13 December 2007 Edition

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Beyond the rhetoric of human rights

South African Ambassador to Ireland Priscilla Jana

South African Ambassador to Ireland Priscilla Jana

By Laura Friel

The Bill of Rights in the Six Counties must move beyond the rhetoric of human rights, a north Belfast group ‘The Future Together Initiative’ told the Bill of Rights Forum during an engagement to mark International Human Rights Day last week. A submission, the result of a local consultation process initiated by the cross community group, was also delivered to the forum.
“The implementation of the Bill of Rights must be expansive and imaginative. It must be a positive human rights instrument that builds confidence, inclusivity and generosity that assists us all to manage the transition from conflict,” said Initiative spokesperson John Loughran.
Also addressing the conference were Chris Sidoti, chair of the Bill of Rights Forum and the South African Ambassador to Ireland Priscilla Jana. The proceedings were chaired by Irene Sherry from Droichead an Dochais who jointly promoted the event with Developing Leadership CEP.
Presenting a submission to the Forum, John Loughran, warned that a Bill of Rights must be capable of delivering tangible outcomes with accessible enforcement mechanisms that can be tested against real problems.
“The Bill of Rights must be contained in a single text that is in user-friendly language. The effective implementation of a Bill of Rights can potentially create a common vision of the future, a new collective vision that is agreed and which appreciates our shared heritage,” said Loughran.
But if all this seems like a tall order, Forum chair Chris Sidoti had some words of encouragement. Almost 60 years ago, in what Sidoti identified as the greatest achievement of the Twentieth Century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed and endorsed.
It had emerged out of the carnage of two World Wars and involved a great diversity of nations and governments. It had taken just one year to draw up and was only seven pages long but those 30 paragraphs had fundamentally changed the world.

Seize the day
Opportunities like this only emerge occasionally and Chris Sidoti’s message to the conference was to “seize the day”. Take advantage of the space that the Good Friday Agreement and ongoing peace process has opened up as quickly as possible because the moment passes and we’ve already been working on the Bill of Rights for ten years.
Commenting on the inclusion of social and economic rights in the Bill of Rights, Sidoti pointed out that delivery did not have to be immediate but in terms of “progressive implementation” related to resources available to the state. But he warned the notion of limited resources was being used disproportionately in relation to social and economic rights.
“All rights require resources,” said Sidoti. Political and civil rights cost money but no one suggests that this cost should not be met. It costs money to hold elections, to maintain acceptable standards in prisons and to run the justice system.
International standards require progress through the use of the “maximum extent of available resources”. In other words the delivery of human rights should not be determined by short term budgetary constraints but within the larger consideration of the wealth of the nation.
Sidoti also challenged the notion that a Bill of Rights undermined democratic accountability by transferring power away from parliament and into the hands of the courts. There is an ongoing tendency within executive government to erode accountability to parliament. Human Rights legislation offers another mechanism with which to hold executive government to account.
South African Ambassador Pricilla Jana described the process by which her country had “stunned the world” by effectively managing an orderly transition from an Apartheid white supremacist regime to inclusive multiracial democracy. It had been an inspired exercise in compromise, said the Ambassador which involved both negotiation and democratic endorsement.
In terms of enforcement, the Ambassador highlighted the role of South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The court acts not only to restrict the state in the interests of individual citizens’ rights, such as the right to life, privacy, etc but more recently it has acted to compel proactive intervention by the state in the interests of its citizens. The Ambassador used the example of the Court compelling government intervention in relation to the ongoing HIV crisis.
The forum is scheduled to deliver recommendations to the north’s Human Rights Commission in March of next year so the timetable is tight for submissions and consultations that are already underway in communities throughout the North.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, The Human Rights Commission has a statutory obligation to advise the British secretary of state. The bill then will make its way through the British House of Commons and the Assembly before being enacted.

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