In its White Paper, Bringing Rights Home,
the Government, in anticipation of a parliamentary committee on
human rights being established, suggested that that committee
might examine whether, following the passing of the Human Rights
Act 1998, there appeared to be a need for an independent human
rights commission. This report is the response of the Joint Committee
on Human Rights to that proposal. In it we conclude that the case
for establishing a commission is compelling.
A Culture of Human Rights
It was hoped that the Human Rights Act would help
to nurture a "culture of understanding of rights and responsibilities"
in the UK. Human rights lay down fundamental standards that may
be breached, if at all, only under stringent and clearly specified
conditions. It is governments which are bound by the international
human rights instruments, and the Human Rights Act places obligations
on public authorities, not on individuals. But the obligations
of public authorities go beyond non-interference with rightsthey
are also required to take active steps to protect people's rights
against interference by others, and to enhance people's capacity
to take advantage of their rights. The idea of such positive obligations
is rooted in Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights,
which requires every state to secure to everyone within their
jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention.
A culture of human rights, therefore, would be one
which gave full recognition to this positive concept of rights.
It should have two dimensionsinstitutional and ethical.
In such a culture, so far as the institutional dimension is concerned,
respect for human rights should shape the goals, structures, and
practices of our public bodies. The key to the effective protection
of rights lies in creating a culture in public life in which these
fundamental principles are seen as central to the design and delivery
of policy, legislation and public services. In their decision
making and their service delivery central government, local authorities,
schools, hospitals, police forces and other organs and agencies
of the state should ensure full respect for the rights of all
In such a culture, so far as the ethical dimension
is concerned, individual men and women should understand that
they enjoy certain rights as a matter of right, as an affirmation
of their equal dignity and worth, and not as a contingent gift
of the state. But this understanding should go with a sense of
personal responsibility and of social obligation: an acknowledgement
that the rights of one person are limited by those of others and
need to be exercised with a due regard for the latter, and an
acceptance that rights entail obligations on the part of others
and require that these obligations should be discharged. For the
most part human rights are not absolute: they require a fair balance
to be struck and maintained between the individual and his or
her fellow human beings and the wider public interest. A culture
of human rights is not one which is concerned only with rights,
to the neglect of duties and responsibilities, but rather one
that balances rights and responsibilities by fostering a basic
respect for human rights and dignity, and creating a climate in
which such respect becomes an integral part of our dealings with
the public authorities of the state and with each other.
Such a culture of respect for human rights could
help create a more humane society, a more responsive government
and better public services. It could help to deepen and widen
democracy. It is a goal worth striving for.
The Case for a Human Rights Commission
In this report we consider the signs which indicate
whether that culture of respect for human rights has begun to
flourish in the UK since the passing of the Human Rights Act,
and the evidence of whether a human rights commission could help
it do so.
In the case of a measure such as the Human Rights
Act, which is both new and intended to be far-reaching, the legal
process does not have a reality unless people know what it is
and know how to use it. Spreading knowledge and awareness of the
law is an essential part of building a culture. But if it is left
only to the courts, the original vision that the Human Rights
Act should bring about a cultural change will not be realised.
Litigation is an essential last resort in protecting the rights
of the individual or groups, but it is not the most effective
means of developing a culture of human rights.
Government cannot be the sole advocate of a culture
of rights and responsibilities. Rights essentially mediate the
relationship between the citizens and the state. A Government
cannot be an impartial champion of human rights. In the course
of our inquiry we found very broad support for an organisation
which stands aside from government, and engages with civil society
in a debate about the practical expression of the values embodied
in human rights.
Parliament must defend human rights and must stand
at the centre of a culture of respect for human rights, but it
cannot itself do the work of educating, informing, encouraging
and promoting that is needed to establish this culture more widely.
The Paris Principles, as agreed by the General Assembly
of the United Nations, exhort all states to establish independent
bodies which will raise public awareness of human rights, promote
good practice, monitor policy developments and their impact, provide
independent advice to Parliament and Government, and help those
who feel that their rights have been breached or are threatened
with violation. Many countries have already established independent
national human rights institutions.
It is insufficient, however, to assert the case for
an independent human rights commission in principle alone. It
is necessary also to assess whether a commission could have the
potential to make a real difference to people's lives.
We have not found evidence of the rapid development
of awareness of a culture of respect for human rights and its
implications throughout society, and what awareness there is often
appears partial or ill-informed. We fear that the highwater mark
has been passed, and that awareness of human rights is ebbing,
both within public authorities and within the public at large.
