Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A proposed Human Rights Bill that cheapens the concept of human rights

The NI Human Rights Commission’s report has arrived (PDF). Broadly it consists of (who’d have thunk it?) provisions which are already enshrined in the Human Rights’ Act via the European Convention, but to this framework it adds supplementary ‘rights’ which are considered (if the HRC has stuck by its remit) to be uniquely required in Northern Ireland. In his leader’s speech at the weekend Sir Reg Empey highlighted the danger of removing matters from the competence of Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly to be decided instead by unelected, unaccountable judges. Set aside the self-righteous platitudes and this document proposes a very dangerous encroachment into the remit of elected politicians.

Having quickly read the recommendations, paying most attention to the additional supplementary rights proposed for Northern Ireland, it is clear that the Commission has strayed far from the remit of human rights and is seeking to impose binding social, educational, housing and employment policies. It is deeply disingenuous to bundle these matters up with human rights. Not only does it cheapen ‘rights’ as a concept, but it seeks to impose an ideological template, far beyond any existing consensus, on a range of matters which should be decided by the elected government of the day. That is not to say that some of the ends which this document wishes to effect are not meritorious, but it is not right that it seeks to remove them from the democratic fray.

Take for instance the outrageous list of grounds on which discrimination is to be precluded,

“No one shall be unfairly discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as: race, membership of the Irish Traveller community, colour, ethnicity, descent, sex, pregnancy, maternity, civil, family or carer status, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, birth, national or social origin, nationality, economic status, association with a national minority, sexual orientation, gender, identity, age, disability, health status, genetic or other predisposition toward, illness, irrelevant criminal record, property or a combination of any of these grounds, on the basis of characteristics associated with any of these grounds, or any other status.”


No-one would seriously argue that discrimination is a good thing, but some of these matters are directly relevant, for example, to someone’s ability to do a job. Such a provision would attempt to hold businesses and public authorities to frankly unattainable standards. And then there is the catch-all ‘or any other status’, an open invitation to unlimited legal action, much of which could be funded from the public purse. I might demand not to be discriminated against on the grounds of my laziness or my alcohol problem!

Though just in case I might find that I am being discriminated against because people who fall into a favoured category in that exhaustive list of humanity are being given preferential treatment, I am precluded from protection under a subsequent clause! If I feel that the 4 foot tall, one legged hunchback is a less sound choice for the shelf-stacker's job than I am, it's hard luck if she's being 'ameliorated'.

The issue of prisoners being afforded the vote is currently a contentious political matter. This report breezily accords them an inalienable right to exercise the franchise. No discussion permitted. Again there are legitimate arguments for and against, but surely such a matter is within the competence of any given government? Similarly the Commission wishes to prescribe proportional representation, in perpetuity, as the only means by which to elect local and regional government. Believe me, I support STV’s retention for council and Assembly elections, but can its continued use be seriously presented as an inalienable human right? Owen Paterson MP argues that this clause would contravene requirements in the Belfast Agreement to review the current voting system regularly.

As regards education, ‘no child shall be denied access to the full Northern Ireland education curriculum’. Which, by my understanding, would require every school to provide every course pertaining to a particular age group even if only one child wished to study it. Not an awful thing in a perfect world, but completely impractical.

“Everyone belonging to a linguistic minority has the right to learn or be educated in and through their minority language where there are substantial numbers of users and sufficient demand.”


GCSE papers in Polish a requirement in the near future? Mandarin schools demanded in law?

No-one can be allowed to fall into destitution (no matter how determined their efforts toward that end). Everyone has a right to a job and a house (whether they are available or not). All victims of the NI conflict are entitled to a raft of things, no matter whether their victimhood is a result of their relative's involvement in terrorism or not. There will be a right to an adequate standard of living whether one earns it or not. Everyone has the right to freely choose or accept work (which might interest the Work and Pensions Secretary as he formulates the latest welfare to work reforms).

The list of policy areas which a Human Rights Bill, based on this template, would delegate to the judiciary goes on and on. At Westminster the cabinet has made it clear that a similar bill will not be framed for Britain. As I always suspected, this is an untenable, dishonest proposal for legislation. Both Daphne Trimble and Jonathan Bell have failed to agree with the document, yet they were denied the chance to offer a minority report. It must not be allowed to go any further.

3 comments:

Ciarán said...

You don't have a sexual orientation, gender, identity or age Chekov? No wonder you use a pseudonym!

I'm a bit iffy about a lot of the Bill, but I would have thought that the key answer to your criticism of the anti-discrimination section is contained in the word 'unfairly.'

Chekov said...

Well spotted. I rushed this out yesterday and didn't get a chance to read over it.

'Unfairly' or not, this will provide the basis for almost unlimited litigation and has the capacity yo be interpreted in outrageously broad fashion by judges.

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