1. What is the Human Rights Consortium?
The Human Rights Consortium is a coalition of almost 130 community and voluntary groups, NGOS, charities and trade unions which campaigns for a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights.
The Human Rights Consortium was established in 2000 to encourage widespread community participation in the consultation process on the proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
The unifying factor in the Human Rights Consortium is a firmly-held belief that a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights can play a fundamental role in the creation of a better, more just, inclusive and shared Northern Ireland.
2. What does the Human Rights Consortium do?
The Human Rights Consortium campaigns for a Bill of Rights through lobbying and advocacy, increases awareness of the Bill of Rights process and encourages people to get involved. It is the voice of the civic society campaign for the Bill of Rights.
A survey carried out by the Human Rights Consortium in late 2007 indicated that 75% of people here are in favour of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
3. What is the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?
A Bill of Rights is a contract between the people and the government. It lists the basic human rights which all people in a particular society are entitled to and sets a benchmark below which the government cannot fall. It also provides a means by which people can hold the government to account if those rights are not being adequately protected.
Under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) was asked to consult with people in Northern Ireland and advise the Secretary of State on the scope for defining rights supplementary to the European Convention of Human Rights. Such rights were to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and, taken together with the Convention, would constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
4. What do we mean by a Strong and Inclusive Bill of Rights?
Considering the diversity of the Human Rights Consortium’s membership, the Consortium does not take a position on individual rights to be included in the Bill of Rights. Instead it campaigns for a ‘strong and inclusive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.’ The Consortium has developed this concept further and produced a number of key principles to further its campaign work:
No undermining of current international/regional human rights protections
International human rights law sets minimal standards which a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland build upon. These are standards that are designed to apply in countries as varied as Canada and Chad, so a ‘developed’ region like Northern Ireland should aspire to improve upon these standards.
Recognisable gains, especially for the most disadvantaged
While a Bill of Rights is in some respects an aspirational document, setting out the vision of a peaceful and just society, there is no point in having a Bill of Rights that does not have an actual impact on improving the lives of the most disadvantaged in society, not merely those who can afford access to justice.
Effective enforcement mechanisms
Any Bill of Rights needs an enforcement system which is transparent and accessible. Taking a valid case to protect your rights should be simple and affordable. The general public needs to be educated on what their rights are and how they can have them protected in the courts. The language in the Bill of Rights must be clear and accessible. Representative groups should be supported to provide advocacy, advice and support for potential litigants. Legal aid should also be provided for people who need to use the court/legal system.
Represents the diversity that is Northern Ireland
Members of the Consortium represent all sorts of people, including, but not limited to, children, older people, people with dependents, minority ethnic communities and
people with disabilities. The Bill of Rights must address the rights of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Promotes equality for all
The Bill of Rights should enforce equality between all citizens. While other equality legislation, such as Section 75 (NI Act 1998) and the proposed Single Equality Bill will be more detailed pieces of legislation, the role of the Bill of Rights is to ensure peoples’ rights to full and effective equality.
Moves beyond the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act (HRA) to include, in particulr, socio-economic rights:
The ECHR is an important document but is now sixty years old and was designed with a particular post WWII context in mind. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland needs to reflect more recent developments and as such should incorporate social and economic rights, examples of which include the right to an adequate standard of living, the right of access to accommodation and the right to the highest attainable standard of healthcare. These rights are about guaranteeing a basic standard of living for everyone that is consistent and fair, providing protection for the most marginalised in society and giving them dignity and respect. Social and economic rights are concerns that are shared across all communities and protecting them in a Bill of Rights would contribute greatly to a shared vision of the future.
7. We already have a Human Rights Act, isn’t that sufficient? Why do we need a separate Bill of Rights?
Northern Ireland would benefit from a Bill of Rights because of our unique history. A Bill of Rights could help us progress as a society emerging from conflict and would establish social and economic rights not currently protected by the HRA.
The Human Rights Act 1998 integrated many of the rights set out in the ECHR into UK law. However, the HRA does not include the European Convention in its entirety, nor does it include rights not mentioned in the Convention. The ECHR is now sixty years old and while it is strong on civil and political rights, it is very weak on equality, social and economic and cultural rights. Indeed, the Convention has already been updated and supplemented at a European level by the European Social Charter but this document is not enforceable in domestic law.
