Chris Sidoti on why NI needs a Bill of Rights

There's been some criticism lately (most notably from the Church of Ireland Gazette) of the need for a Bill of Rights. So it's good to see Chris Sidoti, independent Chair of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights Forum, setting out the case in favour. Here he sets out five reasons why we do need a separate Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.  

From Chris Sidoti

Almost ten years ago, the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998 foreshadowed a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. It was a commitment by all the participants, endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of Northern Ireland by referendum, to ensure human rights for all. Yet, after a decade of debate, some still ask why Northern Ireland needs a Bill of Rights. Chris Sidoti, the Australian human rights expert who chairs Northern Irelands Bill of Rights Forum, offers five good reasons.

1.  To cement the peace

From the beginnings of modern human rights law, during the years immediately after World War II, the protection of human rights has been seen as essential for peace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself says, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Many societies that have emerged from violent conflict, as Northern Ireland has, have incorporated effective protection for human rights in their laws as an essential element in securing the peace. It has re-assured everyone that patterns of human rights violation that might have preceded the violence or arisen during the violence would no longer be tolerated.

Northern Ireland is a society rising out of conflict and suffering. As the 1998 Agreement itself recognised, the new shared future of Northern Ireland must be one built on human rights. A Bill of Rights is the best sure means of achieving that.

2.  To address the legacy of the conflict

In a post conflict society, a Bill of Rights can be an effective means of identifying and addressing the continuing issues relating to the conflict. The universal experience is that it is simply impossible to draw a line under the past and pretend that it never happened. Like it or not, societies ultimately are forced to confront their demons.

Without exception, deep social conflicts arise out of human rights violations and generate other human rights violations. The nature of those violations differs, however, from conflict to conflict. These are the particular circumstances, the phrase used in the 1998 Agreement, of the particular conflict and society.

A Bill of Rights must address what those circumstances are for Northern Ireland. Certainly recent history here has been quite different from that of other parts of the world but even from that of other parts of the United Kingdom. People in Northern Ireland can be protected under the general law of the United Kingdom and in addition they can benefit from their own Bill of Rights that addresses the legacy of their recent history and their situation.

3.  To establish a common standard of achievement

A Bill of Rights deals not only with the past but also with the future. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights described itself as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. A domestic Bill of Rights can be a common standard of achievement for a local or national community. It sets out in writing, in one document, the societys basic commitment to which every person is entitled so that she or he can live a fully human life.

Its in writing so that there can be no dispute about what has been agreed. Its in a single document so that there is no need to go searching through a large number of laws and court decisions to find out what those rights are. It should be short and simple, easy to read and easy to understand, so that everyone knows what it contains.

A Bill of Rights can provide that common standard for Northern Irelands new shared future. It can be a clear statement of what all people here and their political and civic leaders commit themselves to achieving. It is a compact between the government and the governed as the basis for civil, cultural, economic, political and social life. It is not only a means of dealing with the past. Far more importantly, it is a means of shaping the future.

4.  To provide a simple basis of human rights protection

Many laws protecting human rights already apply to the United Kingdom as a whole or to Northern Ireland specifically. They are important and will need to be continued. But they need an overarching framework that does not contain all the detail necessary in those kinds of laws and that does not divide up human rights.

A Bill of Rights can play that role in Northern Ireland. It need not provide all the detail about equality protection or criminal justice, for example. It provides the basis, the broader context and framework, within which more detailed and more specific laws are drafted, interpreted and implemented.

In providing a basis for human rights protection, a Bill of Rights can provide many different means of implementation. International law recognises this, saying that protection is the responsibility of the government, the parliament and the courts as necessary and appropriate.

The courts, of course, have important roles to play but they are not always the only or even the most appropriate protectors. Parliaments too have roles. The best means of protection will vary from society to society, according to constitutional arrangements and to local political and legal cultures. In some cases the protection of some rights will be better entrusted to the courts while the protection of other rights will be better entrusted to the parliament.

A Bill of Rights can ensure the best mechanisms for implementation. It must be appropriate to the constitutional, political and legal systems of Northern Ireland. That is how international standards are applied to domestic situations.

5.  To protect the rights of everyone, equally

Human rights are the universal inheritance of all human beings. A Bill of Rights is for everyone. It is not for members of one part of the community alone, for example, for women but not for men or for members of one ethnic or religious group but not another. It is not only about the rights of minorities. Certainly, in many situations, minorities are oppressed and their rights violated. But in many other situations majorities can be subjected to persecution and deprived of the enjoyment of their rights by small ruling elites. A Bill of Rights must provide protection for everyones rights.

A Bill of Rights builds its protection from the bottom up, addressing in particular the needs of those who suffer human rights violations, the poorest and most marginalised. Ten years have passed since the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Northern Ireland in 2008 is a completely different place from what it was in 1998. For many, life has improved dramatically. But for many others, it has not. There are still areas where the impact of thirty years of conflict is experienced every day. A Bill of Rights can help those people by protecting the basic rights and freedoms to which they are entitled.

If the poorest and most marginalised people in Northern Ireland benefit from a Bill of Rights, then everyone will benefit.

My view

Whether Northern Ireland gets a Bill of Rights is up to the people of Northern Ireland. I have been given a role in developing proposals but I have no right to make the decision. For these five good reasons, I see a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights as essential in ensuring the new future that the people of Northern Ireland and their political and civic leaders have said they want. It alone is not enough but, in my view, for what its worth, it has an essential part to play.

The decision, however, is yours.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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