British government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights are a “violation” of the Belfast Agreement, a coalition of 170 groups representing civil society in Northern Ireland has warned.
Kevin Hanratty, director of the Human Rights Consortium — a charity representing the coalition — also expressed concerns that the proposed legislation will limit individual efforts to hold government to account.
He accused the UK government of “reneging” on its commitment to the North’s peace process.
Sweeping changes to existing human rights laws will come into force under a British bill of rights, that will effectively reduce the influence of the European Court of Human Rights on UK courts in what the Tory government described as a restatement of Britain’s sovereignty.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab placed the proposals before the Commons for the first time on Wednesday, saying it will “restore a healthy dose of common sense” to the justice system.
In a statement, he confirmed that the UK will not leave the European Convention on Human Rights, an international agreement that underpins human rights law as well as the peace process in Northern Ireland.
But Mr Hanratty condemned the proposed bill, describing it as a “power grab on an epic scale” and one that threatened the Belfast Agreement.
“The Human Rights Act gives us access to those important Convention rights — thus (the UK goverment) is reneging on commitments and standards set in our peace agreement,” he said,
Branding it a ‘Rights Removal Bill’, he said: “This will undermine and diminish the way in which we currently experience a range of rights, making it harder to challenge the government for rights violations and seek redress.
“If enacted, it would represent a substantial weakening of rights and a violation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement by effectively scrapping the Human Rights Act.
“The proposals seek to minimise or withdraw many of the ways in which the Human Rights Act holds the Government to account either by weakening the role of courts, bypassing existing compliance with certain rights protections or removing them altogether.”
Polling has found that around 84 per cent of the North’s population feel that the Human Rights Act is “either good or very good”, according to the Consortium.
“The proposals are clearly at odds with the views of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and across the UK who value the role that this legislation has played in protecting us,” Mr Hanratty added.
The group has lobbied for a dedicated Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to “protect and expand our human rights commitments”.
Last December, they wrote the First and Deputy First Ministers to express “grave concerns” over the failure to progress the bill, and called on the Irish and British governments to intervene.
Mr Hanratty said the new British legislation was part of a “reckless agenda” of the UK government to “push towards the constant erosion of existing rights, domestic protections and international agreements”.
Meanwhile, SDLP MP Claire Hanna challenged Northern Secretary of State Brandon Lewis on Wednesday during a bebate in the Commons about the legal advice he received on the “compatibility” of the Bill of Rights with the Belfast Agreement.
Ms Hanna described the Human Rights Act as a “cornerstone commitment of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Mr Lewis responded: “It is important that we are delivering on and protecting all aspects of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”