2018 Annual Statement launch: Full speech from Chief Commissioner Les Allamby
I am delighted to welcome you all to the launch of the Commission’s seventh annual statement of human rights and to offer a warm welcome to Ian Duncan as the guest speaker and to thank Robin Newton and his office for hosting the event.
It is 70 years to the day that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The drafting committee that put forward the declaration was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and her quote, often repeated has stood the test of time
‘where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places close to home – they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood, the school or college, the factory, farm or office such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless those rights have meaning there they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world’.
So I want to open this review by thanking you the audience here today who from your variety of backgrounds have promoted human rights and equality through your work in politics, or public and civic life and hopefully also in your own neighbourhoods. It is positive start to what is a more sober reflection on the progress made in the past 12 months on human rights.
There are more than a dozen reds in the statement denoting ongoing human rights violations based on the verdicts of courts and international treaty monitoring bodies. These reds encompass some issues which would almost certainly be resolved if we had a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly for example, the failure to adopt an anti-poverty strategy three and a half years after the High Court ruled that the Northern Ireland Executive was in breach of its legal requirements under the Northern Ireland Act, in a case taken by CAJ. It also embraces issues that even if we had devolved institutions would still prove politically challenging to resolve for example, the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 years of age and an end to the physical punishment of children and the defence of reasonable chastisement – both of which I think can be won over time.
It is difficult to know what to add to the reams that have been written and broadcast on the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and NI Executive except to acknowledge that we have moved noticeably from a public narrative of disdain for politicians and politics to one of apathy. Neither view is helpful nor accurate. The annual statement time and again highlights issues in stasis with legislation, strategies, policies, consultation documents, initiatives all on hold while the world moves on around us. It is only when you see what politicians do in practice both here and in their constituencies that you appreciate the importance of the role politicians and ministers play. A lack of public esteem and worse, a lack of public interest in politics, politicians and their work is unhealthy for both our democracy and the development and implementation of human rights. In its place, we now have the recent Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act which I hope will move some issues forward. I understand the concerns and discomfort that civil servants have in moving away from of the old adage ‘civil servants advise, ministers decide’.
Nonetheless, we have entered a topsy turvey world where a draft information leaflet explaining the pathway from Britain for accommodation, travel and other support for women seeking abortion has to be the subject of legal advice before it can be published, while a joint review of health care in prisons long completed and with many of its suggestions being implemented (which I support) has still not actually been published. In the ‘Yes Minister’ realm, even Nigel Hawthorn’s Sir Humphrey and Derek Foulds, Bernard would have difficulty with rationalisy such approaches.
Of course, no speech at present could be delivered without a meditation on Brexit. The Commission in both its role in the joint committee with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and with the Equality Commission has put considerable time and energy into seeking the best possible arrangements for the protection of human rights and equality. The joint committee has engaged with Brussels, Dublin and London and the two commissions with officials and ministers on the role the Northern Ireland Commissions will play in monitoring, advising, supervising and enforcing the protection of human rights and equality in light of the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity section of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement after the UK leaves the European Union. A refrain I have heard from both Lord Duncan and Sir Tim Berrow the UK’s EU ambassador is that the United Kingdom government has no intention or desire to unpick its international or domestic human rights commitments. My reply then (and now) is to accept absolutely the sincerity and bona-fides of those statements while worrying whether such guarantees are as solid further up the political food chain. If an agreement is reached I hope a document setting out the details of how the dedicated monitoring mechanism will work in practice and the scope of its role will be published as soon as possible. Inevitably, as occurs in any discussion with government the Commission’s only secured some of its aims and demands. Once the document is published it will be up to individuals and organisations many of whom are in this room to judge the potential value of the role a dedicated monitoring mechanism can play. Having to abide by the confidentiality of the discussion and not reveal the detail is an uncomfortable but, necessary position to be in. So the sooner the detail can be published the better.
The breadth and the depth of the Commission’s work can be gleaned from the Annual Statement.
The Commission needs to both protect and promote human rights – it means being the patron saint of unpopular causes while pursuing areas of work which resonate with people’s everyday lives.
In the former has been the investigation into traveller accommodation where the title ‘Out of Sight, Out of mind’ neatly summed up the approach to traveller accommodation needs – I have been gratified by the level of engagement with the Housing Executive and Housing Associations, local and public authorities, NGOs, user groups and government departments. Progress with the recommendations are a mixed bag but, there is enough which has happened to already see that the investigation and its recommendations have had a positive impact though we still have some way to go.