We took evidence from a wide range of bodies concerned
in the monitoring and regulation of public authorities, and examined
more directly the extent to which the growth of a culture of human
rights showed itself in the practices and policies of local authorities
and NHS bodies.
It is clear to us that, by and large, public authorities,
and those who inspect, advise and audit them, do not give a high
priority to placing respect for human rights at the heart of their
policies and practices. Insufficient energy is being given to
communicating a vision to public authorities to help them understand
how a culture of respect for human rights might look or how it
could be delivered.
There is a need for the active promotion of the understanding
that Convention rights impose positive duties on public authorities.
In our public services the climate of legal compliance and risk
avoidance too often inhibits the development of a human rights
culture. Too often human rights are looked upon as something from
which the state needs to defend itself, rather than to promote
as its core ethical values. There is a failure to recognise the
part that they could play in promoting social justice and social
inclusion and in the drive to improve public services.
The enthusiasm to make the Human Rights Act come
alive as a measure which places positive duties on public authorities,
and which should promote a culture of respect for human rights
in every aspect of public life, needs to be rekindled. A human
rights commission probing, questioning and encouraging public
bodies could have a real impact in driving forward the development
of that culture by guiding, advising and assisting those involved
in the work of public authorities. Such a body could assist the
public services by consolidating advice on compliance with rights
and complement the courts by preventing breaches of rights occurring
through the spread of best practice and greater awareness. Governments
should be able to look on a commission as a critical friend which
can help them achieve some of their more fundamental goals, including
improved delivery of better public services.
Working through regulatory and representative bodies
for different sectors of public activity, a commission should
be able to give human rights a focus, resources and a degree of
institutional stability not found recently in central government.
Human rights need a home. This could provide a base from which
there would be a realistic chance of devising and disseminating
a more credible culture of respect for human rights.
There is evidence of an unmet need for citizens to
be assisted in understanding what their rights are, how these
rights must be balanced with those of others, and how to assert
their rights without necessarily having recourse to litigation.
We have found widespread evidence of a lack of respect
for the rights of those who use public services, especially the
rights of those who are most vulnerable and in need of protection.
Human rights should provide a framework within which people who
need to can negotiate with public authorities for better conditions
and treatment, both in individual cases and in wider contexts.
But the message about what human rights can do for individuals
and groups in their relations with the state is at present being
only faintly heard. Much of the cause for this state of affairs
can be ascribed to the absence of an independent voice able energetically
to promote and help to protect human rights in the UK. There is
very widespread support for the establishment of a human rights
commission which would be able to promote the principles that
underlie the idea of a culture of human rights in a way that everyone
Sufficient unmet needs have been identified to establish
that there is essential work for a commission to do. The development
of a culture of respect for human rights is in danger of stalling,
and there is an urgent need for the momentum to be revived and
the project driven forward. Since the Government is committed
to developing a culture of respect for human rights it has a duty
of leadership. If it wills the end, it must also will the means.
The resources devoted to this task are insufficient to achieve
the goal that the Government desires. Precious time has already
been wasted. The decision to establish an independent body for
the promotion and protection of human rights must be taken now.
Powers and Functions
The commission we propose should not be seen as another
inspectorate, advisory body, regulatory authority or enforcement
agency. Nor should it be a body with an adversarial or litigious
approach to its mission.
Its principal purpose should be to foster a culture
of respect for human rights through raising awareness of the need
to promote human rights in public authorities in the delivery
of services, and through making individuals conscious of their
rights and guiding them in asserting those rights.
In connection with this function it should be able
to conduct and commission research and provide financial or other
assistance for educational activities in connection with promoting
understanding and awareness of human rights. It would need to
offer guidance to, and promote best practice in, public authorities
in relation to human rights.
The Commission should have the function of improving
knowledge and understanding of human rights issues amongst those
who help individuals in asserting their rights. It should be able
to do this through close collaboration with non-governmental organisations
and those who provide advice services in the voluntary sector
and professionally. It should not itself be driven by the task
of handling individual complaints.
The Commission should have the power to conduct inquiries
into questions of public policy engaging human rights, on its
own initiative. It should have the necessary powers to make this
Alternative dispute resolution procedures might provide
a remedy for violations or potential violations of rights in appropriate
circumstances. The commission could facilitate the use of such
procedures. It could also mediate and conciliate on its own account
in situations of broader conflict which engage human rights issues.
