's but not, we regret to say, by the Human Rights Commission itself.

  Unfortunately, we were alarmed and concerned that in several key aspects of the Good Friday Agreement—and in relation to certain international standards—the Human Rights Commission's consultation document entitled "Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland" actually diluted specific guarantees of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to equality and parity of esteem. The HRC also promoted a more minimal approach in the interpretation of the Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities.

  In addressing your Committee's four areas of inquiry into the Human Rights Commission ie its effectiveness, its powers, resources and the Bill of Rights, we would therefore put forward the following areas of concern that need to be addressed.

Effectiveness and powers

    —  We believe that from the outset of its existence the Human Rights Commission has been impeded by the fact that the British government resisted credible advice from human rights NGO's and others to establish the Commission under the UN's Paris Principles as a basic minimal requirement.

    —  The Commission carried out a review of its powers in February 2001 under Section 69(2) of the NI Act in which it highlighted a series of areas of concern where it was impeded in carrying out its work because of the lack of powers. The NIO dragged its heels for 15 months before responding to the HRC review. It then overwhelmingly rejected the bulk of the 25 recommendations.

    —  it was evident in the Commission's review—and in a subsequent independent review of the Commission undertaken by Peter Hosking from the UN—that the HRC is restricted by the lack of power to compel witnesses and documents, to take cases in its own name and to have unimpeded access to certain institutions.

    —  The Commission is also impeded in its work by the approach and attitude of the NIO which has consistently failed to consult in advance with the Commission and has ignored its comments on human rights issues ie the Terrorism Act, Freedom of Information Act—to name but a few—and has deliberately obstructed the Commission in carrying out investigations (we refer here to the matter of the government's lack of co-operation with the Commission on the review of juvenile justice).

    —  We would also draw the Committee's attention to the knock-on effect this NIO approach has had on the attitude of statutory agencies who have also adopted a non-co-operation approach with the Commission, thus affecting its ability and effectiveness to protect and promote human rights.

    —  The Commission is consistently undermined by not having access in advance and in sufficient time to scrutinise and provide advice on draft bills and legislation at the Assembly and from other parliamentarian sources.

    —  The recent resignations of two prominent HRC Commissioners and human rights experts in their own fields, Ms Inez McCormack and Professor Christine Bell is a matter of deep concern to us and should be a priority area of inquiry for the Joint Human Rights Committee. Both former Commissioners made it clear in their public statement that the reason for their resignations was the Commissions' ineffectiveness in protecting and promoting human rights, also its lack of resources and sufficient powers.


    —  The Commission is not sufficiently financed and resourced to carry out its remit. The HRC has consistently highlighted this matter as have some of the political parties, including ourselves, with the NIO. It is our view that while public accountability for public spending is certainly necessary, it is however entirely inappropriate that the NIO is taking an approach in scrutinising the budgetary detail to the extent that this is having a detrimental effect on the Commission's work.

    —  The issue of Human Resources also needs to be enhanced if the Commission is to be effective.


    —  The HRC is unrepresentative in composition of wider society and is therefore unbalanced in terms of community background, gender and religious balance. Presently the composition is skewed towards a majority of those from a unionist background, a matter further compounded by the recent appointment of a unionist politician. Sinn Fe«in believes that the Commission is better served by the absence of political representation for the foreseeable future.

    —  The appointment process itself is carried out by the NIO. We share the view of NGO's and others that there needs to be an Independent Selection Process put in place to ensure (a) that the process is above reproach and credible and (b) that the HRC is equality-proofed in its composition.

  In conclusion, Madam chair, Sinn Fe«in welcomes the opportunity to raise these matters that have been of concern to us for some considerable time. We will naturally raise the issue of human rights in the political talks process, especially the way forward regarding the Bill of Rights process. It is our view at this juncture, shared by some political parties, that the Bill of Rights is too important an issue to the overall peace process to get wrong.

  Earlier I alluded to difficulties with the process around the development of the Bill of Rights and with the HRC's approach to key issues in its consultation document. Sinn Fe«in believes that the Bill of Rights needs to be seen by the entire community as an instrument of justice and protection of their rights. The Bill of Rights will be the foundation stone of the Charter of Rights for the island therefore it essential that we take the opportunity presented to ensure that civic society and its political representatives are given the space to develop the Bill of Rights and more importantly, to develop maximum agreement.

  Unfortunately, we do not feel that the process being advocated by the HRC has the ability to secure such consensus. The HRC is aware of these concerns and is aware of the proposal we have made to it to endorse a particular approach that would not compromise the Commission's integrity under the Good Friday Agreement. This would involve the Bill of Rights process being facilitated by an Independent International Chair, supported by a Secretariat, that would engage with civic society and the political parties in an inclusive process. The precedent for international facilitation has already been set in the peace process.

  Finally, on behalf of Sinn Fe«in I would like once again to thank you and the members of the Joint Committee for the opportunity of putting forward the above matters.

  I wish you well in your deliberations and look forward to the outcome of your inquiry.

17 December 2002

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