Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

12.  Memorandum from The AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe)

  The AIRE Centre welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence on the need for a Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom. The AIRE Centre is a London based legal advice centre giving advice and representation on International Human Rights law and European Community law.

  The AIRE Centre provides a free advice line service four days a week to the public giving expert advice on the European Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights instruments.

  The AIRE Centre has represented in more than 50 cases before the European Court (and former Commission) of Human Rights and is frequently called upon by the Council of Europe to provide expert training on the European Convention on Human Rights in Council of Europe Member States.

  The AIRE Centre has provided extensive training to the judiciary through the Judicial Studies Board, the legal profession and non-governmental organisations on the Human Rights Act 1998 in the United Kingdom.

  This submission is focused mainly on the functions of a Human Rights Commission and its priorities, as this is the area which the AIRE Centre is most able to comment on. However, if the Committee would like the AIRE Centre to comment on other questions raised, we would be happy to do so.

  1.  In the AIRE Centre's view the creation of a Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom is the final step in the process of concretising the United Kingdom's reputation as a country that strives to adhere to the standards that it sets for itself as a signatory to many international conventions.

  2.  In order to forecast the success of a Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom, it is important and advantageous to seek guidance from similar organs in other countries that have proved over the course of time to be quite effective in the achievement of their objectives.

  3.  Human Rights Commissions in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada have divided their resources into accomplishing three basic functions: first, investigating individual complaints, second, making general inquiries and third, providing general informational and educational services.

  4.  In looking towards the example set by other countries, it should be borne in mind that some alterations of the goals of the Commission must be made in order for the Commission to function effectively in the United Kingdom. Because the Human Rights Act was implemented without creating a Commission simultaneously, a United Kingdom Human Rights Commission should reflect the fact that domestic courts have already been established as the recourse to violations of the Act by public authorities.

  5.  It follows that a United Kingdom Commission need not be focused on providing a source of domestic remedies in individual cases and should instead concentrate on conducting general inquiries, disseminating educational information to the public at large (to be discussed in depth further below) and fostering a human rights culture in the United Kingdom.

  6.  Conducting general inquiries into alleged human rights abuses would provide a useful forum for a group of people seeking an investigation into their complaints and provide guidance for the future rather than focusing on compensation and other remedies already available through the courts. It is notoriously difficult in the United Kingdom for the individuals or groups to be able to obtain a public inquiry or investigations into events or alleged human rights abuses and the creation of a Human Rights Commission could facilitate this in warranted circumstances.

  7.  Disseminating education information and fostering a human rights culture will ensure adherence to human rights standards as well as appropriate and effective use of the judicial remedies available under the Human Rights Act.

  8.  This would also avoid any unnecessary overlap with existing Commissions that do work on individual complaints such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, Commission for Racial Equality, or the Disability Rights Commission.

  9.  With the passing of the Human Rights Act in October 2000, it is necessary to also establish an overseeing body with a focus of promoting the enforcement of the Act in addition to educational programs and inquiries that extend beyond the Act to encompass rights conferred by other international conventions to which the United Kingdom is a party but are not specifically dealt with by the Human Rights Act.

  10.  Thus, where appropriate, the Human Rights Commission could have a wider ambit than those provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights which are included in the Human Rights Act and take a broader approach including consideration of important provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for instance. This would help develop a broader human rights culture in the United Kingdom and ensure the United Kingdom's adherence to its international obligations.

  11.  It is also important to bear in mind that although the Human Rights Act is powerful in achieving state responsibility for abuses of human rights and specifically makes it unlawful for a public authority to act in breach of the those parts of the European Convention on Human Rights which are incorporated in the Human Rights Act, the Commission will be essential in highlighting and reporting on violations committed by private bodies such as employers.

  12.  The Commission could function, as it has in Australia, as an enforcement mechanism for the Human Rights Act by giving people the knowledge to understand their rights and identify when those rights are violated. Without a Human Rights Commission to provide this valuable service, the average citizen may not be aware of violations he/she is committing or experiencing. A Commission in this capacity would strive to eradicate this problem by educating the public on the human rights that the Human Rights Act guarantees and in doing so, would ultimately incorporate a human rights culture into the public psyche.[33]

  13.  The AIRE Centre's experience from its advice line is that whilst public awareness of human rights in general has increased with the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998, understanding has not. Indeed due to misleading media coverage as well as at times poor legal advice, it is the AIRE Centre's experience that the public in general has a very poor understanding of the implications of the Human Rights Act for them and also of applicability of specific provisions to their case.

  14.  The AIRE Centre's experience from providing advice to legal representatives as well as expert training both to the legal profession and the voluntary sector is that understanding of the complex issues involved is generally at a low level. Whilst some representatives and organisations are well informed about the Human Rights Act, many have confused, if any, knowledge of the implications for their clients and users. Not only does this mean that their clients and users are ill-informed about their rights but also that courts and tribunals in the United Kingdom would appear to be burdened with misconceived and ill-informed arguments and applications.

  15.  It has been accepted in other jurisdictions that "the most lasting and meaningful way to reduce breaches of human rights is by changing attitudes and encouraging tolerance—the key to this is education.[34] There are several programmes currently in existence in Australia that illustrate the effectiveness of this approach; namely, the Youth Challenge Programme for secondary school students and teachers, a Community Information Programme, internet site materials for schools, employers and community groups, and media engagement including interviews and press releases.[35]

  16.  Such programmes have proven to very successful. For example, the Annal Report on the Australian Commission states, "(E)valuations of the Youth Challenge day have shown a substantially increased awareness by students of human rights and discrimination issues.

  With an average of 98 per cent of participants and 90 per cent of teachers rating the challenge materials and day as excellent/very good.[36]

  17.  In addition to educational outreach programs, the Commission should produce educational publications concerning the Human Rights Act, the European Convention, and how it applies to people in the United Kingdom. By the same token, legal representatives need to be further informed on the domestic implications of the Convention so that they can better advise their clients now that the Human Rights Act has been incorporated into domestic legislation.

  18.  The Commission would fill vital gaps in the protection of rights by existing commissions and provide an overall human rights approach to training and investigations. For example, it could undertake investigations of detention centre conditions where serious human rights violations take place. Additionally, the Commission could provide training for employers on human rights and by doing so, provide them with the tools to effectively combat disputes concerning human rights in the work place.[37]


  19.  The creation of a Human Rights Commission is crucial to the United Kingdom's role in the European and International Community. In fact, the more international the role that the United Kingdom adopts, the more she submits herself to scrutiny by the international community. Without a functioning body to serve as an internal watchdog, the United Kingdom will stand to be openly criticised and possibly, embarrassed in the much larger global forum.

  20.  If the United Kingdom forms its own Human Rights Commission, it will help foster a fusion of domestic human rights with international obligations and will inevitably lead to consistency in the United Kingdom's practice abroad and domestically.

1 July 2001

33   Canadian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 2. Back

34   Australian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 19. Back

35   Australian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 19. Back

36   Australian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 20. Back

37   Canadian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 21. Back

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