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

07
Jul

Written evidence to the follow-up inquiry of the House of Lords Sub-Committee on the NI Protocol

CAJ has provided written evidence to the House of Lords Sub-Committee on the NI Protocol. Our submission focuses on the UK Government’s plans to being forward legislation to unilaterally modify the NI Protocol, with the stated intention of protecting “the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement [GFA] in all its dimensions”. Our submission, however, argues that the...
04
Jul

CAJ welcomes statement from Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights on legacy bill

CAJ has welcomed a statement from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, released earlier today, which raises serious questions about compatibility of the UK’s legacy bill with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Commissioner Dunja Mijatović’s issued the statement following a five-day visit to the UK, including Belfast. The statement is available...
22
Jun

CAJ deeply concerned about the ‘Removal of Rights Bill’

The UK Government has today published what should more aptly be called the ‘Removal of Rights Bill’, designed to weaken the protection of human rights and the rule of law. In an example of the ‘big lie’ school of politics, this draft legislation is called a “Bill of Rights Bill,” as though it will enhance...
24
May

Academic and human rights experts publish initial response to Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

Report finds that bill would be “unworkable”, in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and international human rights law and would not deliver for victims and survivors. The Model Bill Team – led by Professor Kieran McEvoy and made up of academics in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and experts from CAJ...
24
May

Model Bill Team initial response to legacy and reconciliation bill

Comprised of experts from QUB and CAJ, the Model Bill Team has worked for almost a decade to find human rights compliant solutions to the legal and political challenges regarding dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. The group has analysed the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill – which is currently on its...
17
May

CAJ outraged by UK legacy bill

The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has strongly criticised the UK government’s new legacy bill (as introduced into the UK Parliament today) and has called for it to be scrapped in favour of the prior proposals in the Stormont House Agreement. CAJ is highly critical of a number of aspects of the Northern...
10
May

CAJ statement on Queen’s Speech implications for Northern Ireland

CAJ raises serious concerns about the legacy commitments arising from the Queen’s Speech. Brian Gormally, CAJ Director, commented: “Today’s Queen’s Speech contains a commitment to bring forward legislation to ‘address the legacy of the past’. Details are scant, but it seems that all recourse to law for victims in relation to ‘incidents’ during the conflict...
04
Apr

Conference report – A Renaissance of the Peace Process? What kind of society do we need?

A Renaissance of the Peace Process? What kind of society do we need? was a one day working conference held on 27 September 2019 in the Canada Room, Queen’s University Belfast. It was organised by CAJ in collaboration with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), QUB Human Rights Centre, and Senator George J. Mitchell...
10
Mar

CAJ responds to Human Rights Act consultation

CAJ has responded to the UK government’s consultation on reform of the Human Rights Act. We wish to make it clear that we object to the proposals in this consultation and the proposed Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), which in our view would greatly reduce the protections currently in...

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