International Human Rights Day

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 12:15 pm, 5th December 2016

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. As two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, an additional 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech.

The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive so, if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges international Human Rights Day; notes the United Nations' comments that more should be done to raise awareness of human rights and the need to improve education about human rights; and calls on all Government Departments and public bodies to introduce human rights action plans.

We are pleased to have secured the debate today in the week that recognises international Human Rights Day, which falls on 10 December. It commemorates the day on which in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The General Assembly also passed a resolution inviting all interested organisations to observe 10 December each year as Human Rights Day, and that is what we are doing here today.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a milestone in the history of human rights. For the first time, it laid out fundamental rights for all to be universally protected. Today, 68 years later, the declaration remains as relevant as ever. However, the omens for the present day are hardly promising. The economic crisis, with its potential for generating political instability, seems to be spiralling further and further out of control. In this environment, the vulnerable are more exposed, and minority interests struggle to express themselves. The temptation is to be inward-looking and defensive for states as well as individuals. Human rights issues slip further and further down the agenda as choices are made and funds become scarcer.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

No. In this climate, we must remember that human rights are not a luxury. Our motion calls for more to be done to raise awareness of human rights and the need to improve education about human rights. As recently as 2011, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training and acknowledged the fundamental importance of human rights education and training in contributing to the promotion, protection and effective realisation of all human rights.

This year's Human Rights Day campaign states:

"Stand up for someone's rights today ... everywhere and at all times ... Take a stand. Defend someone's rights. Human rights belong equally to each of us ... Each one of us can make a difference."

It is important that we debate human rights in this week when we commemorate international Human Rights Day. The Assembly has a primary responsibility to realise the human rights of all people living in the North of Ireland.

I pay tribute to all the leading human rights organisations — the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ); the Equality Commission; the Human Rights Commission; the Human Rights Consortium; and Amnesty International — for all their excellent work in this field.

While the North of Ireland has an array of equality and human rights protections, we should look to build on them. It is often said that human rights are universal, and that is true. We have a Human Rights Act, an Equality Commission and a Human Rights Commission, and legislation has to be equality- and human rights-proofed by organisations such as the CAJ and the Human Rights Consortium. All of that is reflected in the Good Friday Agreement. Nevertheless, we must always look at how we can be much better. It is always good practice to assess, review and evaluate where we are at with a rights-based approach and how we make it more effective and go further. It is important to think about human rights as being relevant to our everyday lives, and that includes public services and Departments. Eleanor Roosevelt said:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he"

— or she —

"lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works."

The motion demonstrates the Assembly's commitment to enriching and embedding a human rights culture in the North of Ireland. Human rights must be defended to protect our privacy, our freedom of speech and our right to protest. It is interesting to note that three recent UN reports — namely, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) report, the report on economic, social and cultural rights and the report on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) — recommended:

"the State party expedite the process of adopting the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and ensure that it is in line with the provisions of the Convention and other international human rights standards."

A bill of rights was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement. It was to build on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and to be legislated for at Westminster. Sinn Féin calls on the British Government to legislate for a bill of rights. Many human rights recommendations have been made by the United Nations on a range of issues. Sinn Féin believes that adhering to the highest standards of human rights and best practice is important —

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

I will not.

That is important for the prevention of human rights abuses.

The Scottish Government have stated that they want to go beyond defending human rights; they believe that the protections offered by human rights legislation should represent a floor rather than a ceiling. The Scottish Government have taken on the challenge to find ways in which to embed human rights responsibilities across different policy areas by producing Scotland's national action plan. The plan has several outcomes, including empowering every individual to understand and embrace the value of human rights, implementing Scotland's international human rights obligations and reducing inequality of opportunity and outcomes. That approach ensures that people's rights are at the centre of policymaking. Perth and Kinross Council ran a pilot project bringing together local people and public bodies to discuss the potential impact of human rights on individuals and local public services. One of the proposals that came from the meeting relates to education and raising awareness. It was viewed that people who might benefit most from human rights are often the people who are least aware of them. The forum also provided the opportunity for people to see human rights as part of their daily work, as opposed to seeing them only in certain circumstances. Bringing people together to think about their rights and their public services is potentially a hugely valuable approach.

The Human Rights Act 1998 is an important part of the debate. We cannot ignore the direction of travel in which the UK is going regarding the repeal of the Human Rights Act. It is something that Sinn Féin opposes. The Human Rights Act plays a central role in our peace process. International human rights have always been very important for the people of the North, as they are truly objective and stand with what is right and wrong. The recent UN report about collusion in the North is another example of that objectivity, fairness and justice in practice, in addition to providing practical examples. Every year, the Human Rights Commission produces an annual statement on human rights. I look forward to attending the event launching that report this week in this Building. The Assembly should take note of that annual statement and examine the areas indicated with a view to flagging them in the Programme for Government.

