12 September 2002 Edition

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Human Rights Commissioners quit

The Human Rights Commission is a 'toothless' organisation that has failed to achieve the remit envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. Its independence and effectiveness has been compromised by the British government and its powers and resources are inadequate to the task.

These are the damning conclusions of two Commissioners, Christine Bell and Inez McCormack, both of whom resigned from the Human Rights body last week.

Inez McCormack is Regional Secretary of Unison and Christine Ball is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Ulster. Both women were appointed at the Commission's inception in March 1999.

In a letter of resignation to the British Secretary of State, John Reid, Professor Ball pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement stated that the Human Rights Commission would be established "independent of government, with an extended and enhanced role beyond that currently exercised by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights."

SACHR was a government appointed quango that, despite involving many well-meaning individuals, was largely used by the British government as a testing ground for draconian legislation. Forewarned by SACHR, the British government merely redrafted the legislation, not to enhance human rights but to circumvent any organised opposition.

Describing herself as initially "immensely honoured when I was chosen to be a Commissioner on the new body", Ball says it is with regret that she feels forced to resign.

"The powers and resources given to the Commission are inadequate to its task, compromising its independence and effectiveness," says Ball.

According to Ball, these difficulties were "comprehensively documented as far back as its review of powers report in February 2001" but instead of acting speedily and in good faith, the British government was both "tardy" and "dismissive".

The British government's proposal to address the funding problem "further compromised the independence and effectiveness of the Commission". The HRC was required to run cap in hand to the NIO where the 'appropriateness' and 'approach' of any project under consideration would be discussed.

In a letter of resignation, Inez McCormack also says that "the present Commission cannot deliver its remit under the Good Friday Agreement.

"It was obvious to me that when the Commission was established it was not provided with either the powers or the resources to meet the requirements set out in the international standards for human rights commissions on independence and effective action," says McCormack.

As a newly appointed commissioner, McCormack "considered initially that these problems were merely the problems of any newly established organisation" and she "engaged fully with the chair and other members of the Commission in attempting to remedy these problems". It later "became apparent that the problems were more fundamental", says McCormack.

"I believe that the Commission has been ineffective in the past and will continue to be in future without substantive change," says McCormack. "I am unable in good conscience to continue to serve on it."

Brice Dickson, HRC head, said the resignations had come as a surprise and that he had only been aware of "minor disagreements".

The HRC called on the British government to support the organisation's call for immediate changes to its powers. In a statement, the Commission said the remaining members "shared the frustration expressed at the lack of powers and resources".

The British government expressed regret at the resignations but rejected criticism. A spokesperson for the NIO said the British government had every confidence that the body would continue its vital role.

Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said the resignations raise "fundamental doubts about whether this Commission, as currently constituted, is the independent human rights advocate it was intended to be under the Good Friday Agreement.

"Evidently there are serious difficulties within the Commission which on several occasions Sinn Féin have also raised with the Commission and the British government. It should therefore be a matter of urgent concern to the two governments that these legitimate grievances are honestly and speedily addressed if public confidence is to be restored."

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