Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


9.  Memorandum from Amnesty International UK Section

SUMMARY

  1.  The United Kingdom has implemented a variety of human rights measures but they do not constitute a comprehensive and co-ordinated system for the promotion and protection of human rights. There are significant inadequacies that should be addressed by the establishment of a Human Rights Commission.

  2.  In particular, there is not an agency responsible for fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom and for monitoring compliance with international human rights standards. Both of these tasks should be undertaken by a Human Rights Commission.

  3.  Other responsibilities of the Commission should include:

    —  advising the Government, the Parliament and the community on any matters concerning the promotion and protection of human rights;

    —  encouraging ratification of international human rights instruments;

    —  promoting teaching of and research into human rights;

    —  considering and seeking to resolve complaints from people whose rights may have been violated.

  4.  There should not be a single body with jurisdiction extending to all parts of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission must continue to exist because of the UK-Ireland agreement about the future of Northern Ireland. A Human Rights Commission in Scotland would provide an effective means of promoting and protecting human rights in Scotland.

  5.  The Commission should be established by legislation, which should state that the Commission is entitled to decide whether or not to undertake specific projects, to determine the methodology of its work and to make such recommendations as it sees fit.

INTRODUCTION

  1.  Amnesty International is a world-wide organisation that promotes awareness of and adherence to human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments. The organisation welcomes the inquiry of the Joint Committee on Human Rights into the question of whether there should be a Human Rights Commission for the United Kingdom and is pleased to have the opportunity to provide this submission.

  2.  In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This provides that all States should, among other measures, support the creation of independent human rights institutions to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms [Article 14.3]. Amnesty International, based on its 40 years of research and campaigning throughout the world, confirms the importance of such institutions, with appropriate powers and adequate resources.[28]

  3.  While the United Kingdom has implemented a variety of human rights measures, they do not constitute a comprehensive and co-ordinated system. As outlined in this submission, there are significant inadequacies that should be addressed by the establishment of a Human Rights Commission.

Question 1: What might a Human Rights Commission add to the current methods of protecting human rights in the United Kingdom?

  4.  As the Committee's consultation document notes, the United Kingdom has agencies that deal with particular areas of rights (such as race or disability) or which have limited territorial jurisdiction (Northern Ireland), or are limited in both respects (for example, children's rights in Wales). The Human Rights Act 1998 provides a mechanism to remedy violations of certain civil and political rights arising under the European Convention on Human Rights but only when someone has initiated legal action and a court orders a public body to change its conduct.

  5.  The current patchwork of laws and agencies does not constitute a comprehensive and co-ordinated system for the promotion and protection of human rights. The weaknesses in the present arrangements include the absence of an agency responsible for fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom and for monitoring compliance with international human rights standards. As described below, both of these are tasks that should be undertaken by a Human Rights Commission. Other key tasks that a Commission should undertake are described in response to Question 9.

Fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom

  6.  The Declaration on the Rights and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms provides that States have the responsibility to take measures to promote the understanding by all persons under their jurisdiction of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights (Article 14.1). A Human Rights Commission should be established to fulfil this responsibility.

  7.  A primary audience for this activity should be public bodies. Public bodies were required to review their practices prior to the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 to ensure that they complied, and this was facilitated by the Home Office and a Task Force that it convened. There is a pressing need for a securely established and adequately funded body to continue the work of informing public bodies about the requirements of the Human Rights Act and of the United Kingdom's other human rights obligations.

  8.  Through training programmes, Codes of Practice and other measures the Commission would promote good practice, an intrinsically worthwhile outcome and one that decreases the likelihood of violations that might be the subject of litigation.

  9.  The Human Rights Commission should also promote awareness of human rights to the population at large. A key group should be children in schools. Human rights issues can readily be integrated into curricular areas such as citizenship. There should also be programmes for adults because it is essential that members of the public are aware of their rights in order to hold government accountable.

  10.  Further, the Commission should promote human rights standards as applicable to the behaviour of private individuals and corporate bodies. The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on "every individual and every organ of society" to promote and respect human rights. The 1998 United Nations Declaration cited earlier also refers explicitly to the responsibility of individuals, groups and associations to promote respect for human rights.

