Charting the way forward on human rights


OPINION:The Government and the Northern Ireland Executive will be urged today to agree a common charter of rights for all citizens, North and South, writes MONICA McWILLIAMS

THE NORTHERN Ireland Human Rights Commission and Irish Human Rights Commission will today fulfil their joint mandate from the Belfast Agreement by producing advice on a charter of rights for the island of Ireland.

The two human rights commissions present their advice to the UK and Irish governments and the leaders of the political parties North and South. It is our view that a document of this sort has the potential to help change relationships and build on the legacy of visionary leadership as embodied by Kader Asmal.

By agreeing such a document, political representatives, now and in the years ahead, could provide a vital reassurance that basic human rights are non-negotiable and that they will be guaranteed regardless of where we find ourselves on this island.

In order to complete this vital piece of work the two commissions undertook a comprehensive study of the human rights protections existing in both jurisdictions. We identified the human rights standards that Northern Ireland and the Republic are obliged to satisfy through their political agreements as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. Our advice on a charter sets out the rights that are protected and are common to both sides of the Border.

The commissions agree that a charter of rights is workable in law and would build upon the existing commitments to fundamental rights by both governments. Having an equal sense of human rights protections in Ireland and Northern Ireland was first envisaged in the Belfast Agreement and reaffirmed in the St Andrews Agreement. So the charter provides an opportunity for all the political parties to restate their commitment to an equivalency of rights and to lay the foundations for the protection of people on this island.

The charter can be used as a further opportunity for the two governments to restate their commitment to human rights and, as such, would be an important step in underpinning the peace process. It would seek to recognise and accept the conflicted history of the island and help to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not revisited. A restatement of these rights would demonstrate to people in the North and the Republic that human rights are central to their domestic, political and legal processes. To have a single document which outlines and reaffirms these principles could provide the kind of security which is not determined by geographical position.

A charter should not be confused with the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which has a separate mandate and purpose under the Belfast Agreement. The form which a charter would take will be a political decision and one which the commissions cannot make. We have proposed the existing common standards as the minimum framework so that the decision to raise the bar of human rights protection will ultimately be determined by political will.

It falls to the political parties, guided by the two governments, to take this advice forward and the two commissions are asking that they approach this issue with open minds. During a time of economic uncertainty and political transition, it is key that opportunities are taken to build a brighter future by securing fundamental rights for all.

Monica McWilliams is Northern Ireland Chief Commissioner for Human Rights. She and Maurice Manning, president of the Irish Human Rights Commission, will launch their report this morning