Mar Ghaeilgeoir, ba chóir Acht Gaeilge a chur ar siúl. As a Gaelic speaker, I think that the Irish Language Act should be implemented immediately.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out all after the third "rights;" and insert "calls on the Executive to move immediately to ensure compliance with all minimum human rights standards; and further calls on all Government Departments and public bodies to introduce human rights action plans.".

We in the Green Party are really glad to see the debate brought to the House and are supportive of the original motion. We have proposed a very slight amendment and hope that it is taken as a friendly amendment, as it is aimed at reflecting the legal obligations of the Assembly's commitments to human rights, as well as the Westminster Government's.

In the pack made available for the debate, there is a quotation from the United Nations, already mentioned by Mr Lynch, that outlines the background for reasons to introduce an international Human Rights Day:

"In 1948, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a milestone in the history of human rights. For the first time, it laid out fundamental human rights for all, to be universally protected. Today, 68 years later, the Declaration remains as relevant as ever."

It is hard for us to disagree with that statement. As a state signatory to the declaration, Westminster is, to all intents and purposes, the accountable Government, at both the international and domestic level, for ensuring that those universal rights are afforded to every UK citizen.

On 22 May 1998, people across this island overwhelmingly supported the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which was a legally binding democratic referendum. As amendment No 2, from the SDLP, states, that agreement included:

"the incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights and the subsequent passage of the Human Rights Act ... 1998".

The European Convention on Human Rights is really worth spelling out and having a look at as we debate this. We, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, should have been writing it into our laws since 1998. It states some pretty straightforward things, such as the right to marry; prohibition of discrimination; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; right to respect for private and family life; and the prohibition of abuse of rights. Under section 2 of the convention, a further series of articles sets out the operation and accountability of the European Court of Human Rights. It includes the appointment of judges and the decisions taken.

A series of protocols have been added at various points since, including protocol 2, which furthers basic rights such as the protection of property, the right to education and the right to free elections. In 1963, protocol 4 introduced the prohibition of imprisonment for debt; freedom of movement; and the prohibition of expulsion of all nationals. Further protocols brought us all universal rights, such as compensation for wrongful conviction; equality between spouses; and the right of appeal in criminal matters. The Human Rights Act has been UK law since 1998. That means that you, as an individual human, can defend your universal rights in a UK court and that public organisations — including the Government, the police and local councils — must treat everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect.

It is regrettable that, here in Northern Ireland, so many cases have made their way into our courts to test those protocols.

This was the same year that saw the introduction of the Northern Ireland Act, which sets out the legislative competence of the Assembly and prevents us from legislating in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. I think it is important that the House reaffirms its commitment to that, because, over several years, observations of Northern Ireland from many international treaty bodies have repeatedly identified approximately 12 reoccurring human rights issues within the Assembly. They are: a single equality Bill; a bill of rights; termination of pregnancy; Irish language protection; promotion of Ulster Scots; issues for Irish Travellers, including educational attainment and housing; lack of involvement by the Northern Ireland Executive; poverty; conflict and legacy issues; the age of criminal responsibility; historical institutional abuse; and structures for participation. Access to many other human rights has been challenged in our courts, some of which I have mentioned and others that are currently being considered by our courts. It is for those reasons that I feel it is important that we need to be held accountable for what we do in our roles as public legislators. That is why I feel it important that this amendment receives support from all Members.

During a Westminster debate on international Human Rights Day, last year, Jim Shannon MP stated:

"The Foreign and Commonwealth Office publishes an annual report on human rights, as well as quarterly updates. May I suggest that we consider having an annual debate in Government time in the main Chamber of this House to coincide with the release of the annual report, giving the House as a whole an opportunity to respond to it?"

Principal Deputy Speaker, I believe that to be an excellent suggestion. May I suggest that we perhaps do the same in this Chamber? We have strategies and reports, and they are one thing, but accountability and scrutiny are very much another. Again, I reaffirm that we in the Green Party want to take this opportunity to confirm our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights as universal rights for all.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move amendment No 2:

Insert after the third "rights;" "notes the requirement in the Good Friday Agreement of the incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights and the subsequent passage of the Human Rights Act; believes that the Human Rights Act 1998 is important for the protection of the rights of the people in Northern Ireland and an obligation further to the Good Friday Agreement;".

The last time this sort of issue around human rights protections was debated in the Chamber, I recalled something that had struck me very firmly about 10 or 15 years ago when a book was published in Dublin. It said that the future of the island would be defined less by the bloodlines of ethnicity and more by the lifelines of human rights. That is the perspective that the SDLP takes in relation to this debate and human rights generally. The future of our island — we believe, the future of the wider world — should be defined by the lifelines of human rights and less by the bloodlines of ethnicity. That point, given the turbulence in many parts of the world at the moment where ethnicity or other sectional identity seems to be holding sway, should be the perspective that we have on this issue.