Monitoring compliance with human rights standards

  11.  A Human Rights Commission would add greatly to the protection of human rights in the United Kingdom by assessing whether there are areas in which legislation, policy and practice do not comply with human rights standards and recommending what changes are required to ensure conformity.

  12.  The Human Rights Act 1998 is a very important instrument for the protection of human rights but a truly effective system requires other instruments as well. The Act provides only one course of action to remedy violations of certain civil and political rights: litigation. Thus to trigger this remedy requires a victim who has the knowledge, determination, time and money to initiate and persist with legal action.

  13.  The Act should be complemented by other measures, implemented by the Human Rights Commission, to prevent violations occurring, to provide remedies without the necessity for legal action and to address violations of rights for which legal action may not be available.

  14.  Informing public officials of the implications of human rights for their work, described in the previous section, is essential but it would be inadequate to rely on this alone. External scrutiny by experts is also imperative.

  15.  The various domestic human rights bodies monitor the compliance of the United Kingdom with those obligations that fall within their remit. They do not cover the full range of rights arising under international and regional human rights treaties. Among subjects of recent concern for which there is not an independent monitoring body are: deaths in custody, the rights of people seeking asylum, child abuse and discrimination on the grounds of religion and sexual orientation. With respect to the rights of women, the Equal Opportunities Commission cannot deal with key issues such as discrimination within the criminal justice system and domestic violence.[29]

  16.  The United Kingdom reports periodically to bodies monitoring compliance with the international treaties, such as the Human Rights Committee, but years elapse between such reports and the treaty bodies depend mainly on information provided in submissions from the government and non-governmental authorities—they do not have the resources to conduct research independently.

Question 2: How should the role and functions of a Human Rights Commission relate to the Joint Committee on Human Rights?

  17.  Amnesty International envisages that a Human Rights Commission would, among other things:

    —  advise the Committee on matters the Committee is considering, such as whether draft legislation complies with the United Kingdom's human rights obligations; and

    —  draw the attention of the Committee to human rights concerns that fall within the Committee's remit.

  18.  Given its broad terms of reference, the Joint Committee on Human Rights would be an appropriate body to scrutinise the functioning of the Commission and the adequacy of its powers and resources.

Question 3: What should be the highest priority functions and issues of a Human Rights Commission?

  19.  Amnesty International does not have a view about the functions and issues that should be the highest priority of the Commission. The Commission itself should be entitled to determine these at the relevant time, following consultation. The Commission must be independent and it should therefore determine its methods of work and the projects on which it will work.

Question 4: If a Human Rights Commission were to be established, should there be a single body with a jurisdiction extending to all parts of the United Kingdom, or separate bodies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or both a United Kingdom body and bodies with territorial responsibilities?

  20.  Amnesty International believes that there should not be a single body with jurisdiction extending to all parts of the United Kingdom. As the Committee's paper notes, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission must continue to exist because of the UK-Ireland agreement about the future of Northern Ireland. The Scottish Executive is currently consulting on the issue whether there should be a Human Rights Commission in Scotland. Amnesty International and a number of other non-governmental organisations strongly support that proposal because we consider that it would provide an effective means of promoting and protecting human rights in Scotland. The reasons for this view are set out in the submission to the inquiry from the Scottish Human Rights Forum.

  21.  Amnesty International does not have a firm position with respect to the other two options. If the second option—separate territorial bodies—was adopted, there would have to be arrangements for all the bodies to co-operate with respect to matters of joint interest, such as providing comments on national legislation and politics. The same is the case under the third option—a national body as well as bodies with territorial responsibilities. The national body would be well placed to take the lead on national issues but would still have to have co-operative relationships with the other bodies—see the response to Question 5.

Question 5: If there were to be a Human Rights Commission with responsibilities for the whole United Kingdom, what relationship should there be between its work in respect of Northern Ireland and the work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (and potentially similar Commissions in Scotland and Wales)?

  22.  Amnesty International considers that if there were to be a Human Rights Commission with responsibilities for the whole United Kingdom it should have a collaborative relationship with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. We envisage an agreed division of responsibilities such that, for example:

    —  the United Kingdom Human Rights Commission would consult the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (and any others that may be established) about possible projects for inquiries and the content of advice on national legislation and policies; and

    —  the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would be represented on research projects into national issues conducted by United Kingdom body.

