JCHR Press Notice No. 19

14 July 2003

Fourteenth Report

Work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

The Fourteenth Report of this Session from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on the Work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be published on Tuesday 15 July 2003, at 00.01 am. The report follows an inquiry into the Commission's work based on its annual report for 2001 2002, undertaken as part of the JCHR's remit to "consider matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom". 

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is the first Human Rights Commission to be established in the United Kingdom. As part of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, the Commission was created to underpin the new peace settlement with the principles of universal human rights.  The Commission is an independent statutory body, which provides human rights information and education,  and researches and investigates aspects of human rights protection in Northern Ireland.  It  also brings, funds and intervenes in human rights cases in the courts, and advises on the human rights implications of government policy initiatives and legislation.  The Commission has consulted widely on the terms of a Draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The Joint Committee's report finds that, in the first three years of its operation, inadequate resources, uncertainty about its powers, and internal difficulties of organisation and prioritisation have limited the Commission's effectiveness. 

Under-resourcing has jeopardised both the Commission's independence from government, and its capacity to deliver on its statutory mandate.  The report therefore welcomes the recently announced increase in the Commission's budget but points out that the level of funding will require continuing independent review.

The Committee concludes that, for its investigatory work to be fully effective, the Commission needs additional powers.  It recommends that, in accordance with the accepted international standards applicable to human rights commissions, the Commission should be granted statutory powers to search premises and obtain evidence necessary for its inquiries. 

The Committee notes that internal, as well as external, factors have affected the Commission's work.  The Commission's strategic planning, management and decision making procedures were criticised in evidence to the inquiry.  The report notes these difficulties, but welcomes the measures taken to address them, in particular the publication of the Commission's new Strategic Plan, which sets out clear objectives and priorities, as well as a commitment to an improved management structure.  The Committee hopes to see the fruits of this new focus on delivering results in the near future.

The Committee notes that the Commission has had to struggle to be perceived as impartial in a deeply divided society.  Community divisions mean that it is particularly important that the appointments process be transparent and independent.  The Committee makes a number of recommendations to bolster independence and transparency.  It also stresses that the Commission's impartiality needs to be publicly affirmed and championed by the Ministers of the Northern Ireland Office, which appoints its members. 

The Committee concludes that the Commission needs to be kept informed and consulted systematically by government on policy and legislative proposals relevant to its work.  It notes that there is "evidence that suggests that Whitehall departments have not yet come to grips with the existence of an independent human rights institution in the UK with which they should be obliged to consult."  It recommends a memorandum of understanding between the Commission and the Northern Ireland Office which should include arrangements for co-operation and information exchange with all relevant government departments. 

The Report also considers the Commission's role in preparing a draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.  Consultation on the bill of rights has generated much controversy and debate, and many aspects of the Bill of Rights require further discussion and clarification.  One weakness of the consultation process so far, which the Committee proposes needs to be remedied, has been the relative lack of involvement of many of the political parties, and the report supports proposals for greater political participation in shaping a Bill of Rights.

The Chair of the Joint Committee, Jean Corston MP, commented:

Human rights commissions across the world play an essential role in fostering respect for human rights and deepening democracy.  The NIHRC has begun to do important work, but it has a difficult task and has faced many obstacles.  With adequate resources and powers, and effective and clear strategies, the Commission could make an invaluable contribution to building a unified and peaceful Northern Ireland.  The opportunity for it to do so should not be missed.