It is worth commenting, however, that that perspective has, in our view, been taken forward more by the people in the rest of Ireland than by the Government in Northern Ireland. Look at the citizens' assembly that has recently convened in Dublin; look at the vote of the people of Ireland in relation to equal marriage. They seem to have embraced the argument around the lifelines of human rights. Whilst we differ on some issues about what that should look like, that should be what we embrace too in going forward.

Our amendment refers to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the incorporation into domestic law of the Human Rights Act.

This is critical, not least given the Supreme Court challenge that started at 11.00 am today. Whilst the Human Rights Act is outwith the European institutions, it is not outwith the Brexit debate and the future shape of our politics. We want to remind the British and Irish Governments on record that there is a binding international treaty between the British and Irish Governments and that the outworking of that binding international treaty is the incorporation into domestic law of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act in particular.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 1:00 pm, 5th December 2016

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. One of the most fundamental human rights is freedom of speech and the freedom to express non-violent political thought. Does the Member agree with me that it is absolutely wrong that people from outside the United Kingdom can come here to preach hate and incite violence on our streets and that, because of the Human Rights Act, we are absolutely powerless? Due to the fundamental right of those people to a family life, the Government were hamstrung in their efforts to put them out of this country.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

That was litigated upon and, if I remember rightly, went all the way to the European authorities. The right decisions were made on where people who preach hate should go. We also have to recognise that the Human Rights Act and international provisions generally have lifted the threshold of human rights protection that we are the beneficiaries of. Whilst there will be cases that excite public concern — in some places, the media agitate public concern — that does not take away from the fact that we live in a better world because of the international provisions provided in Europe, through the UN, and in other ways. If you are making an argument like that, you should step back from it and see the benefit that has come to you and every citizen of Northern Ireland because of the provisions that we have embraced.

We are putting on the record our view that when the Brexit turbulence begins to escalate the British Government will barter votes in Westminster for the Human Rights Act. Let them understand that the Human Rights Act is off limits, is binding in international law and is an essential element of the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland.

I might have misheard Mr Lynch — if I have, I will stand corrected — but I think he said that the motion was the agreed Executive position in relation to human rights. I might be wrong about that. Whether it is or is not, I am worried about the Executive's position on human rights, and I am worried for the following reasons. First, in its submission to the Programme for Government (PFG) consultation, the SDLP outlined, as a starter, 50 Bills that would define this mandate as being different to any other mandate of the Northern Ireland Assembly or the old Stormont Parliament and that would see a paradigm shift when it came to the legislative ambition and outcomes of this Assembly. As a consequence, 20 of our election proposals were about legislation. So, whilst human rights action plans, if they apply across the lives of all Government Departments — I am sure the DUP will tell us shortly whether they will be — we need new legislation to build into the architecture of these institutions the human rights standards that we require.

I welcome that Clare Bailey went through a lot of the thinking of the SDLP, which is also the thinking of the Green Party, in areas like marriage equality, early education and care, homelessness, financial redress for victims of clerical abuse, legislation to address age discrimination, legislation for a bill of rights and an all-Ireland charter of rights and so on and so forth. If there is to be a paradigm shift when it comes to a rights-based approach in this mandate, it will not come from a fairly moderate intervention like the roll-out of human rights action plans, welcome though they are. The paradigm shift will be defined by new legislation across the range of rights requirements that say that we are embedding all that is needed in the life of our politics and the life of our society.

The second reason why I think that what is being proposed is moderate is this: what does it mean when it comes to critical areas of Government policy?

Let me give you just one example because I will not have time for more. The PFG is limited and silent not only on what new legislation might be forthcoming on human rights provisions such as Clare Bailey and I have referred to, but what is worrying is how it goes about the issues of equality and anti-poverty. Mr Lynch was right when he indicated that, in developing policy and legal architecture around equality and rights, Northern Ireland, over many decades and through the work of many people who pursued democratic practice when others pursued state violence and terror, created new thresholds. However, too many of those requirements are missing from the PFG.

Let me give you one example. The PFG must include a child rights indicator framework grounded in UN standards as recommended to the Executive, yet the PFG is silent on that. Worse, when only a matter of weeks ago the Assembly debated child poverty, the DUP motion, supported by Sinn Féin, left out critical words of Seamus Treacy in the judicial review of July of last year when he said that objective need had to be informed by neutral criteria irrespective of affiliation or background and that funding should be based on those neutral criteria.

Somehow, the PFG is silent in respect of that critical phrasing, as was the amendment proposed by the DUP and Sinn Féin. So, not only is the PFG lacking in legislative ambition, it is lacking in protecting those hard-won equality and human rights gains of the last 20 or 30 years.

