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Monica McWilliams: We deserve our own place in UK human rights debate

The future of human rights is an issue with which everyone should be concerned. A lot has been said recently about the proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and about the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

The commission is holding its annual conference today and it is timely, therefore, to set a few things straight.

Some misleading comments have been made recently about the commission’s funding. To state the facts: the commission is a small, public body with the equivalent of 21 full-time employees.

It is funded by the Westminster government — not the Northern Ireland Assembly and, therefore, our budget is not a drain on local expenditure.

To put the costs in perspective, the commission’s work on protecting and promoting human rights in Northern Ireland approximates to 70p per person, per year.

The fact that the commission comes under such sustained attack from some politicians is of no great surprise. After all, the commission, as a United Nations-accredited institution, is charged with holding politicians to account.

We question whether human rights are protected enough in the legislation which politicians are seeking to put in place on issues such as parades, policing, hate-crime and human trafficking.

What we do on prisons or death investigations involving the state may not be seen as politically friendly, but it is not supposed to be.

We are the only body in Northern Ireland not controlled by the devolved government with a legal duty to hold that government to account.

Any suggestion, therefore, that there should be a weakening in the scrutiny of the Government’s human rights record ought to ring an alarm bell and instantly raise questions.

Who is saying this? What is their motive? If the answer reveals a political motivation, then perhaps we ought to be sceptical.

On the subject of political motivation, it is worth saying something about the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Critics often say that the commission should have been more realistic about what can be achieved politically. But the commission is not political.

Our work is based on securing the highest human rights standards. So, what else could have been expected from a human rights commission except for proposals that would seek to enhance the human rights of people in Northern Ireland?

Some people have said that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is not needed; that time has moved on since 1998 and that we have sufficient human rights and equality protections.

But these arguments are hollow.

In a society like ours, where people may be fearful of what has happened in the past, there needs to be guarantees that the mistakes of history will not be repeated in the future. A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland will help to provide that guarantee.

Today the Westminster government is talking about the future of human rights throughout the UK and the possible creation of a ‘British Bill of Rights’.

The Conservative side of the coalition is proposing to merely attach any new rights for Northern Ireland to that Bill.

We don’t yet know what the Liberal Democrats think.

We remain firmly of the view that it is a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that must be put in place.

Any debate on human rights in the UK cannot ignore the Northern Ireland question — nor will it make progress until that question is settled.

Professor Monica McWilliams is chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

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