A Bill of Rights could allow people living in Northern Ireland to build on the strengths of the European Convention and the HRA to consider the particular needs of Northern Ireland and at the same time update our protections with some of the important rights issues which have emerged in the past five decades.
A Bill of Rights could allow people living in Northern Ireland to build on the strengths of the European Convention and the HRA, to consider the particular needs of Northern Ireland and at the same time update our protections with some of the important rights issues which have emerged in the past five decades.
8. Why do we need a Bill of Rights now?
Provision for a Bill of Rights was included in the Good Friday Agreement in recognition that as a society we would benefit from setting down a shared set of rights. As we continue to be a society in transition, developing a Bill of Rights is still as relevant today as it was then.
Creating a new legal framework and rebuilding confidence in the legal system has proven to be an essential element of transition in societies all around the world. Various international examples from countries emerging from conflicts – like South Africa and Central America – and also post communist societies in Central and Eastern Europe, indicate that the process of creating a rights-based instrument represents an important ‘fresh start.’ Countries in transition have almost universally created new constitutions or rights instruments and Northern Ireland can learn much from these experiences. These processes, like the Bill of Rights debate here, can allow all sections of a divided society to come together and voice their views about what rights need to be protected in their post-conflict lives.
However Bills of Rights do not only emerge from conflict and at times of transition. A Bill of Rights is also a normal part of the constitutional furniture of most mature democratic systems. Most societies have a document such as this which sets out in a clear and accessible way the constitutional limits to the exercise of power by the government of the day. Northern Ireland (and the UK generally) is an exception to the rule in this regard. It is time for Northern Ireland to join the international mainstream by adopting a Bill of Rights.
9. Is the Bill of Rights for everyone?
Yes. A Bill of Rights would protect all people equally, regardless of political views, colour or creed. Human rights are inherent in our very humanity. They apply equally to all human beings and we all stand to benefit equally from them. An important step forward in our efforts to move to a peaceful society where dignity and equality of all are respected, would be to move away from the old win/lose mentality and recognise that having a Bill of Rights that protects everyone’s fundamental rights, is a situation where everyone wins.
A strong and inclusive Bill of Rights would protect the social and economic rights of everyone in Northern Ireland. For example, the right to accommodation would apply to Protestants as well as Catholics, to long-term residents as well as immigrants and to people with disabilities as well as those without. It is also worth noting that over the past few decades, all major political parties in Northern Ireland have voiced their support for a Bill of Rights.
10. What does the ‘particular circumstances’ of Northern Ireland, as stated in the Good Friday Agreement, mean?
This term is open to interpretation but the Human Rights Consortium interprets it in the broadest sense, encompassing the political, civil, cultural and socio-economic factors that are specific to Northern Ireland.
It is widely agreed that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland needs to address the specific realities of our society. Few could disagree that Northern Ireland is a society where people have experienced an abuse of their basic human rights over a long period of time. This is a society of great inequalities and divisions. As many as one in five people has a disability and people with a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed. One in three children here lives in poverty and the infant mortality rate among the Travelling community is unacceptably high. Sectarian attacks continue in Northern Ireland and over 500 older people die of cold here every year.
Moreover, we should not ignore the legacy of the past. In a relatively small population of one and a half million people, over 3,600 individuals have been killed and many thousands injured in the last 30 years of violence. Thousands of people, mainly young males, have passed through the prison system at some point or other. At the same time, many other individuals have been excluded from the mainstream of society. Society’s focus on the political conflict has meant that many vulnerable groups and individuals, for example, have suffered even greater marginalisation than they might have in more stable societies.
A Bill of Rights that adequately meets the needs of Northern Irish society must address all of these aspects of our society’s ‘particular circumstances’ as we emerge from conflict. A broad understanding of the ‘particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’ would avoid creating a ‘hierarchy of suffering’ in which some people are made to feel that their experiences have not been as bad as others, but on the contrary, that society wants to address the different human rights needs of different groups.
