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Tolerance and respect key to our shared future

In this Community Relations Week, which runs from May 14 to May 20, we are challenged to move beyond thinking of 'Them' and 'Us'.

We are being asked to consider how far Northern Ireland has progressed in the transformation from violence to peace.

We are also being asked to consider the distance still to be travelled and the best means by which this might be achieved, so that continuing segregation and divisions can be overcome.

The objective of creating a shared and better future for all cannot be secured in the absence of human rights. The reason why is straightforward enough. Human rights are universal. They are, in other words, for everyone and to be enjoyed equally.

As a point of principle, human rights begin with an assumption that there is, as a matter of fact, no 'Them' and 'Us'. For the human rights defender there is only 'Us'; humanity in all of its diversity to be both respected and cherished.

Here in Northern Ireland, human rights have all-too-often been disregarded as a force for social unity and reconciliation.

On many such occasions, the language of fundamental rights - such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of religious belief - have been portrayed as a source of conflict between communities. One common misrepresentation is: "If they have the right to do X, then we must be losing the right the do Y."

To view human rights in this way is, however, far too simplistic and misunderstands both their purpose and their potential.

Human rights are more properly understood not as a source of conflict, but rather as the means by which we can negotiate our way through the morass of competing, complex demands so as to find a common ground. In this sense, community relations and human rights are two sides of the same coin.

Before moving to Northern Ireland, my personal experience with the United Nations in countries such as Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste was the recognition that human rights were fundamental to building peaceful relationships.

Since taking up the position of chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, my experience here has been remarkably similar.

I have meet with many people in Northern Ireland for whom the language and tools provided by human rights is used daily in the effort to secure better community relations.

Human rights are the basis in law through which the members of different communities can deliberate and come to see the legitimacy of an opposing view.

Much more than this, human rights also hold out the potential of helping to shape a future Northern Ireland where the duty on government to promote a culture of tolerance and mutual respect must be increasingly understood as a binding legal obligation.

This is the definition as laid down by the United Nations and European Court of Human Rights, to which both the United Kingdom and Irish governments have signed up through the ratification of international treaties.

Human rights matters across society, from workers at interface communities, engaged in dispute resolution at times of heightened tensions, to teachers in our schools, shaping young minds so that the next generation is increasingly tolerant of cultural differences.

These are the people for whom the daily challenge of community relations is all-too-apparent. They require tools that are fit for purpose and that are capable of facilitating answers to difficult questions.

Human rights, built on international experience and good practice, are the obvious choice for this task.