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Equality for all must now be set in Stormont stone

With permission, I'm reproducing the excellent opinion piece in today's Belfast Telegraph by Prof Colin Harvey, Amnesty member and Commissioner on the NI Human Rights Commission. This is a cut down and reworked version of a feature article in the current edition of AMNESTY magazine, which goes to over 250,000 AI members throughout the UK.

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Whatever the outcome of current discussions on the political hurdle of devolution of policing and justice, it's time for the politicians to deliver on another Agreement legacy – a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The debate on a Bill of Rights has gone on for decades.

The Agreement and peace process gave fresh hope with a new Human Rights Commission created and invited to provide Bill of Rights advice to the Secretary of State.

As you might expect, the commission, following extensive consultation, opted for strong, rights-oriented advice.

It has since attracted sometimes sharp political criticism for taking this path, but it is one that international experts would expect any national human rights institution to take.

The commission's advice is unsurprising given the requirement that a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights should supplement the European Convention and stress both international human rights standards and the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.

The commission took the interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights seriously. Social and economic rights are woven into its fabric, such as the right to work, the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living.

Environmental rights are included, as well as children's rights.

The commission crafted a new equality clause and made express provision for freedom from violence, harassment and exploitation.

Its recommendations on culture, identity, language, victims, the right to life, fair trial and democratic rights, among others, indicate a desire to address openly aspects of Northern Ireland's past and present.

Overall the advice is intended to be respectful of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland – including current human rights and equality guarantees – and makes full use of existing international human rights standards and comparative practice. The advice is respectful, too, of the place of politicians in making policy decisions and recognises that human rights protection is a shared institutional responsibility.

For example, the commission proposes the creation of a new committee on human rights in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It also gives a clear reporting role to the Executive in the implementation of social and economic rights and provides for an independent review, among other things.

Of course there has been a mixed initial reaction to the commission's advice. Divisions between the political parties were evident, with views – depressingly – tending to fall along traditional nationalist/unionist lines.

However, civil society, including leading charities, community groups and the trade union movement largely welcomed the commission's advice as a welcome step towards the achievement of a strong and inclusive Bill of Rights.

On November 30, 2009, the Northern Ireland Office published its consultation document, with March 1, 2010 as the relevant date for submissions.

The Government response is widely regarded as deeply disappointing and there is now a real risk that the hopes and expectations of many may be dashed.

But the public consultation and the political process which must follow still provides the opportunity to enact a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

Not simply any Bill of Rights, but a strong and effective one that shows us the human rights-based way to a better, shared and reconciled society.

After so long, all the people of Northern Ireland deserve no less.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
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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