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Promoting Human Rights Through Law

03 Mar 2012

PILS project and Equality Coalition Conference
Transcription of address as delivered by Professor Michael O’Flaherty
at the Law Society House Belfast
Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen’
I would like to begin by expressing my sincere appreciation to both PILS and the Equality Coalition for this timely initiative. I also want to express my appreciation for the current achievements of both groups. Your work is making an exceptional impact in Northern Ireland through law. I know that promoting economic and social justice can be lonely work’ but what we see at this conference are international good practices that should be acknowledged as such.
It is important to start our reflection today beyond law’ to go back to the roots’ principles and origins of the international human rights framework in order to reflect on the extent to which human rights and budgetary allocations are so manifestly interrelated. The first principle’ dignity’ has to do with the purpose of human rights. One must think for only a moment about a budget’s effect on the dignity of an impoverished marginalised person to immediately see its engagement with human rights.
Second’ very closely related to this idea of human dignity is the foundational human rights principle of indivisibility. This notion underlies our entire human rights legal framework. Civil and political rights are meaningless without social and economic rights’ and economic and social rights are pointless without civil and political rights. Only when both sets of rights are honoured and integrated’ each engaging with the other’ does a healthy’ rights based society exist.
The third of these foundational thoughts is the precise targeting of the human rights system. This target is not the elites. We in the legal profession could be considered elites – we are the well-fed’ the well-dressed’ and we are able to stand up and fight for human rights. This fight is not really for us’ but rather it is our job to stand up for the most vulnerable’ marginalised and forgotten people in our society’ very few of whom I would suggest are here today. We are here to struggle on their behalf’ and if we never lose sight of the fact that the system is all about them’ then the knock on effect of financial allocations for human wellbeing becomes so evidently a matter for human rights. These are three key non-legal points that provide our starting point.
In addressing the law’ I begin by necessarily reaffirming that we have a sturdy international legal framework on which to base our positions and our work around the promotion of rights in the context of recession and budget cuts. I think that we somewhat neglect the existence and status of a number of the United Nations Treaties that are relevant to our topic. I would like to refer to three treaties this afternoon: The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights’ The Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. All three of these treaties have an exceptionally large degree of say on the matter of economic and social wellbeing and rights. While mentioning those treaties’ I draw attention to the extent to which the monitoring bodies for each of those treaties has had much to say about the United Kingdom’ and Northern Ireland in particular. I would specifically like to discuss the views on the United Kingdom adopted by the committee that monitors the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights’ on the 12th of June 2009.
There are strong words in the recommendations about the extent to which patterns of poverty in Northern Ireland are a violation of the treaty and how the instance of child poverty is especially unacceptable. There are references to problems with allocation of housing and to the promotion of equality in the society. The report refers to certain types of rights holders in Northern Ireland’ particularly emphasising the dramatic and shocking situation of the travelling community and the ‘new ethnic minorities’. The committee also noted a failure to address the gender dimension of human rights abuse. Finally’ the monitoring body expressed concern at the absence of a national human rights planning framework around the promotion of economic’ social and cultural rights for the United Kingdom.
These observations of the UN monitoring body constitute directly relevant legal analysis under binding treaty obligations regarding the economic and social wellbeing of people in this jurisdiction.
Of course’ I am well aware that there is a lot of trouble citing the UN treaties in the United Kingdom as we are a dualist system and these treaties exist outside domestic law. This is always going to cause problems whether we are in London’ Cardiff or Belfast; however’ in Belfast there is an added problem. In Northern Ireland we have devolved powers but I don’t get a sense that we have adopted a devolved mind-set toward treaty obligations. There is a sense that the treaty obligations live at Westminster and that they are not relevant to what goes on here. This is something we at the commission are working very hard to redress. We are making progress’ but there is undoubtedly a failure to effectively devolve the international human rights treaty obligations across the board and certainly in the context of economic social and cultural rights.
Given the twofold challenge to using the international treaties (other than the European Convention with its very specific relationship to the Human Rights Act)’ the dualist system and the socio-political reluctance to deal with the issues’ how do we bridge the gap? In what way can we use these instruments and commitments at the national level?
First’ I would encourage you to persistently cite and rely on the international legal standards’ the jurisprudence and the findings of the international monitoring bodies. One should continuously highlight the fact that the United Kingdom is a party to these instruments and that therefore these instruments bind the policy maker. I urge you to be far more forthright in this regard. At the Human Rights Commission we are trying to live by this through’ for example’ our extensive commentary on the Programme for Government’ which is an analysis and a commentary based on the international standards. Similarly’ the international standards and findings support our commentary and our intervention around issues of the welfare reform bill.
Turning back to the lawyers and a more judicial context for social change’ I would encourage you to use the full breadth of the international standards more vigorously in the courtroom. Of course’ for this to work there are a few conditions that need to be put in place. The first is that we need a heightened awareness by lawyers. It is my view that we simply do not pay enough attention to the international treaties in legal training’ outside of the European treaties. Given that all of these treaties –not just the European ones— are legally binding on the state’ we must weave them in; albeit they are that bit more challenging to use in the judicial context and will only ever have persuasive force.
Secondly’ as a corollary to raising awareness and enthusiasm among lawyers’ we must raise awareness and enthusiasm among the judges.
Let me now touch briefly on what the Human Rights Commission is currently involved with in the context of today’s topic. The Human Rights Commission has a very wide remit that includes the entire gamut of human rights obligations applicable to Northern Ireland in the context of all of the treaties be they European or otherwise. We also have a wide range of tools available to us. I would like to reassure you that the economy is right up there at the heart of our priorities right now. We identify our priorities to some extent by listening to communities in Northern Ireland. In every population centre that we visit’ we meet the community groups and the local politicians to ask about their priorities. In every place we have been told that the first priority is the economy and its impact on the wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland.
What does that mean for the Commission? It means we have engaged on the Programme for Government across all its elements and not just on discreet human rights issues. Our attitude is that everything in the Programme for Government touches or engages with human rights. We continue a very broad engagement on welfare reform and more generally’ we are forced to come to terms with the implications of the existing cuts. The impact on human rights is disturbing. Just a few days ago I visited a drop in centre for people with learning disabilities where their budget is being cut by forty percent. What that means is that a centre that was open for people mostly living alone with learning disabilities’ from 9am until 6pm’ will now only be open from 2pm until 4pm. Additionally’ they will have to cut employee salaries in such a manner that a number of their staff cannot live on this alone and must find alternative employment or leave the caring profession entirely.
The second dimension is our concern that when we talk about welfare reform’ the debate sometimes fails to take adequate account of the specificities of Northern Ireland. We followed welfare reform very closely for the last couple of months; we have seen the London papers in particular vigorously covering the issues. The problem is that the issues are either GB-issues or generic ones’ and we have seen very little attention to what is specific in Northern Ireland. We need to draw attention to some of the specificities for here. One in particular is with regard to the context of segregated housing. The extent to which there is a need for people to change accommodation in a context where the housing pool is more or less entirely segregated raises great challenges.
The third and final dimension of engaging with the economy is the extent to which welfare reform and budget cuts may impact on the maintenance of peace. What does it signify that the highest rates of poverty in Northern Ireland are found at Interfaces’ with a high possibility that decisions made by policy makers will further exacerbate that poverty?
Thank you all for listening’ I am really grateful for the opportunity to speak here today and let me wish you the very best of luck not just for today but for the continuation of the journey on which you are embarked.

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