A peek in the red room – NI’s human rights worries for 2016
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission released its latest annual report in December.
The report aims to be an exhaustive look at human rights issues in Northern Ireland – both highlighting recent moves in those areas while also looking at how more progress can be made.
It also employs a traffic-light system to classify actions taken or required by legislators or other public officials, with red, as usual, signifying the worst situations and identifying “a subject that requires immediate action by the UK Government, NI Executive or relevant public authorities and the issue may be an ongoing violation or abuse of human rights”.
A total of 86 areas were given a rating, with the vast majority deemed amber – a cosy fit with the “should do better” nature of Northern Ireland governance since the Good Friday Agreement - while only six earned the top shade of green.
That was for pursuing the enactment of domestic violence prevention orders, bringing the National Crime Agency into operation, 2015’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act, establishment of the Victim Charter, publication of revised care standards in nursing homes and also strengthening the access to education for children in custody.
However, our focus lies elsewhere.
NIHRC red ratings were awarded to eight of the human rights categories it identified across public and civic life and there are no surprises about where they begin – dealing with the past.
Past and future
Under the umbrella of the Right to Life, Northern Ireland is seriously failing in both conflict-related deaths (transitional justice and individual cases) and also in legacy inquests and inquiries.
On the former, the Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about the three main mechanisms to investigate Troubles deaths – enormous delays with our coroner’s courts, the closure of the controversial Historical Enquiries Team, and “resourcing difficulties” within the Police Ombudsman.
The Stormont House Agreement sees a commitment to a new set of structures which aim to have the ability to deal with the past on all fronts, led by victims, namely the Historical Inquiries Unit, the Oral History Archive, the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
Of course, strange as it might seem, the SHA was way back in 2014 and, more than a year later, there has been almost zero progress on the parts of the agreement that address dealing with the past – with the HRC report noting: “The UK has failed to implement ECt.HR judgements stipulating measures to achieve effective investigations into ‘Troubles-related’ deaths since 2001, and this failure is itself resulting in further findings of violations against the UK.”
The latter point focuses again on the tectonic slowness of Northern Ireland’s coroner’s system, while also noting the Prime Minister’s decision to opt for a review into the Pat Finucane killing, rather than the public inquiry favoured by his family – and the family’s unsuccessful challenge to that decision last year.
Not all our problems are in the past.
In fact, across a number of areas, it is children who might have most cause for concern, according to the NIHRC paper, with three of the remaining six red alerts concerning their treatment.
Remanding children in custody when it is unnecessary or disproportionate remains a local concern, with the report saying a 2013 commitment from the DOJ to try and ensure children awaiting trial are only ever remanded when there is a real possibility of a custodial sentence, if convicted, “is yet to be realised”.
Corporal punishment is also singled out, with the NIHRC’s position being that the defence of “reasonable chastisement” that is currently in place should be removed and a blanket ban put in place, acknowledging that the current Westminster government thinks parents should not be criminalised for “mild” physical punishments.
NI’s minimum age of criminal responsibility remains set at ten years old, and NIHRC is unhappy with this, saying:
“The Commission has repeatedly advised that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be raised to at least twelve in line with international human rights standards…
“The Minister of Justice has publicly stated his support for increasing the age of criminal responsibility to twelve but has not brought any legislative proposals before the NI Assembly due to a lack of consensus on the matter.”
Currently, when pursuing any potential miscarriages of justice, people who have been wrongly convicted of terror offences will still have to prove their innocence – rather than simply have the false charges dismissed.
Our lack of an anti-poverty strategy – as upheld in court by Mr Justice Treacy earlier this year – is also cited as a potential breach of human rights, with the Commission citing the judge’s ruling that “there is no evidence before me that this inchoate strategy was ever finalised”.
And, last but not least, there is abortion; the ink is barely dry on Mr Justice Horner’s ruling that current NI laws and guidelines are incompatible with legislators’ human rights commitments, and nothing has yet been done to address this.
So, there they are, the sorest points on human rights in Northern Ireland, according to our Commission. It will be interesting to see how they have all progressed, or not, in 12 months’ time.
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