Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

20. Memorandum from UNISON Northern Ireland

  UNISON's comments to the Committee are as follows.


  UNISON has always supported the view that an effective Human Rights Commission (the Commission), such as that contemplated by the Good Friday Agreement, is vital to protecting the rights of all. We believed that by so doing it could create values and practices of cross-community understanding which are key to a peaceful future. However, we have very serious concerns that the Commission has proven ineffective in protecting and promoting rights. We believe that these problems must be resolved so that the Agreement's vision for the Commission can be implemented. However, this requires sufficient political will to do so.

  The following comments relate directly to the work, powers and resources of the Commission and its role in producing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.


The NIHRC and the Bill of Rights

  The proposed text for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was launched for consultation by the NIHRC on September 4, 2002. UNISON has expressed serious concerns in relation to the following.

    (a)  That the draft text of the Bill of Rights contains many serious flaws, particularly in relation to the social, economic and cultural rights that affect our members, their families and communities in the context of international standards of rights.

    (b)  That the Commission has failed to develop a much broader ownership of the Bill of Rights project despite initial commendable efforts to develop consultation with a broad range of groups and views.

    (c)  That certain of its recommendations potentially undermine the parity of esteem provisions in the Agreement as well as the equality provision in the Agreement and in existing legislation. We fail to understand how a Commission tasked to implement the promise and potential of the Good Friday Agreement can make recommendations that undermine it and those who need its protection.

The Effectiveness of the NIHRC

  We are concerned that a number of factors have prevented the Commission from furthering the protection and promotion of human rights in Northern Ireland.

    (a)  The Commission has failed to take a sufficiently strategic focus and use its limited resources to greatest effect by developing strategic alliances with those individuals and groups committed to working alongside them to protect and promote rights.

    (b)  The Commission has failed to define agreed objectives for the enhanced delivery of human rights and an integrated use of functions, resources, duties and powers to deliver and measure the effectiveness of such protections.

    (c)  The Commission has failed to be sufficiently assertive with government, despite the unwillingness of government to provide the Commission with the necessary powers, resources and support that it requires.

  The Commission has therefore failed to deliver the promise of enhanced rights protection as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.

The Powers of the NIHRC

  The Commissions own review in 2001 indicated major limitations in its powers as a result of the Northern Ireland Act. A body without the power to compel witnesses and documents cannot comply with the minimal standards established for national human rights institutions by the UN Paris Principles. It also cannot carry out its functions effectively.

  UNISON supported the recommendations of the Commission in its review of powers, specifically on the power to compel information and co-operation and to make explicit the powers and duties of the Commission in the Act.

  UNISON is seriously concerned that the Commission has withdrawn some of its recommendations in response to what we consider to be vague and unclear commitments from Government. What is clear is that Government currently is not providing the co-operation promised in the Parliament debates at the time of the Act and is not yet prepared to give a commitment for full independence of powers as required by the Paris Principles.

The Resources of the NIHRC

  That the Commission has not been resourced sufficiently to undertake its work effectively.

    (a)  That intervention in funding discussions by the NIO has compromised the independence of the Commission itself.

    (b)  That Parliament must never allow the Commission's funding arrangements (apart from overall allocations) to be excessively influenced by government priorities.

    (c)  That although a commitment has been given very recently to fund the Bill of Rights work as a discrete programme, the financial burden placed on the Commission by the initial failure of Government to do so has placed large financial demands on the Commission.


Bill of Rights

  The Commission has failed to create an engagement between political parties and with civil society in the debate, thus undermining a process that should be seen as something that is beneficial to all. It is necessary to find ways of enabling debate not division on the practice of rights. It is essential to make space for nationalism and unionism to engage with each other and also with new voices who are struggling to get their needs expressed as rights.

  Elements for such a process would include an international Chair and Secretariat and an inclusive cross-party cross community Forum that is given time, skilful Chairing and "unpacking" of difficult issues in the context of human rights frameworks. Thus making possible an engagement that sets human rights as the baseline for debate and an International input that brings an external focus to remind all participants that seemingly intractable problems are resolvable.

  UNISON believes that some mechanism must be established to ensure that political parties fully engage with civil society on this issue.

Effectiveness of Commission

  Issues of strategic management, resources and lack of direction, together with the broader political scenario are inter-linked. We therefore suggest the following as a contribution to the debate on what is needed to deliver the enhanced protection of human rights promised by the Good Friday Agreement.

    (a)  It is clear that the Commission's internal reviews have not "fixed" their problems and we would recommend that the issues of powers and effectiveness are brought together in an external review to be organised by both Governments against the criteria outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and the Paris Principles.

    (b)  We believe it is essential that the Independent forum to enable an inclusive and reflective debate on the content of the Bill of Rights should run in parallel to any such review. In the current political climate there is a unique opportunity to thus move forward the values and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement ie partnership, equality and respect.

  The process used to do so will shape the result and must not wait for institutional ineffectiveness to be sorted out. In order to fulfil the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement, any agreed recommendations from such a Forum should be returned to the Commission for their consideration in providing advice to the Secretary of State.

  In the interim, they should deepen and develop the excellent consultation work with groups and areas on awareness of the potential of rights and feed such work into the Forum.

2 December 2002

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