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2022 Annual Human Rights Statement Launch: Address by Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick

13 Dec 2022

This is the speech given by Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick at the 2022 Annual Human Rights Statement launch, held on Monday 12 December 2022 at the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

  • You can access the Annual Statement here.
  • You can watch the live stream of the event here.
  • Read our press release here.

2022 Annual Human Rights Statement Launch: Address by Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick

"Mr Speaker, thank you for hosting this event for another year and for being with us today.

We are grateful to you.

Good afternoon to everyone who has joined us, on this freezing day, whether in person or online.

A special welcome to the schools who have joined us. We are thrilled to have you, not least because you are the people who will inherit the challenges our generations have left.

After my first full year as Chief Commissioner with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, I am pleased to share this annual statement with you.

It reflects the close scrutiny of a number of people.

Far fewer than you might think, but each one dedicated to their task, which is using their legal and policy expertise and experience to translate very complex issues into practical, effective advice and recommendations. I want to thank everyone involved in its production, including the members of the public who shared their experience with us.

Our end goal is always to fulfil the functions assigned to us - by Act of Parliament – to monitor, to advise, to educate – doing it all with the purpose of ensuring that human rights really mean something to people.

To every person, all the time, but particularly when they are in greatest need.

We hope our work helps you see what human rights really are, why they matter and what can be done to improve everyone’s enjoyment of them.

I hope it can be a human rights handbook, containing a summary of relevant standards, combined with recommendations for the future, for the practical betterment of people’s lives.

We are determined that the language of human rights will not be empty rhetoric, but practical, effective action.

One can see the reach, just flicking through this report – human rights touch on every aspect of life. From health, to housing, to child protection, education, criminal justice and rights of persons with disabilities amongst many others.

With the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 1948) and the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights (in 1950) it was expected that nations would realise, not just what atrocities had happened, but how and why they had happened and what was needed to prevent them ever happening again.

The intention of those who did the drafting was to have a framework of principles flowing from our simple understanding of what it is to be human.

They recognised that society as a whole is demeaned by the denigration of the human rights of anyone: that everyone benefits from their protection (whether they realise it or not) and, that no one is disadvantaged by a universal application of rights.

The rights themselves are basic which, it was believed, any civilised society would take for granted.

Lord Bingham, former Supreme Court Judge, when referring to the rights protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, called them “truly fundamental”, in the sense that they are guarantees, which no one living in a free democratic society such as the UK or Ireland should be required to forgo.

The people who dedicated their lives to building these principles and working them into law and policy across the world, understood that the best way to prevent conflict was to adhere to one overarching guiding principle – that all human beings are equal.

That means each life is dignified and must be respected, but to show due respect to each life, some people require additional protection.

It is positive, a good thing for each of us, if everyone is protected equally.

Northern Ireland learned that, did it not?

During the peace negotiations and the acceptance of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement which put human rights and equality at the heart of government and public services.

This is what the State and its bodies are for. Their core function is to respect and protect human rights, particularly for those who struggle to enjoy their rights.

It is often said that the first job of the government is to defend the State.

But the state, surely, is its people, not its buildings and machinery. The state is made up of its people – it is worth nothing without them.

Those who drafted the ECHR understood that the best, in fact the only way to do that, was by governments adopting a human rights-based approach to everything they did.

We are facing renewed pressures – a cost-of-living crisis, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the ongoing effects of Covid and fears of Strep A (while the health service feels as if it is buckling at the knees) and the impacts of climate change.

Those are just a few.

What often happens is that universal human rights are put into the box of ‘things we can’t afford’. Certainly not for those people who have relinquished their rights by their behaviour.

But that is the antithesis of human rights. The minute you go down that road, everyone loses.

Why am I repeating what sound like cliched truisms?

Because they are not – at least not any more.

The debate about human rights has become negative, exploitative of division and reckless to rising tensions.

The recent promise to replace the Human Rights Act for example, to ‘rebalance rights’ is troubling and infects everything else we do.

The constant pejorative accusations of ‘wokeness’ are not only unhelpful; they are misguided and dangerous.

We have considered the Bill of Rights Bill and the Legacy Bill. I won’t go into detail today but you can see for yourself, what we have advised.

There will be, by design, a hierarchy of rights and rights-holders. Not something I enjoy saying.

Those who need help will be pushed farther down the queue.

At the Commission we see, with relentless certainty, that those who are vulnerable or at greater risk, are always the ones to suffer first and be affected the most.

To give just a few examples:

Victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse are at a hugely elevated risk if support services are not available or reduced.

People living with disabilities face greater isolation.

Children with special educational needs are left without access to appropriate education.

Those living in or at risk of poverty fare particularly badly as a result of poor living conditions, overcrowding and other barriers to their ability to mitigate a crisis.

Women and people from a minority ethnic background, being more exposed to precarious and part-time working conditions, are thrown into destitution.

At the Commission we take account of all international standards but our effectiveness is limited sometimes, because some treaties are not incorporated into domestic law and cannot be enforced directly in court.

We continue to recommend that those treaties that have been ratified are put into practice by such incorporation.

For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Conventions on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and minority ethnic people.

One of the arguments often raised against greater human rights protection (for example by ratification of treaties), which I hear a lot, is that it is undemocratic because it deprives the state from implementing policy, which the majority has voted for.

