Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence


15. Memorandum from Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM)

  NICEM is a voluntary sector, membership-based umbrella organisation representative of minority ethnic groups and their supportive organisations in Northern Ireland. The Council is committed to collective action informed by people's experience and analysis of their circumstances. In pursuit of equality of opportunity and equity of treatment, NICEM works for social change in relation to racism and in particular to the elimination of racial discrimination.

  We have produced a number of responses to consultations regarding the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission—

    —  Response to the Draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland (March 2002)

    —  Response to the NIO consultation on the Review of Powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission ((August 2002)

    —  Response to the Draft Strategic Plan of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. (August 2002)

  These responses are enclosed.[120] The following evidence is a summary of the key points from each of these documents as they relate to the specific questions asked in the Call for Evidence.

1.  THE COMMISSION'S EFFECTIVENESS

  1.1  NICEM is supportive of the work that the Commission has undertaken to date, particularly with regard to the protection of the rights of vulnerable members of society. The existence of a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland has clearly enhanced awareness of Human Rights issues, and initiatives such as the work the Commission has engaged in to develop relations with NGO's working to combat racism, have the potential to enhance the effectiveness of the Commission.

  1.2  However, the manner in which the NIHRC is able to exercise it's functions, and consequently its effectiveness, including in addressing the difficulties faced by particular vulnerable groups in securing their human rights, is also very clearly limited by limitations on the powers and resources of the NIHRC, and would also clearly be much improved by the granting of adequate powers and resources.

  1.3  In relation to members of Black and Minority Ethnic groups, this could not be more clearly stated than in the Opinion of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on the UK State Report, adopted on 30 November 2001—

    "In view of the (Northern Ireland Human Rights) Commission's important role, it is essential that it be adequately funded and resourced, and that its powers be sufficient for it to carry out its mandate. The Advisory Committee notes in this respect that calls have been made for greater funding for the Commission as well as for a number of changes in its functioning, in particular in relation to its investigative functions (access to documentation, access to places of detention etc.)" (emphasis added) (at paragraph 24)

  1.4  More work could also be done in moving away from the traditional notion of Northern Ireland being made up of "two communities". It appears to us that in attempting to avoid overlap with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the effective protection of the Human Rights of minorities may have fallen into the gaps. We have therefore urged the NIHRC to specifically include the promotion of the rights of black and minority ethnic groups in their next strategic plan.

2.  THE POWERS OF THE COMMISSION

  2.1  The powers and resources of the NIHRC have been clear factors in limiting its effectiveness. It is extremely likely that the limitations on the powers and resources of the NIHRC breach the Paris Principles.

  2.2  The constructive role of the Commission in ensuring policy and legislation, as well as practice, is in compliance with Human Rights principles and laws, needs to be better recognised.

  2.3  The Commission's powers in relation to investigations also need to be strengthened. The Commission must have the power to compel witnesses and evidence, as well as access to places of detention, as was made clear in the Opinion of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on the UK State Report.

  2.4  It is also important that the NIHRC have the power to bring proceedings in its own name. This is particularly important in areas such as gross violations of human rights, violations affecting a number of people, and the rights of particularly vulnerable members of society.

3.  THE COMMISSION'S RESOURCES

  3.1  It is clear that to date the Commission has had insufficient resources to enable it to carry out its mandate.

  3.2  The fact that powers in relation to the provision of resources lies with the Northern Ireland Office is also problematic. NICEM proposes that control of the resourcing of the NIHRC should lie with parliament, rather than the NIO, in order to ensure the Commission's independence from Government intervention to limit the ability of the NIHRC to fulfil its mandate, particularly in respect of policing the State on Human Rights.

4.  THE DEVELOPMENT OF A BILL OF RIGHTS FOR NORTHERN IRELAND

  4.1  NICEM welcomed the consultation process that the NIHRC has engaged in on the Bill of Rights. There have been clear attempts to be as inclusive as possible in the consultation.

  4.2  However, we do have difficulties with some aspects of the current draft. In particular, the proposal put forward to replace the term "minority" with "community" threatens to undermine the very nature of minority rights, and remove the protection that would otherwise be ensured for members of minorities in Northern Ireland. The Commission has picked and chosen from the rights in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, with no apparent rational for doing so, which has led to the exclusion of group rights. This proposal is clearly in conflict with the international standards on Minority Rights, is in danger of diminishing existing international protections, and must be rectified.

  4.3  The chapter on Social and Economic Rights needs to be strengthened. As it stands it restricts the enforcement of social and economic rights to due process and equality rights, thus rendering the entire chapter redundant, since these protections are already afforded elsewhere in the document.

  The international standards in the area of economic and social rights are clearly set out in the Revised European Social Charter, and it is unfortunate that these standards have not been used as the basis for this section of the Bill of Rights. It also unfortunate that the UK government has, to date, failed to ratify the Revised European Social Charter.

  Strong social and economic rights are essential to any modern Bill of Rights, particularly so in the context of Northern Ireland, where levels of social exclusion and economic deprivation are high, as recognised by existing provisions such as the duty to promote equality under s. 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and New Targeting Social Need. It is also one of the areas where there is significant support from groups and communities in Northern Ireland.

  4.4  The Bill of Rights also needs to include protection of undocumented persons, asylum seekers and refugees. NICEM has urged the Commission to include the protection, prevention and promotion of international human rights standards to this most vulnerable of groups in our society.

  This is particularly important considering the impact of political climate post September 11, where discriminatory laws have been passed in the recent anti-terrorism legislation, particularly in relation to the detention of foreign nationals. The government has recognised that this detention breaches international human rights standards, hence the derogation from Article 5 ECHR. The protection of minorities and minority rights is all the more essential in such a climate, and it is essential that the Commission have the powers to challenge such violations and works to promote the rights of such vulnerable groups.

  In conclusion, NICEM is supportive of the NIHRC in its work to promote and protect Human Rights in Northern Ireland, and believe that there is much that can be built on to enhance its effectiveness in this area, particularly if the Commission is given sufficient resources to carry out its mandate. However, there are particular areas of concern, particularly in relation to the protection of minority rights in the Bill of Rights, that need to be urgently addressed.


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