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

01
Mar

Just News Winter 2019

Inside this issue: A look at the threats faced by human rights defenders in both Northern Ireland and in Egypt. Conradh na Gaeilge writes about the major shortcomings in special educational needs (SEN) provision for Irish medium schools. We report on a recent session of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which focused on human rights and...
06
Feb

NI-born Irish citizens NOT entitled to apply to retain EU rights under EU Settlement Scheme due to being British Citizens – Home Office Minister

Only Irish citizens who are not also British citizens can apply under the EU Settlement Scheme for long-term protection of their rights, according to the Home Office Minister Caroline Nokes in her response to a Parliamentary Question tabled by Labour MP John Grogan. Under the current Home Office position that Northern Ireland-born people should be...
29
Jan

Post-Brexit Citizenship Status: Divided by the Rules?

When: 10am-4pm, Monday 4 March 2019. Where: Moot Court Room, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. This one-day conference from BrexitLawNI and the Equality Coalition will examine the risks of hardened entitlement boundaries between different groups of citizens in post-Brexit Northern Ireland. The existing paradigm of two main citizenship categories (EU and non-EU) will be...
23
Jan

Opening statement to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality

CAJ Director Brian Gormally appeared today before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality to discuss the issues and potential risks raised by Brexit in terms of human rights and equality in Ireland. Attending the same meeting were representatives of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and the Irish Human Rights and Equality...
14
Jan

Divided by the rules: Citizenship rights after Brexit

To say there is still confusion about the practical implications of Brexit is an understatement. One area over which there remains numerous questions is the impact of Brexit on the rights of people born or living in Northern Ireland depending on their citizenship status. Currently, people resident in Northern Ireland generally fall into two citizenship...
10
Dec

CAJ Annual Report 2018

CAJ highlights another year spent promoting justice and protecting rights in our Annual Report 2018. It’s been an eventful twelve months for the CAJ team, not least because of the human rights implications of the UK’s impending exit from the EU. Introduction to the report: People in Northern Ireland are sometimes accused, not always unjustly,...
14
Sep

BrexitLawNI project reports

Brexit will have detrimental consequences for the peace process in Northern Ireland and will weaken human rights and equality protections, according to six interlinked reports unveiled by BrexitLawNI. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), BrexitLawNI is a research partnership between human rights experts from CAJ and researchers from the Schools of Law...
16
Aug

BrexitLawNI Launch of Project Reports

When: 1pm to 4.45 pm, Friday 14 September 2018. Where: Canada Room, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University Belfast. BrexitLawNI is a collaborative research project between CAJ and the Schools of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and was set up to examine...
08
Aug

Launch Event: Response to Stormont House legacy consultation – QUB/UU/CAJ Model Bill Team

When: 11am to 1pm, Thursday 30 August 2018. Where: Moot Court Room, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) is currently consulting on a draft legacy bill to take forward the establishment of the four legacy bodies negotiated and agreed by the NI political parties and the Irish and UK governments...

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