Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

18. Memorandum from the Social Democratic and Labour Party

  The SDLP welcomes the Joint Committee on Human Rights to Northern Ireland and is pleased that it has thought fit to enquire into the NI Human Rights Commission. We particularly welcome the focus on the development of a NI Bill of Rights, which we believe to be a fundamental part of the new dispensation for our society promised by the Good Friday Agreement.

  The Inquiry has called for evidence on four points, the Commission's effectiveness, its powers, its resources and the development of a Bill of Rights. In this short submission, like the Joint Committee, we wish to focus on the Bill of Rights, the development of which is, of course, the Commission's most important function.


  The SDLP wishes to see the highest possible level of human rights protection based on the best possible Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. We wish for the scope of this Bill of Rights to be broad, covering socio-economic rights, civil and political rights, and strong protections for equality and parity of esteem as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement itself. We have already made a detailed submission to the Human Rights Commission on its draft Bill of Rights. We were supportive of the inclusion of socio-economic rights in it, which we believe can provide a common platform around which both communities on the ground can unite and which therefore is appropriate to the particular circumstances of NI. However, we were critical of the dilution of the guarantees of parity of esteem and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities, as guaranteed in the GFA and the adoption of a more minimal approach based on the framework convention for the protection of national minorities which focuses more on the protection of cultural identity than the guarantee of equal treatment for national aspirations.

  However, in this submission we wish to focus not on the substantive content of the draft Bill of Rights, but rather on the concerns we have regarding the process being adopted to devise it. Not only does the SDLP want the best possible Bill of Rights, we also want a Bill of Rights agreed by the political parties and key social partners. We believe that this is essential to ensure the widest possible ownership of the Bill of Rights in our society. We are concerned, however, that the current process being adopted by the Commission will not lead to our dual aims of the best possible and agreed Bill of Rights. The NIO have rightly made clear the need to ensure the Bill of Rights has cross community support. The SDLP agrees with this and believes that this is consistent with our goal of ensuring the widest possible ownership of the Bill or Rights between Nationalists and Unionists on the ground. It is clear to the SDLP the current draft Bill of Rights has not secured this cross community consensus and that a Commission of itself will be unable to secure this consensus for reasons many of which are beyond the Commission's control. In such circumstances, the NIO is likely to draft its own Bill of Rights and reject the Commission's draft. The SDLP is fundamentally opposed to such an imposed Bill of Rights which we would see as being even less capable of securing cross community consensus than the Commission's proposal.

  The SDLP is encouraged by the overall success of Nationalists and Unionists working together on the Policing Board on the difficult issue of policing. We are equally encouraged by the overall ability of Nationalists and Unionists to work successfully in the Executive, despite the real setback of suspension. We believe that a Bill of Rights could best be successfully negotiated by the representatives of the political parties. We also believe that key social partners, including human rights groups should also be included in these round table negotiations. Such a process, would by definition take account of the particular circumstances of NI, as mandated by Good Friday Agreement and would be most likely to secure the widespread ownership of the Bill of Rights necessary to strengthen the culture of human rights and shared common values between Nationalists and Unionists in our society. Indeed, we do not believe that this is feasible to expect the Human Rights Commission to achieve this. We, with others, have put this point to the Commission. Regrettably, the Commission has not had proper regard for it.

  We do, however, intend to pursue our proposal in the current round of talks which we believe to be fully justified given that these talks are a review of the Agreement designed to overcome difficulties with its implementation and, patently, such difficulties have arisen with the Bill of Rights.

  In view of the political sensitivities, we believe that talks between the parties and social partners should be chaired independently by an international figure, with an independent secretariat, in line with the model which led to the successful conclusion of the GFA itself. Such a process would be independent of all parties, the NIO, the NI Departments, the Irish Government, and the Human Rights Commission itself. However, the Human Rights Commission would be a welcome participant in the talks. It would also take receipt of the agreed outcome of the talks and forward it to the Secretary of State in line with its statutory functions under the NI Act. Finally, it would retain a vital role in raising awareness and engaging in outreach with groups on the ground with regard to the Bill of Rights.

  The SDLP wishes to achieve a united Ireland peacefully and by the consent of a majority.

  Our vision of the united Ireland is based on equality and the Agreement itself. Accordingly, all the protections of the Agreement, including the Bill of Rights, which exist in the current constitutional status should be retained in a future united Ireland. That is one of the reasons why we believe that an agreed Bill of Rights is vital and an imposed Bill of Rights would be a failure. It is crucial that the Bill of Rights has the widest possible ownership and confidence among Nationalist and Unionists so that they can have confidence in its protections and in their ability to endure in today's Northern Ireland and in a future united Ireland that we seek.


  The SDLP is concerned that the powers of the Commission do not comply with the United Nations' Paris principles. We believe that the Commission should enjoy the power to call persons and papers to enable it to carry out effective investigations and are concerned that the Commission's own review reveals how the British Government has been able to impede effective investigations by refusing co-operation, particularly in the field of juvenile justice.


  The SDLP believes that the Commission's effectiveness has been diminished by its lack of powers and also its lack of resources. We are also alarmed by concerns raised by two respected human rights experts and activists, Inez McCormack and Christine Bell that the NIO has attempted to interfere with its independence through the budgetary process and also that the Commission's effectiveness has been diminished by difficulties with its internal operation. We understand that both of these former members of the Commission will be giving evidence to the inquiry and we welcome this opportunity for their concerns to be publicly explored.

  Finally, we wish to raise the representativeness of the Commission and difficulties with the appointment process. We are concerned that the NIO has underplayed in the current appointment process the importance of knowledge of human rights issues and also the requirement of the Paris principles of involvement of the representatives of civic society involved in the promotion and protection of human rights. We are equally concerned that political representatives of parties have been appointed in the Commission on an imbalanced basis in Unionisms favour. Finally, we are concerned that the recent appointments to the Commission have left it imbalanced in that only four Commissioners have a Catholic community background and eight have a Protestant community background. The recent resignations have altered this of course but this does not diminish the NIO's responsibility for the imbalance in the recent appointments. We trust that future appointments will be such as to ensure the appointment of those with a human rights background, as well as political and gender balance and community balance.

27 November 2002

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