Promoting Justice /
Protecting Rights

Protecting Human Rights and the Peace Settlement

This area of work was an unplanned addition to our priorities in 2016. Although we regarded the threatened repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a “British” Bill of Rights of unknown content as a threat both to human rights in general and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in particular, last year we did not foresee the existential threat of the campaign for Brexit and the Leave vote. One of our fundamental priorities has been to make a reality of the unfulfilled human rights promises and commitments in the Agreement, pushing ever harder for a genuine rights-based society. The campaign and vote for Brexit, together with the increased chances of the repeal of the Human Rights Act, has forced us to defend what we have: a partially completed, partially successful peace process faced with the threats of constitutional uncertainty, if not chaos, and emboldened xenophobia.

Our opinion before and after the vote made clear that there were potential threats to human rights visible during the referendum campaign, which is why we unusually and specifically urged a Remain vote. CAJ would not normally take a position on constitutional arrangements, since different structures can offer equivalent human rights protections. In respect of the European Union itself, we noted back in February that its record on human rights was mixed. However, the context of the actual debate was that a Brexit victory would be led by the xenophobic Right and would lead to a “carnival of reaction.” In the concrete reality of the UK in 2016 a vote to leave, in what primarily transpired to be a plebiscite on migration, was a vote to reduce human rights protections.

While this is not the place to rehearse all the detailed implications of Brexit, it is important to lay out our basic policy positions. After the referendum result we said that:

Those voices leading the Leave campaign majored not on democratic or socio-economic deficits in the EU project but rather on nationalist sentiment, xenophobia and thinly veiled racism. This result will embolden them and place them in the ascendency.

So the first consequence of the vote has been the normalisation of anti-immigrant discourse, a huge boost for racist groups and an increase in racist attacks. From the perspective of human rights, this is perhaps the most dangerous scenario. Racism is a fundamental enemy of human rights. Human rights are universal, applying to everyone by virtue of their simple humanity – racism is the complete negation of that philosophy. Furthermore, it is insidious – once allowed into the political conversation it becomes the ready and available put-down of any attempt to express human solidarity.

The second area of concern is a retreat from the EU protections of workers’ rights, data protection, environmental and anti-discrimination legislation. Exiting the EU would remove a backstop for rights protection, making it easier for current or future governments to erode protections for workers’ rights and equality.

Thirdly, the withdrawal of EU peace and structural funds and the likely increase in austerity policies will affect many people. The expected ending of peace and structural funds will decimate the voluntary and community sector and remove support from many projects, such as ex-prisoner groups, which are vital for the peace process. Together, these economic pressures will pose a real threat to the social and economic rights of the most disadvantaged.

Fourth is the threat of a “hard” border on the island of Ireland and the threat to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. A “hard” border would threaten the free movement across the island implicit in the Agreement and, even if the Common Travel Area is protected, could become the site of racial profiling as passports are demanded from those who look “different.” The issue of equality of Irish of British citizenship, so central to the Agreement, will be put at threat.

Lastly, as we have noted the referendum result may pose an indirect threat to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. There is a huge range of threats that this prospect makes to human rights protections on everything from the Agreement itself, through policing to dealing with the past.

In this context, we have been doing everything we can to explore the consequences of the Brexit vote and to prepare to fight for human rights protections and the Agreement that brought an end to our conflict as this dangerous process unfolds. 

CAJ are working on a collaborative ESRC-funded research project with the Law Schools of Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University- this project is entitled BrexitLawNI. For more information and research papers from the project please go to www.brexitlawni.org 

Latest press releases and publications

21
Sep

Civil Society – Internal Market Bill jeopardises Good Friday Agreement

Civil society groups, including CAJ, warn UK government not to threaten Good Friday Agreement through Internal Market Bill. Representatives from a wide range of civil society groups met with officials from the UK Government on Friday (18 September 2020) and registered our strong protest at the terms of the Internal Market Bill, which directly breaches...
21
Sep

Devolution and the rule of law is threatened by the UK Internal Market Bill warns campaigning groups and trade unions ahead of commons debate

In a letter to MPs and Peers, civil society organisations, including CAJ, warn of their “serious concerns” about the Internal Market Bill. The letter, with signatories including the Pesticide Action Network UK and UNISON, warns that the proposed internal market rules pose a threat to the devolution settlements, the rule of law and the UK’s...
09
Sep

NI organisations express shock at the peace process being used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations by UK government

Civil society organisations in Northern Ireland have warned against the peace process and the rights of Northern Irish people being used as a bargaining chip in the latest round of negotiations on the trade deal between the UK and the EU. Alarm bells were set off when the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis...
03
Sep

CAJ statement on the appointment of six new human rights commissioners

CAJ notes the appointment of six new Commissioners to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), who each took up office on 1 September 2020. CAJ hopes they will demonstrate their firm commitment to upholding international human rights standards under the leadership of the Chief Commissioner, Les Allamby, not only as we attempt to emerge...
14
May

CAJ explanatory statement on changes to UK Immigration Rules

The changes to the Immigration Rules today follow the commitments made by the British Government in the New Decade, New Approach agreement of 9 January 2020 and the earlier review promised by Theresa May into Irish citizens in NI being joined by their family members. These changes are driven by the legal challenge by Emma...
09
Apr

Drive to achieve impunity for soldiers risks legacy process in Northern Ireland, according to new report

There are clear deficiencies in the UK government’s most recent proposals for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, according to a new report published today. Prosecutions, Imprisonment and the Stormont House Agreement: A Critical Analysis of Proposals on Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland reviews all of the proposals put forward on...
Cover of Prosecutions, Imprisonment and the Stormont House Agreement
09
Apr

Prosecutions, Imprisonment and the Stormont House Agreement: A Critical Analysis of Proposals on Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland

In recent years, there have been eleven distinct proposals on dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. Most recently, a new approach to legacy was put forward by the UK government in a statement delivered by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in March 2020. Prosecutions, Imprisonment and the Stormont House Agreement: A...
18
Mar

CAJ response to UK government’s ‘new approach’ to legacy

CAJ shares the dismay of victims’ groups and others at the statement on legacy given by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) today. This statement appears to envisage the abandonment of the structures proposed in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) in favour of a new ‘fast-track’ process, the detail of which is entirely unclear. It seems...
04
Feb

Analysis of the New Decade, New Approach agreement

After three years in the political wilderness, Northern Ireland once again has a functioning devolved government sitting at Stormont. A new cross-party deal, published in January 2020, paved the way for the restoration of the NI Assembly and Executive. The New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement was announced by the Irish and British governments on...

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