|In this report we examine the work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: the first independent human rights institution to be established in the UK.
We examine the context of the creation of the Commission under the Northern Ireland Act as a central part of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement ("the Agreement"). The Agreement reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations arose from a process involving British and Irish Governments; ratified by both Houses of Parliament and endorsed by concurrent referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The parties expressed the view that the Agreement offers "a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning". The role of the Human Rights Commission is to underpin and strengthen new and devolved institutions, providing an anchor in a post-conflict settlement for the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms. While conditions for the protection of human rights have improved dramatically since the Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The role of the Commission is critical for its future well-being.
Co-operation with Government
We urge the Northern Ireland Office to expedite the agreement of a memorandum of understanding with the Commission, even if during the suspension of the devolved institutions this can be done only on an interim basis. That memorandum of understanding should make clear to other Whitehall departments that they have a duty to inform, consult and take account of the Commission in the formulation of policy, with regard both to areas within the competence of the devolved Northern Ireland administration and, as part of the United Kingdom, legislation affecting Northern Ireland.
Independence and impartiality
For a human rights institution to be effective, it must operate, and be seen to operate, neutrally, independently, and without being beholden to external groups or bodies. The Commission has striven to work in this way, and for the most part successfully. We believe that its independence and impartiality could be strengthened by
- giving it a specific statutory duty to act with independence and impartiality;
- introducing an independent element into the appointment of Commissioners;
- ensuring that, as far as practicable, its membership is 'representative of the community', as the Northern Ireland Act provides
- establishing clear, published criteria for appointment as a Commissioner, the most important of which should be independence and expertise in the understanding of human rights;
- the regular, vigorous and public support of Ministers in the NIO for the work of the Commission.
Impartiality is not secured by insisting that membership should precisely reflect the different communities in Northern Ireland. The effectiveness of the Commission should be assessed by what it does and not by identifying the community background of individual Commissioners.
We note that the Commission has had to struggle for resources in its first three years. The increase in its budget for this and the succeeding two financial years is therefore welcome. We recommend that the NIO sets out some clear criteria against which it proposes to assess the core funding of the Commission, that it continues to monitor and review the adequacy of that funding, and that it involves Parliament more fully in the determination of the Commission's budget.
To the extent that the Commission will continue to need to make supplementary bids for project-specific funds, we recommend that safeguards are put in place to ensure that its independence of judgement is not compromised, and that any suspicion of unfair pressure is avoided.
In the course of our inquiry we heard considerable criticism of the Commission's perceived lack of focus. We welcome the Commission's recognition of the need for more focussed and strategic work in its recently published strategic plan. The organisational changes required to give effect to these plans have already been identified. They need to be implemented soon.
We particularly welcome the emphasis put on raising awareness of human rights within the public authorities of Northern Ireland. This is a fundamental task which should be accorded the highest priority. The Commission's experience tends to confirm our view that it is impractical and inappropriate for a human rights commission to have a leading role in providing assistance to individual victims of alleged human rights violations. That function should be allocated to the Northern Ireland Legal Aid Department. The Commission should focus its casework on strategic goals rather than individual redress.
The consultation on the Draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland has raised many questions and stimulated debate. It should continue, and should be structured to encourage the full participation of civil society, including the political parties in the Province. It should not pre-empt resources needed to achieve more immediate goals.
The Commission's investigatory powers have been challenged. It should not be necessary for it to bring judicial review proceedings in order to obtain access to information necessary to its work. We recommend clarification and statutory definition of its investigatory powers, but believe those powers should be clearly safeguarded to protect a citizen's Convention rights, and should be exercised sparingly.