In passing, remember that is only appealing if you are confident that you will always be on the right side of any vote.

More importantly, while a human rights approach may sometimes limit the power and reach of the majority, it is a fundamental principle that the majority should not dictate policy regardless of its impact on a minority group. The Convention views a democratic society as one which is characterised by pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness. The so-called ‘wisdom of the majority’ should never be allowed to turn into the tyranny of the mob.

At the Commission we take our responsibilities seriously, including to identify and advocate for those people or issues that might be unpopular but which raise human rights concerns. That can pitch us against government or even against public opinion, but I am proud to say that this Commission does not shy away from that.

Human rights are easily allowed for those who remind us of ourselves, but mean nothing unless they apply so as to protect minority groups and those whom society might deem unworthy of protection.

That was recalled by those drafting the Belfast Good Friday Agreement – who firmly dedicated themselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.

To achieve that, the British Government also agreed to be bound by a number of promises, one of which was to “complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the [ECHR], with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.” There was no caveat to that commitment. It also set up the Human Rights Commission to advise it, even if not asked, when it is failing in its obligations.

It goes on “We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement.”

The Commission is such an arrangement yet it faces cuts to such an extent that it will not discharge its functions fully, certainly not independently.

Just as we need to do more, we are squeezed further.

Our powers are essential to the effective operation of the NIHRC. Without the ability (legally and operationally) to assess whether and if so how and when to use those powers, the NIHRC cannot function independently.

A government with enough power can legislate for almost anything. It might be lawful, but is it in accordance with the rule of law? Not if you believe that the law must afford adequate protection to fundamental human rights.

If the letter of the law does not protect human rights, then the rule of law is stripped of its very principle.

The ECHR is pretty special.

Before allowing a knee-jerk reaction to human rights – go back and read it and try to put yourself in the shoes of someone with less, someone who is victimised or excluded, denigrated or abused.

Then ask yourself, would I want these principles to apply to me?

Look at the Human Rights Act and what the courts have said about it – what they have really said about it – not salacious headlines or polemics, devoid of fact.

Then think – what do I object to in this?

My whole career has been in the law of human rights. I have been able to see human rights in action, in many different places.

What I know is that, while the outer edges of some human rights are not clear-cut there is usually a large measure of agreement on where the lines are to be drawn at any particular time and ultimately the courts are there to draw the lines. That was how Lord Bingham saw it and he we right.

The Commission will continue to address negative rhetoric by raising awareness and educating. We can’t blame people, who read stuff in the media, if they think human rights work against them. We have to show them that they don’t.

That is why the Commission is going to work very hard on its education and engagement programmes. As the year has progressed there has been greater emphasis on partnership working and real engagement with the community.

In the advice clinic we meet people struggling to just get by on a daily basis.

We will try to reach more of them.

That is why the Commission’s legal work: providing advice through its law clinic, supporting litigation and bringing proceedings in its own name is so important. It has the possibility of helping that young man both by advising government on how it should protect his rights in future and holding it to account if it doesn’t.

My favourite quote is still that of Eleanor Roosevelt who said this about human rights “where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world ... Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere”.

But you can still fix it but start by appreciating the small things and then put them in the context of wider international justice.

I see so many young people with us and I know some more are following this online.

You can fix things.

You can finish the things we have left undone.

But always remember; this is about the dignity of human life and each life is equal."

Chief Commissioner introduction for keynote speaker - Gary Lightbody

"It is now my great pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker.

I have met some phenomenal people in my time - who live and breathe human rights – our keynote speaker is one of those people.

We are thrilled that he is able to join us.

Let me just say a few words by way of introduction.

Gary Lightbody is well-known to most of us – for many different reasons.

A Bangor native, it’s a place he still calls home and a source of inspiration for his song-writing.

He is lead singer of the internationally-acclaimed band Snow Patrol. He is founder of supergroups The Reindeer Section and Tired Pony. He has written songs for a number of movies and co-written songs with other musical heavyweights.

I suspect, almost as important as those collaborations, if not more so, is his tireless support for the Northern Irish music scene and creative arts industries. He has relentlessly advocated for and nurtured Northern Irish musical talent.

For example, in 2007, he co-founded the Oh Yeah Music Centre, a dedicated music hub in Belfast which nurtures all aspects of music making and the wider business of music.

In 2018, Gary was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award, recognising not only his contribution to as an artist, but his continued support of the Northern Ireland music scene.

This is in part recognition for the help he has given many musicians with the recording and release of their music through Third Bar, a development business started by Gary and his friend Davy Matchett, who is also with us today.

I bought my first musical instrument from Matchett’s – a recorder – when I was 7. I have spent the ensuing years loving but torturing music. I am very envious of those who are naturally gifted.

As if all of that wasn’t enough – Gary dedicates himself to championing social justice issues and supporting some of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.

In 2019, he founded the Lightbody Foundation, a charitable organisation providing funding throughout Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year Gary received an OBE for services to music and charity.

He was also recently awarded the Freedom of the Borough of Ards and North Down, celebrating with an open-air Snow Patrol concert in Bangor.

His greatest achievement?

If I may say, without embarrassing him, he has become the embodiment of human rights.

By seeing those who need help and giving it to them, just out of sheer compassion for human life and a visceral understanding of human dignity.

With that, may I ask you all to join me in welcoming Gary to give the keynote address at our Annual Human Rights Statement launch?"

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