Question 6(a): If a Human Rights Commission were established, how should it perform functions now performed by existing specialist Commissions, or should it co-exist with them? If they were to co-exist, what roles should they perform in areas where their responsibilities might be expected to overlap?

  23.  Amnesty International does not have a firm view on this issue. The critical factor is whether merging an agency with the Human Rights Commission would enhance promotion and protection of the relevant rights. This may vary from cases to case.

  24.  There is a strong argument in favour of a separate body where it relates to the rights of a distinct group of people, such as people with disabilities and children. A specialist body:

    —  is more visible and accessible to a group of people with whose rights it is concerned if it had a separate identity;

    —  has a governing body with a significant number of people drawn from the group and from people knowledgeable about issues affecting the group—in comparison, a general body might have only one or two people associated with the group;

    —  will be far better informed about the issues affecting the group and how to consult with its people from the group than a general human rights agency.

Question 6(b): If a Human Rights Commission were to co-exist with the existing equality commissions, should issues relating to equal opportunities be excluded from the remit of the Human Rights Commission and be given to the equality commissions?

  25.  The possibility of duplication of effort should be dealt with by agreements reached between the Commission and the equality bodies, not by excluding these issues from its remit. Human rights issues often have various dimensions and it would be impractical or even damaging to the work to create rigid boundaries. For example, if the Human Rights Commission investigated deaths in police custody, or the treatment of people who are detained, it would have to consider whether there was discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.

Question 7: How should independence and accountability be ensured?

  26.  The Commission should be established by legislation, which should state that the Commission is entitled to decide whether or not undertake specific projects, to determine the methodology of its work and to make such recommendations as it sees fit.

  27.  An independent body should appoint members of the Commission and the Chief Executive. The Commission should appoint its own staff.

  28.  The Commission should be accountable to the Parliament or a committee of the Parliament, not to the Government.

  29.  The Commission should be required to publish the advice it provides to the Government and other public bodies and a detailed annual report on its activities.

Question 8: How many staff should a Commission have?

  30.  Amnesty International has not undertaken research required to assist the inquiry on this matter.

Question 9: What powers should a Commission have?

  31.  A Commission should have at least the responsibilities described in the United Nations Principles relating to the status of national institutions, the so-called Paris Principles,[30] and the powers that are required to discharge these effectively. In brief,

    —  to advise the Government, the Parliament and the community on any matters concerning the promotion and protection of human rights, for example, whether existing or proposed legislation and administrative provisions comply with human rights standards and whether particular human rights are being violated in the country;

    —  to encourage ratification of international human rights instruments;

    —  to contribute to and comment on State reports to treaty monitoring bodies;

    —  to promote teaching of and research into human rights;

    —  to increase human rights awareness of public and private bodies and the general community;

    —  to consider complaints from people whose rights may have been violated and seek to resolve complaints through various means, for example by conciliation or by making recommendations to competent authorities.

  32.  The Paris Principles suggest that the handling of complaints should be considered an optional responsibility. However, research conducted by the International Council on Human Rights Research indicates that "it is in their handling of complaints that national human rights institutions stand or fall in terms of public legitimacy".[31]. According to the Council:

    [h]owever valuable their other work may be—education, training, scrutiny of laws, study of international instruments—the public judges them in terms of their willingness to tackle violations of human rights. They may do so by resolving individual complaints or by publicly exposing and challenging wrongdoing by the government or other powerful institutions. But these are the measures by which the world judges whether a human rights institution is serious about human rights.[32]

  33.  The Commission will require various powers in order to discharge its responsibilities effectively. For example, in order to undertake investigations so that it can determine whether violations of human rights are occurring, the Commission should be empowered to require people to provide information and produce documents.

  34.  In order to be effective in relation to violations for which there are legal remedies, the Commission should be empowered to assist people to undertake legal proceedings, to initiate legal proceedings in its own right and to intervene in legal proceedings as a third party.

July 2001



28   See for example Amnesty International, Proposed Standards for National Human Rights Commissions, AI Index: IOR 40/01/93. Back

29   Stated by Lynne Berry, Equal Opportunities Commission, in a presentation to the Human Rights Task Force, 15 March 2001. Back

30   General Assembly Resolution 48/134 of 20 December 1993. Back

31   Performance & legitimacy: national human rights institutions, Versoix, Switzerland, 2000, 110. Back

32   Ibid, 110. Back


 
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