Belfast Telegraph

Respect for personal dignity can inform a brighter future

Fundamental human rights are non-negotiable wherever you live in Ireland, writes Monica McWilliams

We are in a new era of British-Irish relations; one in which our shared history is increasingly acknowledged and the future dependent upon an equal partnership where different nationalities are afforded mutual respect.

There is still a long way to travel on this road since the propensity for violence remains, as unfortunately demonstrated by events of the last week.

Nonetheless, the distance we have already travelled towards sustainable peace and reconciliation in little more than a decade has been enormous. There is no denying the economic and social ties which bind the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, as reflected in the many aspects of life that we hold in common on these islands.

Central to the strengthened relationship between Ireland and Britain are shared social values which underpin democracy, including the rule of law and the maintenance of our fundamental human rights. An agreed understanding of the importance of basic rights, such as the right to life, privacy, freedom of religion and expression, are core to the process that has brought peace to Northern Ireland. They are also necessary to maintain that peace and to build a stable and prosperous future for all.

Today, the UK and Irish governments and the leaders of political parties in both Northern Ireland and the Republic have received advice on a proposed Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland.

The recommendation that a charter should be considered in discussions lead by the two governments has been made together by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Irish Human Rights Commission.

Advice on a Charter of Rights is the outcome of a task that the two commissions were mandated to fulfil under the terms of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

It is our considered view that people either side of the border should be reassured by political representatives, both now and the years ahead, that their basic human rights are non-negotiable and that they will be guaranteed regardless of where we find ourselves on this island.

There is now an identifiable equivalency of legal protections afforded to everyone living on the island of Ireland, both north and south, to which all those in positions of political power should remain wedded and stand together to vigorously defend. At the core of these protections is the European Convention on Human Rights and its further application in our domestic laws.

A rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people living in both Northern Ireland and the Republic in the diversity of their identities, has been a consistent vision of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement.

This was to be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, freedom from discrimination and a just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities. A Charter of Rights could support these sentiments by creating a document that allows political parties to publicly restate their collective and continuing commitment to these rights.

A Charter of Rights should not be confused with the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which has a separate mandate. The charter, as recommended by the two commissions, would not provide for any new protections. Instead, it would contain the human rights standards currently signed up to by the two governments as a minimum.

Any decision to move beyond this, towards a more comprehensive human rights document, would depend upon political will.

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