The commission should be involved in the reporting
processes under the various international human rights instruments.
It should also help to raise awareness of the obligations under
these instruments more generally.
The commission could play a valuable role in assisting
the courts in determining human rights questions. In order to
do this we conclude that it will be essential for the commission
to have power to act as a friend of the court or as a third party
intervener. It may need other powers in relation to litigation,
such as supporting strategic cases and seeking judicial review,
to underpin its primary promotional function.
EQUALITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
The Government's decision to establish a new equality
commission makes it necessary to resolve now the question of how
arrangements for the promotion of equality and diversity can work
together with arrangements for the promotion and protection of
human rights. This report constitutes our formal input into the
Government's consultation on the structure of a single equality
body for Great Britain.
The right to equality of treatment and the enjoyment
of other rights without discrimination is a fundamental human
right. There is a considerable degree of congruence between the
work required for the promotion of equality and that required
for the promotion and protection of human rights. There are also
divergences. Unjustifiable discrimination needs to be tackled
by detailed measures, which may not always be appropriate to the
promotion and protection of wider human rights.
However constituted, the new single equality body
will be insufficient if there are not more effective arrangements
for the promotion and protection of human rights more generally.
There are a number of options for the institutional structures
relating to equality and for human rights. The proposed new single
equality body will almost certainly require a human rights dimension
if it is to do its work effectively. But this will not meet all
the needs we have identified for arrangements for the promotion
and protection of human rights.
There are arguments for and against a separate human
rights commission standing alongside a separate single equality
body. The practical advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives
of a single integrated human rights and equality commission and
two separate bodies for equality and human rights require careful
consideration. There are strong arguments for moving, over the
proposed timescale for the establishment of a single equality
body, to the establishment of an integrated human rights and equality
commission. This is our preferred option.
There is already a Human Rights Commission in Northern
Ireland, and a decision has been taken to establish a Scottish
Human Rights Commission. There are also special circumstances
in Wales which need to be recognised.
Institutional arrangements for the promotion and
protection of human rights need to be locally-sensitive and recognise
the special circumstances of the different jurisdictions of the
UK. But UK-wide arrangements which can address the complex inter-relationships
between reserved and devolved responsibilities are also necessary,
and possible. This applies equally to arrangements for the promotion
of equality and diversity.
As an interim measure, a UK Human Rights Advisory
Council should be established, on a non-statutory basis. Its principal
function should be to provide a "light-touch" co-ordination
of arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights
(including equality) throughout the UK and, in its first phase,
helping prepare the way for the institutional changes which are
Accountability and Independence
The commission must be guaranteed its independence,
and sufficient resources. The main factor which will influence
the quality of those who seek to become commissioners is the perception
that the commission is a fully independent body with the potential
to exercise real influence, and which is to be resourced adequately
to do the job it has been set.
A requirement to consult Parliament on the appointment
of commissioners would act as a guarantee of independence and
democratic accountability. Parliament should be directly involved
in setting the budget of the commission. The commission should
work closely with the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
Human rights are widely misunderstood. They tend
to be seen only in terms of offering protection from the worst
excesses of anti-democratic and despotic regimes, or as the concern
only of those who are fundamentally at odds with majority views
Properly and more widely understood, and made a reality
in the practice and policies of public authorities, human rights
have the potential to be agents of positive change. There is,
however, a danger that this potential will be dissipated in imprecise
aspirations and pious hopes, or that human rights will be perceived
as marginal to the day-to-day concerns of the UK's citizens.
More work needs to be done to promote human rights
as a set of fundamental ethical standardsfor the way the
state treats its citizens and for all our social relations. We
need to build a culture of respect for human rights.
Building such a culture is an ambitious vision, and
there are many barriers to achieving it. The greatest of these
is ignorance. In such a culture people would be better informed
about what their rights were and what they could mean in practice.
The most vulnerable would be better protected from violations
of their human rights. Government and public authorities would
promote and protect human rights standards and treat all people
with dignity, fairness and respect. Human rights standards would
be generally accepted as those by which we should all strive to
treat each other; and people would recognise and value both their
own rights and those of others.
We need a human rights commission. That commission
must have a clear mission, and it must be given the powers and
functions to fulfil that mission. It must have sufficient resources
to do the job it has been given, and its budget must be set in
an open and transparent way. It must be independent from Government,
and be seen to be so. It must belong to the people and be accountable
to them through Parliament.
In due course we will invite further evidence on
some of the matters raised in this report.