Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


46.  Memorandum from Rights of Women

INTRODUCTION

  1.  Rights of Women is an industrial and provident society, which was founded in 1975 to promote the interests of women in relation to the law. We run a free, national confidential telephone legal advice help line for women by women. We specialise in advising in family law, especially domestic violence and Children Act matters. Our aims are to empower, inform and educate women on their legal rights. We are a membership organisation and our activities include producing publications, organising Conferences and training courses, and policy work.

QUESTION ONE

  2.  Rights of Women believes that there are compelling reasons for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission.

  3.  Whilst acknowledging the valuable work done by existing statutory agencies in the fields of race, sex and disability, this does not provide a systematic and complete structure for the protection of the full range of human rights in the UK. There is a need for an organisation that fully embraces all aspects of human rights including education, fostering a human rights culture monitoring compliance of all public bodies with international human rights standards.

FOSTERING A HUMAN RIGHTS CULTURE AND EDUCATION IN HUMAN RIGHTS

  4.  Rights of Women welcomes the Human Rights Act 1998. We believe, however, all citizens should understand what human rights are and how they apply to them. Without education, citizens are not empowered to enforce these rights.

  5.  A Human Rights Commission should ensure that as many people as possible are aware of human rights. This should not be confined to the simple statement on content of rights in the European Convention, but should include the fostering of a human rights culture. This should be undertaken in a number of ways including formal education, leaflets, free and accessible training and multimedia. This should be coupled with clear and accessible information that is available through a number of sources (job centres, community centres, workplaces etc).

  6.  A Human Rights Commission would be charged with education of all public bodies and should implement a system of internal review in order to minimise breaches of human rights. Public bodies should be required to update and review all practices in light of human rights legislation. One role of the Commission could be to audit this and ensure compliance. There should be a promotion of good practice.

ADVISING AND ASSISTING PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE VICTIMS OF VIOLATIONS OF THEIR CONVENTION RIGHTS AND BRINGING LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

  7.  Inevitably with increased awareness of human rights, there will be an increase in the number of people claiming to be victims of an alleged violation. Rights of Women believes that it is essential to maintain public confidence in human rights by providing free and accessible assistance to those who claim a violation of their human rights.

  8.  A Human Rights Commission should develop a service to answer all legal enquiries about human rights. This may be in person, by telephone, letter or email. Those enquiring should be provided with a general statement on the law and whether there is a possible violation.

  9.  A Human Rights Commission should seek to bring a case on behalf of a victim of a violation if it is in the public interest or deals with important issues or if a novel point of law arises.

  10.  If the case does not fall into the above category, the enquirer should then be referred to a suitable agency if necessary for their case to be further investigated.

  11.  A Human Rights Commission would also be able to investigate complaints made to them and be given powers to seek evidence. This function may be separate from the power to bring proceedings on behalf of an individual.

QUESTION THREE

  12.  Rights of Women believes that consideration should be given to the establishment of specialist areas within the Commission. Rights of Women advise women on many areas that have relevance to human rights. We believe the areas of priority for the Commission should be:

    —  Women.

    —  Children.

    —  Discrimination (especially on the grounds of sexual orientation, age and religion).

    —  Asylum seekers.

  13.  Insofar as there is overlap with existing agencies, see our reply to question six. The Commission should undertake research on these areas in addition to the duties outlined in the answer to question one above.

QUESTION SIX

  14.  Rights of Women believes that a Human Rights Commission would co-exist with existing agencies and indeed co-operate extensively.

    (a)  Where there may be overlap in responsibilities, Rights of Women believes that the Human Rights Commission would provide support to the existing agencies in terms of expertise and resources. A Human Rights Commission should take a supporting role where their responsibilities overlap with existing agencies. The reasons for this are:

      —  The existing agency will probably have greater expertise and experience of the issue involved, as well as greater visibility;

      —  The existing body may have the confidence of the group which it represents and have greater representation in the community;

      —  There may be reluctance on behalf of the community involved to approach an unknown agency.

    (b)  Rights of Women believes it would not be satisfactory to exclude any area from the remit of a Human Rights Commission. Some areas would be duplicated by existing agencies, but not all human rights violations are one-dimensional. Rights of Women believe that it would be more satisfactory for the Human Rights Commission to have the widest ranging powers in terms of investigation and action as is possible.

QUESTION NINE

  15.  Rights of Women believes that a Human Rights Commission should have the following powers and responsibilities:

    (a)  To advise the Government, Parliament and the wider community on any aspect of human rights law and practice. The Commission could respond to a specific enquiry by an individual or promulgate advice or information on its own initiative. This may be in the case of a perceived human rights violation;

    (b)  To monitor UK compliance with human rights legislation. Ministers already have to state if legislation is compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. The Commission would also comment on legislation as part of the scrutiny by Parliament;

    (c)  To promote ratification to international human rights eg Optional Protocol. The Commission would advise Government, Parliament and the community at large about the implications of ratification of a particular document and encourage the extension of human rights law;

    (d)  Educate all citizens about human rights and promote a human rights culture;

    (e)  Increase awareness of human rights in public bodies and ensure all public bodies review their practices regularly. This is particularly important. It is hoped that a Human Rights Commission would assist public bodies in minimising the number of human rights violations and to guard against any form of institutionalised discrimination;

    (f)  Develop specialist areas of expertise eg women, children and asylum seekers. Rights of Women believes that some sections of the community at large face different problems and this should be recognised by a Commission. It is hoped that the Committee will recognise that simply having a general body looking at human rights will not on it's own guarantee that all will receive equal protection. Some steps will have to be taken by a Commission to ensure that it acts pro-actively in protecting rights;

    (g)  Investigate alleged human rights violations by any public body and publish reports. This may also involve the ability to require witnesses to provide evidence. A Human Rights Commission would, hopefully, be proactive and not simply respond to complaints of alleged violations. Rights of Women believes that it is extremely important that a Commission would actively seek to ensure that all persons human rights are respected and enjoyed. This may impose the responsibility on a Commission to actively research and report on different problems faced by different sections of the Community. For example, a Commission would investigate the Government's response to domestic violence and ensure the Government is upholding women's human rights by providing adequate protection;

    (h)  Advise and assist people with violations of their human rights and bringing legal proceedings on human rights issues in it's own right. Rights of Women believes the establishment of a Human Rights Commission will actively push forward the boundaries in human rights law and practice and would allow individuals greater opportunity to access human rights protection. It would also be envisaged that a Commission would be able to intervene in human rights proceedings as a third party or at the invitation of the Court.

29 June 2001



 
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