21 April 2010
One of the main human rights debates of the General Election is whether the Human Rights Act 1998 will be replaced with or bolstered by an American-style Bill of Rights. One aspect of the debate which has been mostly ignored in the British media has been the impact which a Bill of Rights would have in Northern Ireland.
In November 2009, the Northern Ireland Office published A Bill of Rights For Northern Ireland: Next Steps, an interim report proposing that a separate Bill of Rights be drafted for Northern Ireland, on the basis that:
The need for an additional human rights framework that reflects the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland was recognised in the Belfast Agreement and given shape through the commitment to set up a Bill of Rights Forum as part of the St Andrews Agreement… The fundamental principle of mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all the people of Northern Ireland has been at the heart of this progress, and still has a crucial role to play in its future success.
The Northern Irish Human Rights Commission responded in February, welcoming the proposal to produce a separate Bill of Rights. However, the Commission was sharply critical of the tone and content of the substantive proposals. Amongst other things, it accused the proposal of failing to take appropriate account of international standards and of suggesting that existing human rights standards are actually lowered.
The Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), an independent human rights organisation, have also recently published their own response to the interim report, and have also argued that the proposals are too weak and do not go far enough in increasing human rights protections. CAJ say:
A Bill of Rights is one of the final parts of the human rights jigsaw; it ensures that rights currently enjoyed cannot be taken away at the whim of any government. It is intended to ensure, in a divided society, that whoever exercises governance over this disputed ground cannot rule without respecting the rights of everyone who lives here. It also ensures that those who are not or do not identify primarily as part of the two main communities will have their rights respected also.
The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is clearly in its early planning stages, and may not go ahead at all. That said, it is more advanced than English and Scottish proposals, which, if they ever happen, will certainly not do so until long after the Election.