What is the role of the NIHRC?
The NIHRC is a national human rights institution. There are about 150 national human rights institutions in countries all over the world. We have an International Coordinating Committee that links us all together and we have a grading system based on a set of standards called the Paris Principles (because they were written at a meeting in Paris). The NIHRC has a grade A which says that we are effective, we are totally independent of governments and we’re able to do our job without any interference or corruption.
While there are human rights institutions all over the world, NIHRC was established here specifically as a result of the peace process. In the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement the section on human rights and equality included a commitment to establish both a Human Rights and an Equality Commission to recognise that building peace would mean making sure everyone here is treated fairly and with respect for their rights. So we were created as a public body that has statutory (legal) functions that are written down in the Northern Ireland Act – you can look up Section 68 and 69 to check what it says about us.
So when it comes to what work we do and what projects we get involved in, we have to stick to our legal functions that are outlined in the NI Act. This says that our 4 functions are:
- Advising: reminding government departments of their duties under human rights law and standards, giving them advice about how they should act if they want to comply with human rights law.
- Litigating: taking legal cases if we become aware of large scale violations of human rights. We can support people who are taking their own cases or we can take cases in our own names. We did this recently when we went to court to change the law that says unmarried people can’t be considered to adopt a child. We argued this was discrimination and that if this law would changed it would be better for children as more couples could come forward to be considered to adopt.
- Investigating: we have the power to investigate a particular issue to find out if there are any human rights abuses taking place. So we recently did an investigation into how older people are treated in nursing homes and we are currently doing one into racist hate crime and how it gets dealt with. We also have the power to inspect prisons and juvenile detention centres to check people aren’t being mistreated.
- Educating: making sure the public know about their rights and also that people working in public bodies know that they have a duty to respect people’s rights. We design training materials and carry out workshops. We also work with the Department of Education to make sure human rights education is on the curriculum.
What is a Bill of Rights?
A bill of rights is a piece of legislation that sets out a charter of fundamental rights that everyone living in a country should expect to have protected. Most countries have some form of a bill of rights. It is usually different from other normal legislation in that it can’t be changed by the government through a vote in parliament. It is more like constitutional law and can only be changed if the people vote to change it in a referendum. Quite often a bill of rights is created when a country is coming out of a period of conflict or injustice (e.g. South Africa and India) as it is part of the peace process, ensuring the country moves forward on the basis of equal rights for everyone.
One of the key functions the NIHRC was instructed to perform when it was first set up was to consult widely with the public in Northern Ireland to find out what people wanted to have in a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. We did this for a number of years, with committees, focus groups, workshops in schools and community centres, taking letters from people etc. and in 2008, we presented our advice to the government based on what people told us. Our advice was that a BOR should include all of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights as well as some extra rights that are left out of the ECHR. In particular we wanted there to be protection for economic and social rights (things that affect our quality of life like a right to health, right to work), protection for cultural rights and special rights to protect children.
We think a BOR would be very important for Northern Ireland. The fact that a BOR is different to normal legislation would mean that we could rely on the protection of a BOR even if different governments came in and wanted to change it. Also, we need the extra rights that aren’t included in the European Convention on Human Rights because the conflict here has led to higher levels of poverty and issues of culture that are difficult to resolve. Those other rights (economic, social and cultural rights, rights for children) come from the United Nations and we think it would help Northern Ireland build a peaceful, prosperous society for all people here if they were protected.
Some people think we don’t need the BOR because we have the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act (same as the ECHR but written into UK law) but this leaves out all the protection for people’s standard of living, jobs, health etc. This would help us recover from conflict as it is well known that people are most likely to get drawn into violence when they are suffering the effects of poverty. When it comes to cultural issues like the flag protest etc., a BOR would include rights to help people understand that their culture and traditions would be protected and so would those of other groups/backgrounds.
We recently published a report called “Is that Right?” which is a document that answers lots of the questions and concerns people have about a BOR as we feel there is still a lot of confusion about what it would mean for Northern Ireland.