Letter from the Committee on Administration
of Justice to the Chairman of the Committee
Let me start by saying that CAJ was very pleased
to see that a Joint Committee on Human Rights has been created,
and we were delighted that you took an early opportunity to reach
out to groups like CAJ to contribute to your work. For those of
the Committee members that do not know us already, let me briefly
explain that the CAJ is an independent cross-community group working
to protect and promote the human rights of all in Northern Ireland.
We were awarded the Council of Europe Human Rights Prize in 1998
by the then 40 member states for our human rights activities.
Our work covers the more obvious conflict-related issues of policing,
emergency law, and prisoners, but also rights issues concerning
gender, disability, juvenile justice etc. A copy of our most recent
annual report and a publications catalogue is being sent by post.
You have indicated that there are to be three
priority work areas up until Easter, and wanted in particular
our reactions to the implications of the Human Rights Act to date.
Of course the Human Rights Act is of relatively
recent date in Northern Ireland, and we have none of the extensive
experience of our colleagues in Scotland. No doubt, particularly
given the composition of your Committee, you will have already
made contact with groups such as the Scottish Human Rights Centre.
However, we would suggest that you might want to pursue at least
two issues with regard to the Act's implementation in Northern
Firstly, CAJ has expressed concern on a number
of occasions about the Task Force which was established to oversee
the implementation of the Human Rights Act. In particular, we
have been concerned that, for quite some time, the Northern Ireland
Office did not attend the Task Force meetings. This was despite
the fact that there was direct representation on the Task Force
from the Scottish and Welsh Offices, as well as the Home Office.
Consequently, we feel that the arrangements and measures put into
place in Britain have not been fully replicated in Northern Ireland.
In response to our concerns, the government
appeared to suggest that the implementation of the Human Rights
Act was a matter for the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland.
This is, in our view, entirely unacceptable, in that the primary
responsibility for this work must, and must be seen to, lie clearly
with the government.
In due course, the NIO, and representatives
of the devolved administration, began to attend meetings of the
Task Force. However, we feel that the long delay means that Northern
Ireland lagged somewhat behind other jurisdictions. In view of
this problem, the Parliamentary Committee may want to explore
whether there is a value in, even now, establishing a Task Force
to work specifically on Northern Ireland.
Secondly, though we would be unhappy at the
NI Human Rights Commission playing the primary role in ensuring
implementation of the Human Rights Act, it does of course have
an important role to play in advising and overseeing government
efforts in this area. It is our view however that the Commission
may have neither the necessary resources nor the necessary powers
to carry out such a role very effectively. Your Committee will
have contacted the NIHRC already about their work on the Human
Rights Act, andsince the Commission is currently engaged
in a review of its powersthey will hopefully address these
broader concerns when responding to you.
More specifically, you will presumably be aware
that parliament has alreadyin the course of the debate
around the Police (NI) Billdiscussed an assessment carried
out by the Commission into police training on the Human Rights
Act. The assessment was very critical of that training. We are
uncertain as to whether this was a one-off evaluation or part
of a continuing study of Human Rights Act training for the police.
We are also unclear as to whether or not the Commission has monitored
training on the Act for other public bodies.
I imagine that you will write again nearer the
time if you need any input into the other topics your Committee
will be discussing. Already I can, however, indicate that CAJ
is aware of some very interesting work carried out by the organisation
Justice on the human rights auditing of legislation. I am not
sure if they have looked specifically at the Criminal Justice
and Police Bill, but I am quite sure that our sister organisationsLiberty
and the Scottish Human Rights Centrewill have done some
work in this area as well.
As to an inquiry into the case for a Human Rights
Commission for the UK, we presume that, particularly given the
sensitivities surrounding the devolved jurisdictions, you will
be particularly interested in examining closely the experience
to date of the Northern Ireland Commission. The review mentioned
earlier will presumably be very timely in this regard. CAJ was
very centrally involved in efforts to secure the establishment
of the NI Human Rights Commission and was closely involved in
discussions with government about how to operationalise this element
in the Agreement. We were particularly active in trying to ensure
that the UN (Paris) Principles for National Human Rights Institutions
would be the minimal benchmarks when establishing the Northern
Ireland Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately we were not entirely
successful in this regard, so we will be very interested in closely
following your own debates on this topic.
I will conclude by wishing you and the Committee
well in your important work. There are of course many serious
human rights concerns in Northern Ireland, and there is a lot
of experience that can be drawn upon in determining how best to
protect and promote rights in future. At the same time, Northern
Ireland has made significant human rights advances thanks to a
number of provisions in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. This
jurisdiction has much to offer elsewhere both in terms of what
must be avoided and in terms of models of good practice.
7 March 2001