12. Memorandum from The AIRE
Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe)
The AIRE Centre welcomes this opportunity to
provide evidence on the need for a Human Rights Commission in
the United Kingdom. The AIRE Centre is a London based legal advice
centre giving advice and representation on International Human
Rights law and European Community law.
The AIRE Centre provides a free advice line
service four days a week to the public giving expert advice on
the European Convention on Human Rights and other international
human rights instruments.
The AIRE Centre has represented in more than
50 cases before the European Court (and former Commission) of
Human Rights and is frequently called upon by the Council of Europe
to provide expert training on the European Convention on Human
Rights in Council of Europe Member States.
The AIRE Centre has provided extensive training
to the judiciary through the Judicial Studies Board, the legal
profession and non-governmental organisations on the Human Rights
Act 1998 in the United Kingdom.
This submission is focused mainly on the functions
of a Human Rights Commission and its priorities, as this is the
area which the AIRE Centre is most able to comment on. However,
if the Committee would like the AIRE Centre to comment on other
questions raised, we would be happy to do so.
1. In the AIRE Centre's view the creation
of a Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom is the final
step in the process of concretising the United Kingdom's reputation
as a country that strives to adhere to the standards that it sets
for itself as a signatory to many international conventions.
2. In order to forecast the success of a
Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom, it is important
and advantageous to seek guidance from similar organs in other
countries that have proved over the course of time to be quite
effective in the achievement of their objectives.
3. Human Rights Commissions in countries
such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada have divided their resources
into accomplishing three basic functions: first, investigating
individual complaints, second, making general inquiries and third,
providing general informational and educational services.
4. In looking towards the example set by
other countries, it should be borne in mind that some alterations
of the goals of the Commission must be made in order for the Commission
to function effectively in the United Kingdom. Because the Human
Rights Act was implemented without creating a Commission simultaneously,
a United Kingdom Human Rights Commission should reflect the fact
that domestic courts have already been established as the recourse
to violations of the Act by public authorities.
5. It follows that a United Kingdom Commission
need not be focused on providing a source of domestic remedies
in individual cases and should instead concentrate on conducting
general inquiries, disseminating educational information to the
public at large (to be discussed in depth further below) and fostering
a human rights culture in the United Kingdom.
6. Conducting general inquiries into alleged
human rights abuses would provide a useful forum for a group of
people seeking an investigation into their complaints and provide
guidance for the future rather than focusing on compensation and
other remedies already available through the courts. It is notoriously
difficult in the United Kingdom for the individuals or groups
to be able to obtain a public inquiry or investigations into events
or alleged human rights abuses and the creation of a Human Rights
Commission could facilitate this in warranted circumstances.
7. Disseminating education information and
fostering a human rights culture will ensure adherence to human
rights standards as well as appropriate and effective use of the
judicial remedies available under the Human Rights Act.
8. This would also avoid any unnecessary
overlap with existing Commissions that do work on individual complaints
such as the Equal Opportunities Commission, Commission for Racial
Equality, or the Disability Rights Commission.
9. With the passing of the Human Rights
Act in October 2000, it is necessary to also establish an overseeing
body with a focus of promoting the enforcement of the Act in addition
to educational programs and inquiries that extend beyond the Act
to encompass rights conferred by other international conventions
to which the United Kingdom is a party but are not specifically
dealt with by the Human Rights Act.
10. Thus, where appropriate, the Human Rights
Commission could have a wider ambit than those provisions of the
European Convention on Human Rights which are included in the
Human Rights Act and take a broader approach including consideration
of important provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of
the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights for instance. This would help develop a broader human rights
culture in the United Kingdom and ensure the United Kingdom's
adherence to its international obligations.
11. It is also important to bear in mind
that although the Human Rights Act is powerful in achieving state
responsibility for abuses of human rights and specifically makes
it unlawful for a public authority to act in breach of the those
parts of the European Convention on Human Rights which are incorporated
in the Human Rights Act, the Commission will be essential in highlighting
and reporting on violations committed by private bodies such as
12. The Commission could function, as it
has in Australia, as an enforcement mechanism for the Human Rights
Act by giving people the knowledge to understand their rights
and identify when those rights are violated. Without a Human Rights
Commission to provide this valuable service, the average citizen
may not be aware of violations he/she is committing or experiencing.
A Commission in this capacity would strive to eradicate this problem
by educating the public on the human rights that the Human Rights
Act guarantees and in doing so, would ultimately incorporate a
human rights culture into the public psyche.
13. The AIRE Centre's experience from its
advice line is that whilst public awareness of human rights in
general has increased with the implementation of the Human Rights
Act 1998, understanding has not. Indeed due to misleading media
coverage as well as at times poor legal advice, it is the AIRE
Centre's experience that the public in general has a very poor
understanding of the implications of the Human Rights Act for
them and also of applicability of specific provisions to their
14. The AIRE Centre's experience from providing
advice to legal representatives as well as expert training both
to the legal profession and the voluntary sector is that understanding
of the complex issues involved is generally at a low level. Whilst
some representatives and organisations are well informed about
the Human Rights Act, many have confused, if any, knowledge of
the implications for their clients and users. Not only does this
mean that their clients and users are ill-informed about their
rights but also that courts and tribunals in the United Kingdom
would appear to be burdened with misconceived and ill-informed
arguments and applications.
15. It has been accepted in other jurisdictions
that "the most lasting and meaningful way to reduce breaches
of human rights is by changing attitudes and encouraging tolerancethe
key to this is education.
There are several programmes currently in existence in Australia
that illustrate the effectiveness of this approach; namely, the
Youth Challenge Programme for secondary school students and teachers,
a Community Information Programme, internet site materials for
schools, employers and community groups, and media engagement
including interviews and press releases.
16. Such programmes have proven to very
successful. For example, the Annal Report on the Australian Commission
states, "(E)valuations of the Youth Challenge day have shown
a substantially increased awareness by students of human rights
and discrimination issues.
With an average of 98 per cent of participants
and 90 per cent of teachers rating the challenge materials and
day as excellent/very good.
17. In addition to educational outreach
programs, the Commission should produce educational publications
concerning the Human Rights Act, the European Convention, and
how it applies to people in the United Kingdom. By the same token,
legal representatives need to be further informed on the domestic
implications of the Convention so that they can better advise
their clients now that the Human Rights Act has been incorporated
into domestic legislation.
18. The Commission would fill vital gaps
in the protection of rights by existing commissions and provide
an overall human rights approach to training and investigations.
For example, it could undertake investigations of detention centre
conditions where serious human rights violations take place. Additionally,
the Commission could provide training for employers on human rights
and by doing so, provide them with the tools to effectively combat
disputes concerning human rights in the work place.
19. The creation of a Human Rights Commission
is crucial to the United Kingdom's role in the European and International
Community. In fact, the more international the role that the United
Kingdom adopts, the more she submits herself to scrutiny by the
international community. Without a functioning body to serve as
an internal watchdog, the United Kingdom will stand to be openly
criticised and possibly, embarrassed in the much larger global
20. If the United Kingdom forms its own
Human Rights Commission, it will help foster a fusion of domestic
human rights with international obligations and will inevitably
lead to consistency in the United Kingdom's practice abroad and
1 July 2001
33 Canadian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report
2000) p 2. Back
Australian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 19. Back
Australian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 19. Back
Australian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 20. Back
Canadian Human Rights Commission (Annual Report 2000) p 21. Back