19. Memorandum from Sinn Fe«in
With regard to the above, in your capacity as
Committee chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights I would
greatly appreciate it if you would accept this letter representing
Sinn Fe«in's current views on the North's Human Rights Commission
and enter these views for the Committee recorda procedure
we have been afforded in the past.
Firstly could I say that given the tight timeframe
of the Joint Committee inquiry into the Human Rights Commission,
we welcome the extension and the opportunity to make comment on
this crucial component of the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Fe«in would like to focus on a number
of issues regarding the
and independence of the Commission.
We will also address the Commission's role in
the Bill of Rights process.
Another equally pressing matter we would urge
the Committee to focus on is the role of the Northern Ireland
Office as we believe the approach and intervention of the NIO
has damaged and limited the effectiveness of the work of the Commission.
Sinn Fe«in's political objective is to
secure a United Ireland based on the central tenets of equality,
justice and human rights for every citizen. We seek to secure
consensus for this. Our party fully endorsed the establishment
of a Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission under
the Good Friday Agreement. We viewed these mechanismsin
tandem with othersas key components in addressing matters
that for far too long had contributed to a society where a lack
of human rights and inequality had fuelled many of the conditions
for conflict. It is in this context that we have measured the
effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission in contributing to
the creation of a human rights culture and ethos in our society
or whetherbecause of various reasonsit lacks the
ability to do so.
We have also pro-actively engaged with the Human
Rights Commission on a range of human rights issues and have made
two substantive submissions to the HRC in relation to the Bill
If we are to build on the opportunity of the
Good Friday Agreement throughout the island of Ireland then the
Bill of Rights that emerges must be comprehensive enough to command
widespread community and political ownership and consensus. A
Bill of Rights needs to add value to international human rights
standards and must be tailored to address and reflect the particular
circumstances of the North. At this juncture however, we believe
that he Bill of Rights process and the Commission's role in it
has ran into serious difficulties. I will turn to this later.
In our submissions on the Bill of Rights Sinn
Fe«in put forward recommendations under a wide range of headings
dealing with equality and parity of esteem; of the need for the
inclusion of social and economic rights, developmental rights;
civil and political rights; children's rights etc. In addition,
we have argued for a constitutional court/human rights courta
position supported by key NGO's but not, we regret to say, by
the Human Rights Commission itself.
Unfortunately, we were alarmed and concerned
that in several key aspects of the Good Friday Agreementand
in relation to certain international standardsthe Human
Rights Commission's consultation document entitled "Making
a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland" actually diluted specific
guarantees of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to equality
and parity of esteem. The HRC also promoted a more minimal approach
in the interpretation of the Framework Convention for the protection
of national minorities.
In addressing your Committee's four areas of
inquiry into the Human Rights Commission ie its effectiveness,
its powers, resources and the Bill of Rights, we would therefore
put forward the following areas of concern that need to be addressed.
Effectiveness and powers
We believe that from the outset of
its existence the Human Rights Commission has been impeded by
the fact that the British government resisted credible advice
from human rights NGO's and others to establish the Commission
under the UN's Paris Principles as a basic minimal requirement.
The Commission carried out a review
of its powers in February 2001 under Section 69(2) of the NI Act
in which it highlighted a series of areas of concern where it
was impeded in carrying out its work because of the lack of powers.
The NIO dragged its heels for 15 months before responding to the
HRC review. It then overwhelmingly rejected the bulk of the 25
it was evident in the Commission's
reviewand in a subsequent independent review of the Commission
undertaken by Peter Hosking from the UNthat the HRC is
restricted by the lack of power to compel witnesses and documents,
to take cases in its own name and to have unimpeded access to
The Commission is also impeded in
its work by the approach and attitude of the NIO which has consistently
failed to consult in advance with the Commission and has ignored
its comments on human rights issues ie the Terrorism Act, Freedom
of Information Actto name but a fewand has deliberately
obstructed the Commission in carrying out investigations (we refer
here to the matter of the government's lack of co-operation with
the Commission on the review of juvenile justice).
We would also draw the Committee's
attention to the knock-on effect this NIO approach has had on
the attitude of statutory agencies who have also adopted a non-co-operation
approach with the Commission, thus affecting its ability and effectiveness
to protect and promote human rights.
The Commission is consistently undermined
by not having access in advance and in sufficient time to scrutinise
and provide advice on draft bills and legislation at the Assembly
and from other parliamentarian sources.
The recent resignations of two prominent
HRC Commissioners and human rights experts in their own fields,
Ms Inez McCormack and Professor Christine Bell is a matter of
deep concern to us and should be a priority area of inquiry for
the Joint Human Rights Committee. Both former Commissioners made
it clear in their public statement that the reason for their resignations
was the Commissions' ineffectiveness in protecting and promoting
human rights, also its lack of resources and sufficient powers.
The Commission is not sufficiently
financed and resourced to carry out its remit. The HRC has consistently
highlighted this matter as have some of the political parties,
including ourselves, with the NIO. It is our view that while public
accountability for public spending is certainly necessary, it
is however entirely inappropriate that the NIO is taking an approach
in scrutinising the budgetary detail to the extent that this is
having a detrimental effect on the Commission's work.
The issue of Human Resources also
needs to be enhanced if the Commission is to be effective.
The HRC is unrepresentative in composition
of wider society and is therefore unbalanced in terms of community
background, gender and religious balance. Presently the composition
is skewed towards a majority of those from a unionist background,
a matter further compounded by the recent appointment of a unionist
politician. Sinn Fe«in believes that the Commission is better
served by the absence of political representation for the foreseeable
The appointment process itself is
carried out by the NIO. We share the view of NGO's and others
that there needs to be an Independent Selection Process put in
place to ensure (a) that the process is above reproach and credible
and (b) that the HRC is equality-proofed in its composition.
In conclusion, Madam chair, Sinn Fe«in
welcomes the opportunity to raise these matters that have been
of concern to us for some considerable time. We will naturally
raise the issue of human rights in the political talks process,
especially the way forward regarding the Bill of Rights process.
It is our view at this juncture, shared by some political parties,
that the Bill of Rights is too important an issue to the overall
peace process to get wrong.
Earlier I alluded to difficulties with the process
around the development of the Bill of Rights and with the HRC's
approach to key issues in its consultation document. Sinn Fe«in
believes that the Bill of Rights needs to be seen by the entire
community as an instrument of justice and protection of their
rights. The Bill of Rights will be the foundation stone of the
Charter of Rights for the island therefore it essential that we
take the opportunity presented to ensure that civic society and
its political representatives are given the space to develop the
Bill of Rights and more importantly, to develop maximum agreement.
Unfortunately, we do not feel that the process
being advocated by the HRC has the ability to secure such consensus.
The HRC is aware of these concerns and is aware of the proposal
we have made to it to endorse a particular approach that would
not compromise the Commission's integrity under the Good Friday
Agreement. This would involve the Bill of Rights process being
facilitated by an Independent International Chair, supported by
a Secretariat, that would engage with civic society and the political
parties in an inclusive process. The precedent for international
facilitation has already been set in the peace process.
Finally, on behalf of Sinn Fe«in I would
like once again to thank you and the members of the Joint Committee
for the opportunity of putting forward the above matters.
I wish you well in your deliberations and look
forward to the outcome of your inquiry.
17 December 2002