Recognising a common set of rights in a document that all can identify with and commit to is thus an important element in building a new society. For this reason, it is important that the rights identified should not be too narrow in their focus. The narrower the range identified, the less likely it is that individuals will identify with the bulk of rights on the list. In particular, the more the rights specified are seen to appeal across different communities, the more likely it will be that rights can be seen as something that binds the community together, rather than divides it.
For this reason, it might be misguided to focus a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights only on those rights which address specifically Northern Ireland concerns in a narrow way. Such a Bill of Rights would focus only on issues of language, discrimination, minority rights and so on, rather than providing a vision that unites across communities. It would reinforce the idea that human rights are only a trade-off between those communities. It separates rather than offering a vision of shared common values. Perhaps the broader the definition of protected rights, the more it specifically addresses Northern Ireland’s circumstances.
11. Should the debate not focus on responsibilities rather than rights?
Human rights are not one way. In claiming our own rights, we must recognise the rights of others in society, automatically implying a responsibility to accord respect to the rights of all other human beings, regardless of creed, race, gender, religion etc, even when those rights conflict with one’s own.
Any person asserting their rights, whether to freedom of movement, freedom of belief, right to decent housing etc, must respect the rights of all other human beings to assert similar demands. But this does not mean that people forfeit all their human rights if they do not live up to their responsibilities to accord respect to other’s rights. Existing international human rights law not only recognises that rights may be limited to protect the interests of others, but those limitations must be in accordance with law, proportionate and necessary.
12. Is human rights law the new secular “religion”?
Why people believe in the dignity of the human being and therefore in human rights is individual and deeply personal. Some people base their respect for human rights on their religious faith while others see human rights as emerging from their cultural or philosophical beliefs. This diversity is an important part of a society that respects human rights, as it encourages debate and discussion about these crucial issues regardless of one’s religious (or lack of religious) beliefs.
Human rights law does not seek to replace existing moral frameworks, but rather to articulate and integrate values respected across all cultures, religions, and major value systems into a set of basic legal protections for all people to enjoy. In this way, there is nothing oppressive about human rights law. Emphasising human rights creates a general framework for debate and protects against a moral vacuum rather than creating one.
13. Are there wider political implications of the Bill of Rights?
A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would not affect Northern Ireland’s relationship with Britain or with the Republic of Ireland. The British legal system already accommodates regional differences in law. A related example is the legal system in Scotland which is different in many ways from the legal system in Northern Ireland, England and Wales. This regional difference does not weaken the ties of Scotland to the United Kingdom. There is a knock-on effect for the Republic of Ireland, as the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement obliges them to have at least the same level of rights protection as exists in Northern Ireland.
At the same time, it is true that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be unique legislation applicable only to Northern Ireland, addressing the unique needs of Northern Ireland. However, proponents for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland hope that if stronger human rights standards were included here than currently exist in Britain and the Republic of Ireland, these rights might eventually be extended to those jurisdictions. Indeed, both Wales and Scotland are arguing that they too should have their own Bill of Rights. In this way, Northern Ireland could be a leader in human rights standards and a model for all the neighbouring jurisdictions.
14. Why should economic, social and cultural rights be included in a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?
There is little doubt that Northern Ireland has suffered particularly in economic and social terms as a result of the Troubles over the past thirty years. An obvious way to tackle these inequalities is explicitly to protect economic and social rights in a Bill of Rights.
Including rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to the highest attainable standards of healthcare and the right to accommodation in a Bill of Rights would reflect a real commitment on the part of the government to ridding Northern Ireland of the serious socio-economic inequalities that have plagued it for so long.
There is also widespread support across both main communities for the inclusion for social and economic rights in a Bill of Rights. In a survey carried out for the NI Human Rights Commission in 2004, as many as 76% of respondents in both main communities supported the inclusion of rights in respect to health, housing, education and employment. In the history of our divided society, there have been few issues which have united people. The opportunity to adopt a Bill of Rights which will protect human dignity and equality, and in doing so, bring communities together, should not be allowed to slip away amidst arguments that these rights are too difficult to enforce. Countries such as South Africa have been able to implement them and in doing so, help to create a better society.