This year the Commission and UU School of Law published research into the barriers to participation for personal litigants in family courts and bankruptcy proceeding. There are thousands of personal litigants in court – some by choice, most by lack of income. The research was undertaken by the School of Law while the Commission ran a procedural legal clinic, and provided a human rights analysis of the right to legal representation. The research found an enormous communication gap between both parts of the legal profession and personal litigants with the former viewing the latter as vexations and difficult while the reality on observation was a group of people floundering and frustrated by a lack of access to information and support in a system designed for all parties to be legally represented. We held a conference with trepidation as the Lord Chief Justice addressed an audience significantly populated by personal litigants including one who had been jailed by the Lord Chief Justice for attempting a citizen’s arrest of John Gillen. In fact, the conference went very well with an active and constructive participation from personal litigants.
On reflection, this was almost certainly because the research and conference had given personal litigants a voice which is an important lesson about engaging with marginalised groups. Two positive outcomes – first a personal litigant who is an IT designer is now working with the Court Service to improve its website for personal litigants and second a personal litigant reference group will be set up early next year to bring personal litigants and the key legal actions together – ultimately to hopefully become part of the wider architecture when a full Civil Justice Council and Family Justice Board come into play.
Another area not designed to win popular acclaim across communities is Dealing with the Past and the implementation of legacy institutions. It rather goes with the territory – the Newsletter recently published an article from a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary raising concerns around parts of our submission to the NIO draft Bill and consultation document. The headline which was considerably less temperate than the article was ‘championing human rights for everyone except retired police officers’ juxtaposed with a very nice picture of me in front of ‘pro-life’ protestors to further illustrate a ‘ne’er do well’ Chief Commissioner leading a bunch of miscreant ‘Commissioners’. The article I wrote in response, emphasised the Commission’s role to go where the human rights standards takes us, without fear or favour. The Commission remains convinced of the need to pave the way for the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement institutions as quickly as possible, develop much needed momentum with outstanding legacy inquests while recognising some significant omissions and the need to strengthen human rights safeguards.
On the less contentious side has been the work undertaken with the Business and Human Rights Forum and a joint initiative with the Department of Finance to produce a public procurement human rights guidance note which will be launched next month. This is hopefully the start rather than the finish of work in ensuring human rights compliance around supply chains and progressive policies and practices among businesses. The Commission’s Business and Human Rights Forum has continued to flourish under the leadership of Glen Bradly and Kerry Kelly. The Commission has also worked closely with sports bodies particularly the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council and the Irish Football Association to examine how to promote human rights at major sporting events and we have ambitions to develop a Sport and Human Rights Charter. This work is tied closely to the significant body of films and animations we have developed in partnership with a pluralist range of organisations including the Law Centre, Women’s Aid, Simon Community, Princes Trust, Evangelical Alliance, Carers NI and Rainbow among others to bring the importance of individual rights and how they can be accessed to life. We were particularly pleased to see the film of young people talking openly about their mental health issues and the importance of gaining support was picked up by the Royal Mail in the training of its own staff on mental health awareness.
I couldn’t finish without mentioning the issue of the right to access a termination in Northern Ireland. My esteemed partner has noted that I have become yet another grey haired, late middle aged man cogitating on a woman’s right to bodily and personal autonomy. That aside, you will know the Supreme Court challenge was unsuccessful on the grounds that we did not have the powers to take the case in our own name without a victim. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court uniquely, decided to give their opinion on the human rights issues holding that the current law is in violation of Article 8 – a woman’s right to private life and the need for legislative reform without necessarily waiting for restoration of devolved institutions. The repeal of the Eighth Amendment and legislative reform in Ireland, continued court cases locally, a private members bill in Westminster, the requirement on the Secretary of State to issue guidance following the amendment of the recent Bill to deal with the hiatus at the Assembly, the likelihood of future backbench amendments, the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s examination of the UK early next year and the British and Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiries means the issue is not going to go away. It is one of the red lights which I expect to see meaningful progress on over the next 12 months and it will remain the focus of the Commission’s attention.
I have to say that one of the legacies I did not anticipate when starting my five year term in 2014 was to see the Commission have less enforcement powers than when I started in post. In fairness, I don’t think the NIO saw that coming either. So I also expect to see that issue remedied before the launch of an annual statement in 2019.
In conclusion, I want to thank my Commissioner and staff colleagues for their support and hard work – they are a dedicated and motivated group who navigate the ebbs and flows of being a national human rights institution in sometimes political and public unpropitious climes with skill and good humour. For such a relatively small institution the Commission gets through a prodigious amount of valuable work which is amply illustrated in the Annual Statement. So I hope you find the time to dip into the document.
12 Dec 2018