20. Memorandum from UNISON Northern Ireland
UNISON's comments to the Committee are as follows.
UNISON has always supported the view that an
effective Human Rights Commission (the Commission), such as that
contemplated by the Good Friday Agreement, is vital to protecting
the rights of all. We believed that by so doing it could create
values and practices of cross-community understanding which are
key to a peaceful future. However, we have very serious concerns
that the Commission has proven ineffective in protecting and promoting
rights. We believe that these problems must be resolved so that
the Agreement's vision for the Commission can be implemented.
However, this requires sufficient political will to do so.
The following comments relate directly to the
work, powers and resources of the Commission and its role in producing
a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
The NIHRC and the Bill of Rights
The proposed text for a Bill of Rights for Northern
Ireland was launched for consultation by the NIHRC on September
4, 2002. UNISON has expressed serious concerns in relation to
(a) That the draft text of the Bill of Rights
contains many serious flaws, particularly in relation to the social,
economic and cultural rights that affect our members, their families
and communities in the context of international standards of rights.
(b) That the Commission has failed to develop
a much broader ownership of the Bill of Rights project despite
initial commendable efforts to develop consultation with a broad
range of groups and views.
(c) That certain of its recommendations potentially
undermine the parity of esteem provisions in the Agreement as
well as the equality provision in the Agreement and in existing
legislation. We fail to understand how a Commission tasked to
implement the promise and potential of the Good Friday Agreement
can make recommendations that undermine it and those who need
The Effectiveness of the NIHRC
We are concerned that a number of factors have
prevented the Commission from furthering the protection and promotion
of human rights in Northern Ireland.
(a) The Commission has failed to take a sufficiently
strategic focus and use its limited resources to greatest effect
by developing strategic alliances with those individuals and groups
committed to working alongside them to protect and promote rights.
(b) The Commission has failed to define agreed
objectives for the enhanced delivery of human rights and an integrated
use of functions, resources, duties and powers to deliver and
measure the effectiveness of such protections.
(c) The Commission has failed to be sufficiently
assertive with government, despite the unwillingness of government
to provide the Commission with the necessary powers, resources
and support that it requires.
The Commission has therefore failed to deliver
the promise of enhanced rights protection as envisaged by the
Good Friday Agreement.
The Powers of the NIHRC
The Commissions own review in 2001 indicated
major limitations in its powers as a result of the Northern Ireland
Act. A body without the power to compel witnesses and documents
cannot comply with the minimal standards established for national
human rights institutions by the UN Paris Principles. It also
cannot carry out its functions effectively.
UNISON supported the recommendations of the
Commission in its review of powers, specifically on the power
to compel information and co-operation and to make explicit the
powers and duties of the Commission in the Act.
UNISON is seriously concerned that the Commission
has withdrawn some of its recommendations in response to what
we consider to be vague and unclear commitments from Government.
What is clear is that Government currently is not providing the
co-operation promised in the Parliament debates at the time of
the Act and is not yet prepared to give a commitment for full
independence of powers as required by the Paris Principles.
The Resources of the NIHRC
That the Commission has not been resourced sufficiently
to undertake its work effectively.
(a) That intervention in funding discussions
by the NIO has compromised the independence of the Commission
(b) That Parliament must never allow the
Commission's funding arrangements (apart from overall allocations)
to be excessively influenced by government priorities.
(c) That although a commitment has been given
very recently to fund the Bill of Rights work as a discrete programme,
the financial burden placed on the Commission by the initial failure
of Government to do so has placed large financial demands on the
Bill of Rights
The Commission has failed to create an engagement
between political parties and with civil society in the debate,
thus undermining a process that should be seen as something that
is beneficial to all. It is necessary to find ways of enabling
debate not division on the practice of rights. It is essential
to make space for nationalism and unionism to engage with each
other and also with new voices who are struggling to get their
needs expressed as rights.
Elements for such a process would include an
international Chair and Secretariat and an inclusive cross-party
cross community Forum that is given time, skilful Chairing and
"unpacking" of difficult issues in the context of human
rights frameworks. Thus making possible an engagement that sets
human rights as the baseline for debate and an International input
that brings an external focus to remind all participants that
seemingly intractable problems are resolvable.
UNISON believes that some mechanism must be
established to ensure that political parties fully engage with
civil society on this issue.
Effectiveness of Commission
Issues of strategic management, resources and
lack of direction, together with the broader political scenario
are inter-linked. We therefore suggest the following as a contribution
to the debate on what is needed to deliver the enhanced protection
of human rights promised by the Good Friday Agreement.
(a) It is clear that the Commission's internal
reviews have not "fixed" their problems and we would
recommend that the issues of powers and effectiveness are brought
together in an external review to be organised by both Governments
against the criteria outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and
the Paris Principles.
(b) We believe it is essential that the Independent
forum to enable an inclusive and reflective debate on the content
of the Bill of Rights should run in parallel to any such review.
In the current political climate there is a unique opportunity
to thus move forward the values and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement
ie partnership, equality and respect.
The process used to do so will shape the result
and must not wait for institutional ineffectiveness to be sorted
out. In order to fulfil the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement,
any agreed recommendations from such a Forum should be returned
to the Commission for their consideration in providing advice
to the Secretary of State.
In the interim, they should deepen and develop
the excellent consultation work with groups and areas on awareness
of the potential of rights and feed such work into the Forum.
2 December 2002