Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 103)



Mr McNamara

  100. I do not know whether this comes under your ambit or not, High Commissioner. The decision of the United States to withdraw their signature from the International Criminal Court plus the hints which are being made that they might resile in the end from the Convention on Treaties, how does that affect attitudes towards human rights throughout the world and make your task easier or less and how should the United Kingdom react to that proposal?
  (Mrs Robinson) First of all, responding to Lord Lester's question, I am taking part at the end of that conference in Belfast. I would say two things. We are increasingly looking at some areas of justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, we have had conferences on that. Clearly it is going to be a very limited role of courts and I think the argument for the establishment of an independent human rights commission is that it can advance strongly both sets of rights and in particular focus on economic, social and cultural rights. I think that is one of the real strengths. On the International Criminal Court, I have said publicly that I deeply regret this decision of the United States because there was a general understanding that the United States was not going to ratify certainly in the next few years the Statute of the International Criminal Court, and that was a given, that was understood, and we were overjoyed at the ten additional ratifications adding to the 56 had the Statute come into force on 11 April. I was in Rome with the Secretary-General and we were very aware of how significant it was to have this International Criminal Court. The real concern about what the United States is now doing is that it could bring about a certain fragility to the international human rights system of covenants and conventions. It is very important that countries which have ratified conventions, even if they have difficulties under them, stay within the system and are encouraged and pressurised to comply with the legal obligations that they have undertaken. There has been a clear position that that is it, you can be pinned to your responsibilities but you remain within the system. I think the repudiation of a treaty that has been signed as opposed to not carried through with ratification is really quite worrying. We will be looking at the international level at the implications.

Vera Baird

  101. High Commissioner, you will say straight away if you do not think you have enough information to deal with this question but it is obviously highly relevant to our task in determining whether we should recommend that there be a human rights commission here to know how persons of the nature of your experience regard the UK post the Human Rights Act? Do you see that we have made significant progress in these years towards developing a human rights culture? Is the transition impartial, complete, has it been revolutionary, is it rather a static process? Can you see whether we have started to move in that direction or whether, in fact, many of the public institutions have been fairly defensive and fairly humanistic in their response to the legislation?
  (Mrs Robinson) I would like to answer by saying I do think there is a good case here in the United Kingdom for a national human rights institution. I think it would strengthen the need for greater social cohesion, the need to have outreach to those who do not feel that their human rights are being considered at the moment whether this is in situations of poverty, where there is a sense of violence and abuse which goes unnoted. Let me look at an area that a human rights commission could look at. It could have an overall look at domestic violence affecting both women and children in a way that could highlight an area of need for greater protection and then use the international instruments, use the Convention on the Rights of the Child and CEDAW, in support of that approach. I do think that it would provide more social cohesion, more linking, because the human rights commission would be able to engage in inquiries, it would be able to link with NGOs around the country, it would be able to say "We are here to listen to your concerns about human rights, tell us what the issues are in your communities that you feel are not being addressed at all at the official level and are not susceptible to a court action in a court of law''. I do believe it would deepen and enhance respect for human rights here in the United Kingdom. You ask me about whether the United Kingdom was somehow at fault, I am not looking at it in that way, I am looking at it more in an objective sense of the potential of a human rights commission to link much more with the civil society and other groups in embedding more deeply a culture and education about human rights and accountability could go right back up from the national human rights commission to the Parliament and to the ministers responsible in Government.

