UN checks on Northern Ireland Bill of Rights progress

The two-day conference staged by the Human Rights Consortium in Belfast last week was a confident assertion of the continued determination of Northern Ireland civil society to secure a Bill of Rights worthy of the name.

The current phase of the Bill of Rights process sits with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, but the Consortium, with its 120 member organisations and groups, is not losing sight of the task in hand. The conference heard from most of the working group convenors and legal advisors from the Bill of Rights Forum which finished its work on March 31st. The Commission will hand over its advice to the NI Secretary of State on December 10th and its Chief Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, was at the Belfast conference to give an update on their progress.

I was well pleased to be chairing the Thursday morning session, when one of the key contributions to the event was made – by Mohammed Abuharthieh from the Office of the UN High Commissionner for Human Rights.

William Graham, writing in the Irish News, gives a fair summary of the keynote speech:

Many in the United Nations and other parts of the world will look to Northern Ireland to set the example on developing a bill of rights, a conference has heard.

Mohammad Abuharthieh, of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was the keynote speaker at a conference in Belfast organised by the Human Rights Consortium.

He said the process of developing a bill of rights or any similar constitutional framework was one of the most important and exciting projects a society can undertake.

“Developing a bill of rights should be an attempt to identify the basic values that you are all committed to,” Mr Abuharthieh said.

“This is particularly important in a society like Northern Ireland that is emerging from conflict and seeking to build a shared future together.

“Recognising a common set of rights in a document that all can commit to, at least in part, is an important element in building a new society, providing the possibility of common identification by all with the basic document.”

Mr Abuharthieh said that while civil and political rights and other conflict-related issues might be of most im-mediate concern to Northern Ireland, other areas should not be neglected.

“Economic and social rights are equally important – housing, unemployment, education and poverty would seem to be just a few of the social and economic issues which played a part in exacerbating the conflict that saw the lives of so many lost,” he said.

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