The head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) warned yesterday that the organisation’s ability to operate effectively is being threatened by funding cuts.
Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick was speaking at the launch at Stormont of The 2022 Annual Statement on Human Rights in Northern Ireland.
Ms Kilpatrick said: 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, said Ms Kilpatrick.
“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.”