Norman Baker

  102. High Commissioner, when you began you mentioned Western finger pointing, the phrase you used, and I suppose that is even more difficult when we have what the US is doing at the present time as a weapon to be used against human rights imbalances. Also you mentioned politicisation of human rights and obviously your answer to Lady Perry about the integrity of human rights would be a way of bypassing that. I just wanted to explore the interface—to use that terrible word—between politics and human rights because obviously we all work in a particular environment no matter where we are in the world and a human rights culture perhaps moves inevitably towards open democracy which may not be the method of government which is applicable in many countries in the world. How do you find it possible to advance human rights issues without simultaneously taking on political issues at the same time? I have just come back from Tunisia and I saw some very good work being done on women's rights there by NGOs which appeared to be part of the government and notwithstanding their relationship with government they were making good progress, so that is an example.
  (Mrs Robinson) Can I answer your question with an example, a very recent one. I have just come back from Lithuania, I was there for two reasons. I was invited by the Government to visit but also there was a visit of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, so doubly useful. The reason the Lithuanian Government was very anxious that I would come is that they believe they are adopting a very good approach to a national plan of action for human rights. I had been briefed on this already, that in fact they are going about it in a very remarkable way. It is interesting because it has involved the Prime Minister launching it, the parliament as a whole and the Human Rights Committee of the parliament, the same as having a lot of jurisdiction over it, and it has involved departments of government and wide civil society. It is a process that is still continuing. They have had regional workshops, they have had an opinion poll in which economic and social rights came through as being the most important in the context of Lithuania: high employment, transitional government, etc. On the second day I was there I met the NGOs and indeed ombudspersons, they have got ombudspersons for children, for the parliament and for women and they were part of this discussion. They were all very engaged and had taken ownership of this process. What the NGOs were saying was that as far they were concerned it was very important to address a national plan of action for human rights in a way which did not divide on political grounds, that was what they were saying to me, which I found very interesting and constructive. I think it is one of the values of having more outreach for human rights, that it can be done without being over politicised. It is an alternative and it is a deepening of democracy. You can find that those who are involved in different political parties can come together on a different framing. Afterwards some of the results may take on a political value for them as tools in a different context, in a parliamentary debate or whatever. If we look in a deeper way at our concerns about democracy, about the democratic deficiency basically of just elections and representation in parliament and then a drop in both local election and parliamentary election, voting in many democracies, I think we see that it is important to look at other ways in which we can give a whole range of people an ownership of a process. What really struck me was that there was an ownership of that process. Similarly an independent human rights institution can, I think, be an institution which can bring together those of different parties around the idea of adherence to the human rights standards and bring them to local level. I am not saying there will not be some political dimension, especially when it comes to reporting to the parliament but by and large it provides an alternative way of having more social cohesion, of having more engagement particularly at grass roots level, at local level when people are consulted.


  103. Would you say that is the way in which we should respond and that is the challenge for us now in the wake of what has happened in France in their elections, what has happened in Holland, what happened in the United Kingdom last week with the emergence again of the British National Party, the rise of the political right? Would you see this search for social cohesion and the integrity of human rights as the next great challenge for us?
  (Mrs Robinson) I would. I am very concerned about the rise in parties that exploit xenophobia and a growing both fear and harassment of minorities of the other, those who are different. I think we need to find urgent way to combat at all levels, obviously education including human rights education, promoting diversity as a value in itself, the enrichment of cultures and contributions. I think the more we have processes and structures that are meaningful and that particularly those centres of the population which could feel marginalised or isolated can be engaged in the better, whether it is an institution that has outreach, whether it is a plan of action which consults and is relevant to all sectors of society. There is a whole discussion about it as is happening in Lithuania and a significant number of other countries. I am also extremely concerned about a virulent anti-Semitism in European countries, attacks on Jewish communities, on synagogues, it is on the rise and it is very nasty. I am seeking to prioritise in our own work how we will combat this because if not addressed these are very worrying trends. It is not a particularly good time for human rights at the moment.

  Chairman: High Commissioner, thank you very much for appearing before us today. I know I speak for the entire Committee when we say we are very privileged to have you in front of us today because you have earned your reputation as a fearless but constructive advocate of human rights. You have helped us today not just because you have been here but because your examples have so often been practical as opposed to being exclusively theoretical so thank you very much. I know the evidence you have given us today will be very, very helpful for those people who want to argue the case for a human rights commission. Thank you.

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