Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence


16. Memorandum from the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC)

INTRODUCTION

  The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition would like to thank the Joint Committee on Human Rights for inviting us to submit evidence on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. To date, the NIWC has had a positive relationship with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Our relationship has mostly revolved round the consultation of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The NIWC made a submission to the Commission in 2001 during the first phase of consultation, setting out what we believed were important principles for a Bill of Rights. After the launch of the consultation document, the NIWC made a further submission answering the questions posed in the document and commenting on the Commission's proposals. Members of the NIWC have met with Commissioners (Brice Dickson and Tom Hadden) to discuss this submission. Further, a training session was organised by party members and facilitated by Brice Dickson and Commission staff members.

  Considering the contact between the Commission and the NIWC, as well as the NIWC's knowledge of the Commission, we would not be in the position to comment extensively on the internal working of the Commission, the Commission's statutory powers or the Commission's relationship with other bodies. We do, however, feel that our involvement with the Commission permits us to look at the role of the Commission in terms of its work on the Bill of Rights and its general perception by us as a political party. The party would be most competent to offer the following insights.

COMMENTS ON THE ROLE AND ACTIVITIES OF THE COMMISSION

Insufficient resources of the Commission

  We understand that only fourteen staff facilitate the many tasks undertaken by the Commission. It is not for the NIWC to comment on the management of the Commission, as we do not have direct experience or knowledge of their management structures. We do, however, feel that the budget and resources that support the commission' work are inadequate for the statutory tasks it is asked to deliver. We make this statement considering that the Commission is obliged to offer advice on cases, investigate human rights abuses, educate the general population on human rights concepts and undertake a comprehensive Bill of Rights consultation within a budget of less than one million pounds a year. Human rights are an essential component of building a peaceful society in Northern Ireland. As such, government expenditure should reflects human rights as a priority.

Breadth of the consultation on a Bill of Rights

  The Commission has embraced the Bill of Rights project as one of its central priorities. Despite embarrassing resources and what seems to be apathy towards rights promotion in certain sectors of public society, the Commission has engaged in what we feel has been an extensive two-year process. The Chief Commissioner in particular has been willing to facilitate training and engage in public debate in order to bolster the discussion regarding a Bill of Rights. We recognise and applaud a two-year campaign that has successfully engaged civil society as well as looked to educate the general public. The Commission's consultation has been underpinned by use of best international practice in effort to craft a broad Bill of Rights that will met the needs of everyone in Northern Ireland. We not only support this approach but also commend the Commission for its diligence in seeking the opinions of others.

The troublesome perception of the Commission as partisan

  We are concerned that the Commission's membership and thus its work this far has been undermined by accusations of being "unrepresentative". We are also concerned that the Commission has become the "political punching bag" of groups that would describe human rights as belonging to only one community. We find this assertion entirely offensive. As a party committed to the promotion of equality and human rights, we applaud the Commissions' education campaigns and work around the Bill of Rights which show outreach to all sectors of Northern Irish society. We find that staff and Commissioners act without bias and without deference to one community over another.

  We will hope the Committee will discuss the credibility of such allegations in terms of the threat to the Commission's independence. We, as a cross-community party, find them to be unsubstantiated and corrosive to the pursuit of human rights. Also, we hope the committee will consider how the overt politicisation of human rights impedes reform in the areas of equality and inclusion. The Commission must be allowed to act with due regard to international obligations and in protection of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland without having their work sabotaged by political mud slinging.

CRITICISMS OF THE ROLE AND ACTIVITIES OF THE COMMISSION

Communication regarding the Bill of Rights process and timeline

  We have been concerned that the Bill of Rights process has been delayed for reasons that are not apparent to the public or those who have made submissions. The Commission concluded the consultation on the first draft of the Bill of Right in December 2001. We do not object to lengthening the consultation process for the Bill of Rights. We believe a Bill of Rights to be pivotal in maintaining stability and promoting a more egalitarian society. As such, all deliberation necessary should be given to crafting a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. However, the Commission has sent mixed messages as to when the consultation (as extended from December) will cease and what their new timeline will be. In 2002, there has been correspondence in regard to seminars on key "problem areas" that has not materialised. Perhaps this is due in part to poor resources to organise these events at the time-scale originally suggested. However, we note the need to keep parties and organisations informed of the next steps the Commission plans to take.

Consistent and informative contact with the political parties

  Related to our last point, we think the Commission has only now begun to seriously engage with the political sphere. In terms of the Bill of Rights, it has been suggested that there should be a certain amount of political consensus before the Bill of Rights can become a reality. We would like to remind the Committee that every political party signalled support for a Bill of Rights at one time or another. As noted, the Commission perhaps needs to keep parties better informed and draw out elements of the consultation document that could potentially be points of consensus. We think that the current political crisis can potentially invigorate discussion of the Bill of Rights process and bring parties to the table to negotiate how a Bill can be implemented (as a duty of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement)—nevertheless, the Bill of Rights should be implemented regardless of the state of negotiations on the Agreement. The NIWC has been consistently calling for the implementation committee to meet so that this issue and others can be discussed. We do not believe the onus is on the Commission to ensure that parties come to a consensus. We do, however, suggest that better and more timely information from the Commission would aid that process.

The Commission's vision or strategic goal

  In mentioning the many tasks that the Commission has set before it, we sense a lack of vision. There does not seem to be a prioritisation of their duties that might better utilise the resources they do have. Perhaps this observation stems from an uncertainty as to what are the Commission's current priorities or strategic objectives. This relates to how the Commission is perceived to fit into the fabric of civil society. For instance, we are unaware how the Commission relates to the Equality Commission or will relate to a future Children's Commissioner.

CONCLUSION

  We are pleased to send these views to you and we would be more than happy to answer any questions in relation to the content of this correspondence. We enclose as well our submissions on the Bill of Rights for both the first and second consultation periods on a Bill of Rights.

  We view the work of the Commission as vital to the promotion of a vibrant rights culture in Northern Ireland. As a party committed to human rights, we would like to see the current obstacles to the work of the Commission removed and help in overcoming some of the problems they may have experienced to date.

9 December 2002


 
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