Rights will help fix what is wrong with our society
A Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy and a Bill of Rights could|help ease interface tensions, says Michael O’Flaherty
There is no human right to riot. Instead, there are human rights to safety in the community, respect for our homes, places of work and religious buildings. The police, too, have their human rights — including to be spared injury while carrying out their lawful duties.
I share the appalled reactions to the rioting in north Belfast last week. I am horrified by its almost casual character; by the assumption on the part of some that group violence is a normal way to deal with problems.
Who cannot but be repelled by the story of a mother who told her child not to be such a baby when he reacted with tears to the violence.
Religious leaders are to be applauded for their message about the unacceptability of violent street disturbances, as well as for their repudiation of the sectarian acts that, in part, triggered the disturbances.
The Parades Commission also needs to be given the space to carry out its challenging responsibility.
We are now entitled to see our politicians lead us out of the current dangerous mess. They are best-placed to broker the necessary deals at the community level and I welcome their current efforts.
The rulebook for our political leadership is clear: the human rights standards to which the United Kingdom is committed.
For instance, the UK upholds the rights of peaceful assembly, movement and protest. But none of these are absolute rights — they need to be balanced against such considerations as respect for the rights of others to privacy, home life and religious freedom.
And under no circumstances can the Government ever condone or tolerate words, or actions, that incite religious hatred. These are illegal and they should be treated as such.
Ensuring that parades and protests are respectful of human rights is only part of the way out of the present dilemma.
More fundamentally, we need the long-awaited Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy (CSI). This has the potential to provide Northern Ireland with a roadmap towards a future in which all its people have their rights respected and where all, regardless of their backgrounds, are honoured and respected.
Taking account of this month’s troubles, it is timely that the Human Rights Commission has launched a new report to support a fresh round of more reasoned and well-informed discussion on a Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights was a crucial dimension of the Good Friday Agreement, but it remains an unfinished business.
There are many issues, such as promoting good community relations and dealing with the past, to which a Bill would make a crucial contribution.
This potential was clearly recognised in 1998 by the architects of the peace process. In addition to the current gaps in policy and law, we must also not forget the role that poverty plays in fuelling the dissatisfaction and tension that feeds the violence.
Too many people in Northern Ireland are on the breadline — choosing food over fuel, or skipping meals to get by. The situation at the interface flashpoints is particularly disturbing.
Here too, the Northern Ireland Executive needs to respect the UK’s binding international commitments to protect the economic and social rights of its people. Austerity and welfare reform are not just about economics — they are about human rights.
I believe that community tensions can be resolved and that ways can be found to honour the rights of all our people in a respectful framework of human rights.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will play its part in achieving that outcome — an outcome in which there can never again be a place for the story of that crying child caught in last week’s rioting.
Professor Michael O’Flaherty is chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission