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The Human Rights Act must stay

By Patrick Corrigan

Published 23/04/2015

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International

If you're lucky, you won't ever need to use the Human Rights Act. But it's protecting you all the same.

You and the many ordinary people in this country who have had to use the Act to protect themselves from the state when it gets it wrong.

Thanks to the Human Rights Act:

  • hospitals were prevented from automatically applying "Do not resuscitate" orders to patients without properly consulting them, or their families,
  • an elderly couple, who faced enforced separation after 65 years of marriage, were able to ensure they could spend the rest of their lives together and,
  • a woman fleeing a violent husband was able to keep her children with her in suitable accommodation.

The benefits of the Human Rights Act are available in all parts of the UK. It protects our fundamental freedoms: the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression and many more.

But now that is all under threat. Some UK party manifestos have proposed scrapping the Human Rights Act, potentially replacing it with a lesser British Bill of Rights, while also diluting the UK's adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights.

That is bad news for people across the UK, but particularly in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement required the UK Government to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law to strengthen rights protections.

Subsequent legislation means that the NI Assembly can only make laws which are compatible with the Human Rights Act, while the PSNI is also bound by law to act in compliance with the Act.

Given our history of political discrimination and mistrust in policing, binding human rights obligations have been crucial in building and bolstering public confidence in these key structures of post-Troubles Northern Ireland.

But public confidence can be eroded and undermined just as surely as it can be built.

Any scrapping of human rights commitments could have serious implications for our peace settlement.

Politicians of all parties here must play their part in resisting.

Patrick Corrigan is NI programme director of Amnesty International

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