16. Memorandum from the Northern Ireland
Women's Coalition (NIWC)
The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition would
like to thank the Joint Committee on Human Rights for inviting
us to submit evidence on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
To date, the NIWC has had a positive relationship with the Northern
Ireland Human Rights Commission. Our relationship has mostly revolved
round the consultation of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
The NIWC made a submission to the Commission in 2001 during the
first phase of consultation, setting out what we believed were
important principles for a Bill of Rights. After the launch of
the consultation document, the NIWC made a further submission
answering the questions posed in the document and commenting on
the Commission's proposals. Members of the NIWC have met with
Commissioners (Brice Dickson and Tom Hadden) to discuss this submission.
Further, a training session was organised by party members and
facilitated by Brice Dickson and Commission staff members.
Considering the contact between the Commission
and the NIWC, as well as the NIWC's knowledge of the Commission,
we would not be in the position to comment extensively on the
internal working of the Commission, the Commission's statutory
powers or the Commission's relationship with other bodies. We
do, however, feel that our involvement with the Commission permits
us to look at the role of the Commission in terms of its work
on the Bill of Rights and its general perception by us as a political
party. The party would be most competent to offer the following
Insufficient resources of the Commission
We understand that only fourteen staff facilitate
the many tasks undertaken by the Commission. It is not for the
NIWC to comment on the management of the Commission, as we do
not have direct experience or knowledge of their management structures.
We do, however, feel that the budget and resources that support
the commission' work are inadequate for the statutory tasks it
is asked to deliver. We make this statement considering that the
Commission is obliged to offer advice on cases, investigate human
rights abuses, educate the general population on human rights
concepts and undertake a comprehensive Bill of Rights consultation
within a budget of less than one million pounds a year. Human
rights are an essential component of building a peaceful society
in Northern Ireland. As such, government expenditure should reflects
human rights as a priority.
Breadth of the consultation on a Bill of Rights
The Commission has embraced the Bill of Rights
project as one of its central priorities. Despite embarrassing
resources and what seems to be apathy towards rights promotion
in certain sectors of public society, the Commission has engaged
in what we feel has been an extensive two-year process. The Chief
Commissioner in particular has been willing to facilitate training
and engage in public debate in order to bolster the discussion
regarding a Bill of Rights. We recognise and applaud a two-year
campaign that has successfully engaged civil society as well as
looked to educate the general public. The Commission's consultation
has been underpinned by use of best international practice in
effort to craft a broad Bill of Rights that will met the needs
of everyone in Northern Ireland. We not only support this approach
but also commend the Commission for its diligence in seeking the
opinions of others.
The troublesome perception of the Commission as
We are concerned that the Commission's membership
and thus its work this far has been undermined by accusations
of being "unrepresentative". We are also concerned that
the Commission has become the "political punching bag"
of groups that would describe human rights as belonging to only
one community. We find this assertion entirely offensive. As a
party committed to the promotion of equality and human rights,
we applaud the Commissions' education campaigns and work around
the Bill of Rights which show outreach to all sectors of Northern
Irish society. We find that staff and Commissioners act without
bias and without deference to one community over another.
We will hope the Committee will discuss the
credibility of such allegations in terms of the threat to the
Commission's independence. We, as a cross-community party, find
them to be unsubstantiated and corrosive to the pursuit of human
rights. Also, we hope the committee will consider how the overt
politicisation of human rights impedes reform in the areas of
equality and inclusion. The Commission must be allowed to act
with due regard to international obligations and in protection
of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland without having their
work sabotaged by political mud slinging.
Communication regarding the Bill of Rights process
We have been concerned that the Bill of Rights
process has been delayed for reasons that are not apparent to
the public or those who have made submissions. The Commission
concluded the consultation on the first draft of the Bill of Right
in December 2001. We do not object to lengthening the consultation
process for the Bill of Rights. We believe a Bill of Rights to
be pivotal in maintaining stability and promoting a more egalitarian
society. As such, all deliberation necessary should be given to
crafting a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. However, the Commission
has sent mixed messages as to when the consultation (as extended
from December) will cease and what their new timeline will be.
In 2002, there has been correspondence in regard to seminars on
key "problem areas" that has not materialised. Perhaps
this is due in part to poor resources to organise these events
at the time-scale originally suggested. However, we note the need
to keep parties and organisations informed of the next steps the
Commission plans to take.
Consistent and informative contact with the political
Related to our last point, we think the Commission
has only now begun to seriously engage with the political sphere.
In terms of the Bill of Rights, it has been suggested that there
should be a certain amount of political consensus before the Bill
of Rights can become a reality. We would like to remind the Committee
that every political party signalled support for a Bill of Rights
at one time or another. As noted, the Commission perhaps needs
to keep parties better informed and draw out elements of the consultation
document that could potentially be points of consensus. We think
that the current political crisis can potentially invigorate discussion
of the Bill of Rights process and bring parties to the table to
negotiate how a Bill can be implemented (as a duty of the Belfast
(Good Friday) Agreement)nevertheless, the Bill of Rights
should be implemented regardless of the state of negotiations
on the Agreement. The NIWC has been consistently calling for the
implementation committee to meet so that this issue and others
can be discussed. We do not believe the onus is on the Commission
to ensure that parties come to a consensus. We do, however, suggest
that better and more timely information from the Commission would
aid that process.
The Commission's vision or strategic goal
In mentioning the many tasks that the Commission
has set before it, we sense a lack of vision. There does not seem
to be a prioritisation of their duties that might better utilise
the resources they do have. Perhaps this observation stems from
an uncertainty as to what are the Commission's current priorities
or strategic objectives. This relates to how the Commission is
perceived to fit into the fabric of civil society. For instance,
we are unaware how the Commission relates to the Equality Commission
or will relate to a future Children's Commissioner.
We are pleased to send these views to you and
we would be more than happy to answer any questions in relation
to the content of this correspondence. We enclose as well our
submissions on the Bill of Rights for both the first and second
consultation periods on a Bill of Rights.
We view the work of the Commission as vital
to the promotion of a vibrant rights culture in Northern Ireland.
As a party committed to human rights, we would like to see the
current obstacles to the work of the Commission removed and help
in overcoming some of the problems they may have experienced to
9 December 2002