Like most years, 2015 has been mixed in terms of the protection and promotion of human rights. At the beginning of the year, there was optimism that the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement might lead to a measure of truth and justice for victims and survivors of the conflict. It was followed by at least some resistance to the worst effects of social security cuts. A year of grinding negotiation later and there has been a deal on welfare cuts, some of the poorest in society will still suffer worst. The dealing with the past proposals have temporarily at least, foundered on the demand by the British Government for a veto over what information is released to families.
The new Conservative Government has pressed ahead with even deeper cuts to welfare, consciously targeting those already under massive economic pressure, and has also expressed its intention to repeal the Human Rights Act, one of the basic pillars of our peace Agreement and society in general.
CAJ’s particular response to these challenges is detailed in the following pages. However, in reflecting on the year, we can point to, if not many victories, at least positive mobilisations of civil society around key issues.
Engagement with the Stormont House process has been intense, informed, consistent and practical. The way in which human rights standards in economic, social and cultural areas can be used as a mobilising focus has been seen in the fight back against policies of austerity and for a rights based antipoverty strategy. The growing campaign against the repeal of the Human Rights Act has seen an increased emphasis on the positive contribution to human well being of an effective, enforceable set of human rights standards.
In regarding the current environment, we should be clear that human rights work in Northern Ireland is particularly important for a number of reasons. First, it is important to the victims and survivors of the conflict, that they receive a measure of truth and justice, and it is important to the entire population that they live in a relatively peaceful, rights-respecting society. Second, it is important for the UK as a whole that Northern Ireland does not yet again draw in thousands of English, Scottish and Welsh people to a violent conflict as victims or perpetrators; it is also important for all the people of the UK that the culture of impunity is broken and the UK state will not again use torture, extra-judicial killings and collusion as instruments of policy.
Thirdly, it is important to the world, on the one hand, that UK hypocrisy on human rights is decisively ended and, on the other hand, that the very many positive lessons from the reform of institutions here are disseminated and understood.
A human rights approach is not just important in Northern Ireland; it can also be particularly effective. In a chronically divided society, the whole point of human rights standards is that they stand above particular identities; they are universal and apply to all people equally by virtue of their simple humanity. In the context of a society where people with different national aspirations share the same geographical and political space, a human rights framework can be seen as an absolute necessity. It is the very fact that human rights are neither unionist nor nationalist, whatever the attitude towards them by either of those groupings are at particular times, which gives them their strength. Patient explanation of the protection offered to all and the consistent argument for an overarching normative framework in a divided society is the only viable approach.
In developing a strategy to meet these challenges, for CAJ and other rights based NGOs, the overarching goal should be the achievement of a rights based society, building on the promises of the peace process and the various agreements made as part of it.
Peace cannot be maintained without human rights – in Northern Ireland human rights activists are also peacebuilders. We need to resist rollback and demand full implementation of commitments already made as well as those necessary to bring our society up to date with contemporary human rights standards. More specifically, in every area that affects the lives of ordinary people, we need to ensure that the relevant agencies of the state adopt a rights based approach to decision making, using appropriate laws, regulations and standards.
Achieving a rights based society will involve empowering and mobilising rights bearers, probably more often on single issues than in a general movement, lobbying and pressurising duty bearers from local officials to ministers and engaging in public debate in the media when possible. Our messages need to be clear, combative when necessary, but with the human element – the real effect of rights violations – emphasised.
We also need to be more positive, not in the sense of playing down criticism of the state, but in the sense of proposing solutions rather than sitting back with a simple negative critique. In other words, in any particular area, we should not wait for others to make proposals and then criticise them from a purist perspective, we should instead propose practical but human rights compliant measures which could meet identified needs.
In so far as we are experts on areas of human rights, we should deploy that expertise in practical, useful ways. Part of this may involve being “critical friends” to institutions, especially the new ones established as part of the peace process, who have a role in building the rights based society. Knowledgeable, active NGOs can help progress and hinder rollback in critical statutory agencies whatever their area of work, from housing to health, from policing to economic development.
We also need to make better connections amongst ourselves. There are many layers of work involved in human rights activism from consultation, training and empowerment at grassroots community level, through social research and analysis, legal analysis and strategic litigation to political lobbying and media work. It would be ridiculous to expect all organisations to be equally active at all levels.
However, where there is a particular project, with a clear objective, there is scope for productive collaboration. This is not an end in itself but a question of forming working alliances necessary to achieve human rights objectives.
This is what CAJ is trying to do in the Human Rights Partnership and in many other areas. There is hardly an area of work in which we do not consult and share with colleagues in other organisations, in institutions and in academia.
We are in regular contact not just with our own clients but also formal and informal groupings of victims, survivors and other rights bearers.
A human rights approach requires cooperation, participation and transparency, never pandering to the lowest common denominator but always working for the empowerment of those whose rights have been abused.
We have tried to adopt these approaches during the past year and we will continue to apply them in the coming period.