The Stephen Livingstone lecture: on the human rights & equality commissions

Continuing the review (link to the complete series) of Martin O'Brien's speech on 'Human rights and the Agreement: how far have we come?', the 2009 Stephen Livingstone memorial lecture.

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O'Brien reviews the operation of the NIHRC and the Equality Commission. He challenges attempts to limit their effectiveness – through proposed budget cuts, merger or poor appointments – and criticises the government for both ignoring their advice and failing to defend the institutions when under party political attack:

"Another major building block in the Agreement was the creation of specialist institutions to advance human rights and equality.

These institutions – the Human Rights Commission, and the Equality Commission – were not to replace the responsibility of government to uphold human rights, but rather to ensure that government complied with its duties.

Human rights activists vested great hope in the creation of a Human Rights Commission. 

The very existence of a statutory body – established and funded by government – is, in principle, a positive advance. 

The UN actively encourages the creation of such national institutions. 

Its Paris Principles lay down a framework for their behaviour, and outline requirements for adequate resources and powers. 

The creation of such a body implies that government intends to take human rights protection seriously, and is prepared to be guided by a Commission’s expert advice. 

The track record of the government in taking on board advice and recommendations from the Commission is patchy at best. 

Despite these limitations, the Commission has carried out some excellent work, particularly in terms of research and also its investigations into the situation of women prisoners and homeless people.

A very easy way to cripple an equality or human rights institution, however, is to cut its budget. 

We only have to look at the cuts to the budget of the Equality Authority in the Republic of Ireland which will render it largely ineffective. 

The Irish Human Rights Commission has also been placed in similar difficulties.

Closer to home we have already heard arguments that the Equality Commission, Human Rights Commission and Community Relations Council should be merged, as part of a cost-cutting exercise. 

Such money-saving arguments are often only a cover for undermining the institutions themselves and more importantly the work that they do. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commissions were central building blocks of the Agreement. 

Attempts to marginalise them should be seen for what they are.

Appointments can also be used to thwart these bodies. 

It’s essential that they represent the diversity of Northern Ireland. 

Varying and diversifying the membership can be a very powerful tool to secure buy-in to the work of the institutions and the wider framework in which they operate.

Appointments to these bodies in Northern Ireland have not been without controversy. 

The first round of appointments to the Human Rights Commission was the subject of a campaign of vilification.

The government had a clear duty to protect the Commission as an institution.

It failed miserably. 

It alone chose the membership of the Commission, yet it made no serious move to defend its appointments. 

Second time round, in an attempt to address some of these concerns, government sought to recruit more overtly from the political field, though not comprehensively. 

However, it seemed that experience or knowledge of human rights were not even essential criteria in the recruitment process. 

At the very least, commitment to the mandate of the institution should be an essential criterion. 

The same applies in relation to the Equality Commission.
 
In my view, those appointed should be deeply committed to promoting equality."

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