15. Memorandum from Northern Ireland Council
for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM)
NICEM is a voluntary sector, membership-based
umbrella organisation representative of minority ethnic groups
and their supportive organisations in Northern Ireland. The Council
is committed to collective action informed by people's experience
and analysis of their circumstances. In pursuit of equality of
opportunity and equity of treatment, NICEM works for social change
in relation to racism and in particular to the elimination of
We have produced a number of responses to consultations
regarding the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
Response to the Draft Bill of Rights
for Northern Ireland (March 2002)
Response to the NIO consultation
on the Review of Powers of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
Response to the Draft Strategic Plan
of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. (August 2002)
These responses are enclosed.
The following evidence is a summary of the key points from each
of these documents as they relate to the specific questions asked
in the Call for Evidence.
1. THE COMMISSION'S
1.1 NICEM is supportive of the work that
the Commission has undertaken to date, particularly with regard
to the protection of the rights of vulnerable members of society.
The existence of a Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland
has clearly enhanced awareness of Human Rights issues, and initiatives
such as the work the Commission has engaged in to develop relations
with NGO's working to combat racism, have the potential to enhance
the effectiveness of the Commission.
1.2 However, the manner in which the NIHRC
is able to exercise it's functions, and consequently its effectiveness,
including in addressing the difficulties faced by particular vulnerable
groups in securing their human rights, is also very clearly limited
by limitations on the powers and resources of the NIHRC, and would
also clearly be much improved by the granting of adequate powers
1.3 In relation to members of Black and
Minority Ethnic groups, this could not be more clearly stated
than in the Opinion of the Advisory Committee on the Framework
Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on the UK
State Report, adopted on 30 November 2001
"In view of the (Northern Ireland Human
Rights) Commission's important role, it is essential that it be
adequately funded and resourced, and that its powers be sufficient
for it to carry out its mandate. The Advisory Committee notes
in this respect that calls have been made for greater funding
for the Commission as well as for a number of changes in its functioning,
in particular in relation to its investigative functions (access
to documentation, access to places of detention etc.)" (emphasis
added) (at paragraph 24)
1.4 More work could also be done in moving
away from the traditional notion of Northern Ireland being made
up of "two communities". It appears to us that in attempting
to avoid overlap with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland,
the effective protection of the Human Rights of minorities may
have fallen into the gaps. We have therefore urged the NIHRC to
specifically include the promotion of the rights of black and
minority ethnic groups in their next strategic plan.
2. THE POWERS
2.1 The powers and resources of the NIHRC
have been clear factors in limiting its effectiveness. It is extremely
likely that the limitations on the powers and resources of the
NIHRC breach the Paris Principles.
2.2 The constructive role of the Commission
in ensuring policy and legislation, as well as practice, is in
compliance with Human Rights principles and laws, needs to be
2.3 The Commission's powers in relation
to investigations also need to be strengthened. The Commission
must have the power to compel witnesses and evidence, as well
as access to places of detention, as was made clear in the Opinion
of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the
Protection of National Minorities on the UK State Report.
2.4 It is also important that the NIHRC
have the power to bring proceedings in its own name. This is particularly
important in areas such as gross violations of human rights, violations
affecting a number of people, and the rights of particularly vulnerable
members of society.
3. THE COMMISSION'S
3.1 It is clear that to date the Commission
has had insufficient resources to enable it to carry out its mandate.
3.2 The fact that powers in relation to
the provision of resources lies with the Northern Ireland Office
is also problematic. NICEM proposes that control of the resourcing
of the NIHRC should lie with parliament, rather than the NIO,
in order to ensure the Commission's independence from Government
intervention to limit the ability of the NIHRC to fulfil its mandate,
particularly in respect of policing the State on Human Rights.
4. THE DEVELOPMENT
4.1 NICEM welcomed the consultation process
that the NIHRC has engaged in on the Bill of Rights. There have
been clear attempts to be as inclusive as possible in the consultation.
4.2 However, we do have difficulties with
some aspects of the current draft. In particular, the proposal
put forward to replace the term "minority" with "community"
threatens to undermine the very nature of minority rights,
and remove the protection that would otherwise be ensured for
members of minorities in Northern Ireland. The Commission has
picked and chosen from the rights in the Framework Convention
for the Protection of National Minorities, with no apparent rational
for doing so, which has led to the exclusion of group rights.
This proposal is clearly in conflict with the international standards
on Minority Rights, is in danger of diminishing existing international
protections, and must be rectified.
4.3 The chapter on Social and Economic
Rights needs to be strengthened. As it stands it restricts
the enforcement of social and economic rights to due process and
equality rights, thus rendering the entire chapter redundant,
since these protections are already afforded elsewhere in the
The international standards in the area of economic
and social rights are clearly set out in the Revised European
Social Charter, and it is unfortunate that these standards have
not been used as the basis for this section of the Bill of Rights.
It also unfortunate that the UK government has, to date, failed
to ratify the Revised European Social Charter.
Strong social and economic rights are essential
to any modern Bill of Rights, particularly so in the context of
Northern Ireland, where levels of social exclusion and economic
deprivation are high, as recognised by existing provisions such
as the duty to promote equality under s. 75 of the Northern Ireland
Act 1998 and New Targeting Social Need. It is also one of the
areas where there is significant support from groups and communities
in Northern Ireland.
4.4 The Bill of Rights also needs to include
protection of undocumented persons, asylum seekers and refugees.
NICEM has urged the Commission to include the protection, prevention
and promotion of international human rights standards to this
most vulnerable of groups in our society.
This is particularly important considering the
impact of political climate post September 11, where discriminatory
laws have been passed in the recent anti-terrorism legislation,
particularly in relation to the detention of foreign nationals.
The government has recognised that this detention breaches international
human rights standards, hence the derogation from Article 5 ECHR.
The protection of minorities and minority rights is all the more
essential in such a climate, and it is essential that the Commission
have the powers to challenge such violations and works to promote
the rights of such vulnerable groups.
In conclusion, NICEM is supportive of the NIHRC
in its work to promote and protect Human Rights in Northern Ireland,
and believe that there is much that can be built on to enhance
its effectiveness in this area, particularly if the Commission
is given sufficient resources to carry out its mandate. However,
there are particular areas of concern, particularly in relation
to the protection of minority rights in the Bill of Rights, that
need to be urgently addressed.
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