Belfast Telegraph

It's been a privilege to defend people's rights

Monica McWilliams, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, reflects on her six years in office

Since 2005, it has been a privilege to lead an organisation tasked with protecting and promoting the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland. This work has been diverse and often difficult.

More than 5,000 legal inquiries from the public were received during this time and requests for assistance have come from all communities.

Our cases have ensured that herceptin is available for breast cancer patients and have challenged the blanket ban preventing individuals with diabetes from obtaining taxi licenses.

Sadly, some issues of serious concern remain. When the commission used its powers to enter Hydebank Prison, the need for mental health care and suicide prevention measures for women were identified.

In order to prevent any more tragedies, effective action must be taken. This is only one example of the much-needed action that is required across the wider prison system.

In the majority of cases, the commission takes action to protect the public when government bodies fail to comply with human rights.

In one notable case, however, the commission intervened in court to support the First and deputy First Minister, when they moved to legislate on civil partnerships.

Court action remains the most public part of our work, but it is always the last resort. The commission more often works behind the scenes to prevent abuses from happening in the first place.

In the case of deaths where there is alleged state involvement, we helped fund the Jordan case, which established the European human rights standards for investigations.

Following a recent Supreme Court case, in which the commission intervened, these standards will now be extended to other inquest cases. In dealing with similar conflict-related legacy issues, and in our support for the families of The Disappeared, we have worked hard to ensure that human rights apply to all.

In the past six years, we have completed two projects arising from the Belfast Agreement. The first was to advise the UK government on a proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The second was to work alongside the Irish Human Rights Commission advising on a proposed Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland. With the support of fellow commissioners and staff, as well as countless organisations and individual experts, we succeeded in completing both of these tasks during our term of office.

On a Bill of Rights, evidence demonstrates strong public support for the commission's work. More than 36,000 responses were made to the most recent government consultation, with a large majority (89%) stating they are in favour of a Bill. Political will is now required to deliver an outcome on both of these important matters.

Particular to the context of Northern Ireland are issues like parades and counter-protests, the Irish language and Ulster Scots, all of which remain the subject of much political debate.

To help public bodies deal with these, the commission has developed a human rights framework. Similarly, the issue of identifying as British, Irish or both came to the fore in proposals to change the Common Travel Area between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The commission advocated for these proposals to be dropped and they have been. Cross-border issues formed part of our work, including human trafficking and migration.

It is a very challenging time for human rights, especially when 'rights' are so readily used in political rhetoric for all that is wrong in society.

However, the importance and necessity of human rights protections should not be overlooked.

The strength of human rights is that they are founded on recognised standards. Professor Michael O'Flaherty and the incoming commissioners know that an independent Human Rights Commission is of vital importance in ensuring that these protections are maintained and I wish them every success in taking this work forward.

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