The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission launched its annual statement on human rights at Stormont in December 2017. The event was marked by a speech from Harriet Harman MP and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights at Westminster on the role of women in public and political life. The speech covered the struggle for women in the Labour Party and elsewhere to achieve recognition and equality in Parliament. She also outlined the growing willingness of women MPs across all political parties to intervene on issues of gender discrimination and equality in Northern Ireland overcoming a hitherto reluctance to becoming involved in issues due to devolution. The initiative led by Stella Creasey MP to secure access to free abortions on the NHS for women travelling from Northern Ireland was one cited example of such an intervention.
The Commission’s annual statement charts the state of play in human rights in Northern Ireland. There is not a single green light for the UK government, Northern Ireland Executive or any relevant public authority denoting an effective response to addressing effectively specifically identified human rights issues. The lack of progress reflects the absence of a working Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly throughout 2017.
The annual statement also illustrates why an effective devolved Assembly is so important for human rights. Outstanding strategies to promote gender equality, improve the circumstances of people with disabilities and to enhance the lives of LGBTI individuals all remain on the drawing board. An anti-poverty strategy remains outstanding despite the High Court ruling two and a half years ago that the NI Executive had failed to meet its legal obligations by not producing such a strategy.
The absence of such strategies is not academic. Recent concluding observations from the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the UKs’ performance set out in trenchant terms just how far we have to go to ensure people with disabilities can fully realise the right to live independently and be included in community life. This report follows hot on the heels of the Committee’s inquiry into the cumulative impact of the UK government’s social security, work and employment legislation, and policies on persons with disabilities right to live independently and be included in the community.
The report concluded that there was reliable evidence that systemic and grave violations of the rights of persons with disabilities had occurred. The UK government robustly defended the policies adopted that engendered this conclusion. As the annual statement highlights further reform, including provision to confine entitlement to new claimants of child tax credit and universal credit to two children only will have a debilitating impact on child poverty in larger families and for family households containing a child with a disability. The Northern Ireland Executive’s measures to mitigate the adverse impact of earlier social security reforms were due to be reviewed in the coming financial year and end altogether in 2019. The review is one of a large number of issues in stasis as a result of the political impassé.
A number of red lights denoting an ongoing human rights violation are highlighted in the annual statement. These include the need to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility currently aged 10 in Northern Ireland and to end the defence of reasonable chastisement to justify physical punishment of children. These are issues, which have been regularly raised by UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies with the UK government and devolved administrations. Unlike in Northern Ireland, progress is being made in other devolved administrations. In Scotland, the Minister for Childcare and Early Years has announced that a Bill will be introduced to increase the minimum age for criminal responsibility to 12 years of age in line with international standards. In addition, the Scottish government has also announced it will remove the defence of justifiable assault that allows the physical punishment of children by supporting a Bill brought forward by the Green MSP John Finnie. The Welsh government is also consulting on a move to prohibit physical punishment of children.
Another red light concerns access to termination and the Commission’s legal challenge to the current law in cases of serious malformation of the foetus including fatal foetal abnormality and for victims of sexual crimes. The challenge was heard in the Supreme Court in October 2017. Our expectation is that judgement will be given sometime over the next three months.
In essence, moving forward many human rights issues requires an effective functioning Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Hopefully, the 2018 Annual Statement can present a more upbeat report on progress.
A copy of the annual statement and a video of the launch can be found on the Commission’s website at www.nihrc.org.