Civil and political rights are inherently connected with economic, social and cultural rights. Neither can exist without the other and either becomes vulnerable if the other is threatened.
Speaking in Belfast in December 1998, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said:
“How can one argue that the right to vote is more important than the right to have a roof over one’s head? And yet, without the vote, and all that entails in terms of democratic choice, how will people ever secure the policies which will provide roofs over their heads?”
But socio-economic rights cost money
It is true that the implementation of rights to health, education etc does cost money, but so does the implementation of civil and political rights. No one would claim that guaranteeing the right to due process and all that entails in terms of judges, lawyers, police, prisons, probation, courtrooms etc does not involve substantial public expenditure. Why is it only in the economic and social sphere that the issue of cost is used as an obstacle?
And they are too imprecise to formulate in enforceable legal standards?
Human rights law has traditionally focused on civil and political rights so their purpose and meaning are better known. However, it is unsustainable to argue that socio economic rights are beyond interpretation and implementation. Their development internationally would certainly indicate the opposite. The UN has come up with definitions and benchmarks of the various socio-economic rights which are designed to act as indicators at the domestic level. In addition, many countries have incorporated, interpreted and implemented socio-economic rights through their Bill of Rights or constitution.
In any case, decisions on public policy and spending should not be left in the hands of unaccountable judges
In deciding cases on socio-economic rights, judges are NOT going to be making decisions on public policy or how government should spend its limited resources. They will not have the power to do that. The Human Rights Commission has quoted the example of a South African case where the government was ordered to take effective action to provide adequate housing for a group of squatters within two years.
“The role of judges in cases of this kind is to ensure that the government approaches decisions in a proper manner, within the terms of the relevant provisions in the Bill of Rights, rather than to make the decisions themselves.”
The Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, Beverly McLachlan, addressed this issue in a presentation in Belfast in 1995:
“There are people who say that the judges have too much power and laws should not be struck down. But one must take the long view of this: when one looks at where laws have been struck down, one usually finds that there is legislative action to replace that with something better in fairly short order; indeed the argument can be made that the functioning of democracy has been enhanced by a constitutional Bill of Rights because it has given a voice to individuals and minorities which, if they were not given a voice, can threaten the functioning of democracy.”
15. So, the Bill of Rights is the answer to all our problems?
It would be difficult to argue that any one document would be the answer to all our problems. However, members of the Human Rights Consortium firmly believe that a Bill of Rights offers the potential for a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
16. Timeline in the process of securing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
Step 1 — Public launch of consultative phase; establishment of Working Groups; call for submissions (deadline for responses to NIHRC — 28th February 2001).
Step 2 — NIHRC issued draft Bill of Rights for consultation (September 2001).
Step 3 — Public debate; submissions to the NIHRC in response to their first draft (December 2001).
Step 4 — NIHRC considered submissions and identified issues requiring further clarification. Launched Phase 3 in December 2002, which
involved deeper exploration of these issues and increased political contact.
Step 5 — Following political negotiations (Oct 2006), proposals for a Roundtable Forum on a Bill of Rights were included in the text of the
St Andrew’s Agreement.
Step 6 — The Bill of Rights Forum held its first meeting in December 2006. The Forum was made up of fourteen representatives from the main political parties, fourteen members of civic society and representatives from the Churches and business sector. An independent chair, Australian human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti, was also appointed.
Step 7 — In March 2008, the Bill of Rights Forum handed over its final report to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for making recommendations on a Bill of Rights to the Secretary of State.
Step 8 — The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission delivered its advice to the Secretary of State on10th December 2008, International Human Rights Day.
Step 9 — The Secretary of State has committed to launch a consultative phase. This is likely to be in Spring 2009 and the normal consultation period is 12 weeks.
Step 10 — The Secretary of State presents draft legislation before Parliament.
Step 11 — The draft legislation passes through the House of Commons and the House of Lords (this phase usually takes several months).
Step 12 — The legislation comes into force and Northern Ireland has its own Bill of Rights.
Step 13 — Individuals and groups begin to put the Bill of Rights into practice.