In my view, we are not far short of what might well be a lot more turbulence when it comes to the issue of human rights. The reason I say that is that, at the end of February of next year, Mr Justice Colton, the presiding judge in the inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre, will convene the parties. At that stage, he may or may not indicate whether he can move towards an inquest. That inquest is informed by international human rights principles, yet the court may be obstructed from pursuing it because of a lack of money.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will. If it transpires that there is a lack of money come February for that inquest, we will be in denial of our international human rights obligations, the court will be denied its opportunity to pursue the inquest, and victims and survivors will be denied the right to truth.

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

I welcome the opportunity to discuss human rights. I believe in human rights; I think that we all in this Chamber believe in human rights. I, for one, am thankful for what we have been afforded in this part of the United Kingdom.

I have had the opportunity over the years to travel to many countries through mission teams to see at first hand where people are not afforded the same basic human rights that we have been. One memory that sticks out was in Mexico City . I travelled there with the One Mission Society (OMS) and remember people sleeping beside water pipes just to survive the night. I remember one young girl whom I met in a park. She slept in the park, and she had a child. She had no shoes and had glass in her foot, but, because of the healthcare system there, she had absolutely no opportunity to get it seen to. I still think about that girl and that child and the start that that child had in life. Not a very good start at all.

I believe that everyone should have a safe place to sleep and that everyone should have access to clean water and food. As a result, I agree with a portion of the motion, and that is to acknowledge Human Rights Day. Quite a few things have been set out already with regard to human rights. A day set aside to remember those who —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Several Members talked about how the Assembly lags behind in human rights, but one area where the Northern Ireland Assembly led was in the introduction of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act. Slavery is a growing problem in human rights violations. It is to this House's credit that it took a lead in tackling modern slavery.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

That is right, and I commend Lord Morrow for his work on that. We are leading the way in human rights on that and a lot of different issues. I welcome the Member's contribution to that. I agree with the portion of the motion on remembering people who have not been afforded the same rights as us.

Some of us in the Chamber also have a job to do on human rights. There are some in the Chamber who appear to champion human rights on one hand, but, on the other hand, are quite happy to deny the right of life to a child. Let me put on record that this party and I will never be found wanting in standing up for the unborn child. What I find particularly unpalatable today is that here we have Sinn Féin tabling a motion on human rights when some in that party have denied the very right of life to many over the years. I spoke just last week with a man, a former bus driver, who was targeted by the IRA. That man has lived in fear for many years, and his family, to this day, are massively affected by what happened to him years ago. I often think of families robbed of a loved one at the hands of terrorism here in Northern Ireland. What an absolute violation of their human rights and those victims' right to life.

I oppose the motion. It calls for Departments and public bodies to introduce action plans. Yes, of course, that is the answer: more bureaucracy. No, this international Human Rights Day, I ask the people of Northern Ireland and the House to remember those who are not afforded the same human rights as we are.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

I am going to finish up. I do not ask those in power in those countries to simply talk about human rights; I call them to action so that future generations can have a better start in life.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I look at the motion in its most general terms and see it as something to celebrate. We should celebrate the fact that we have human rights in this country and further afield because, if we had not signed the treaty in 1948, we might not. We need to remember why we had to sign a treaty in 1948 after the Second World War and the genocide that happened then. The motion is something to celebrate, but I know that there is much conflict in it and an awful lot more to do. I also look at the two amendments and ask what there is not to support. All of us, as good, decent human beings, must want human rights for fellow human beings. To be perfectly honest, I cannot see anything there that I want to oppose.

The United Nations asks us to show courage and stand up for people's human rights on 10 December.

"Speak out/up when another’s rights are at risk or under attack ... If you see someone being harassed, bullied or ridiculed ... Combat myths with facts ... Speak up for tolerance and against prejudice."

These are all good things; not bad things. I do not know how anybody can oppose things like that. The declaration in 1948 was a milestone. Article 1 states:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

We all know — we could get into a slagging match across the Floor — that our recent chequered past has not lived up to article 1. Neither have we lived up to article 3, the right to life. However, I see no point in trading insults around the place. I go back to the fact that this is something that we should be celebrating.

We talk about courage. We all know about Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama and sparked a civil rights movement in the United States. A little known fact that I found out is that she was not actually the first. That was a woman called Claudette Colvin, but she was not used as the poster girl because she was a teenager who was pregnant to a married man. It showed courage to say, "No, my human rights allow me to have this seat."

Of course, our human rights have been added to by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the European Court of Human Rights. It is interesting that, today, in the European Court of Human Rights, the trial of Ratko Mladic for the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the last of those war crimes, is finishing.

As things have progressed, human rights have become slightly more complicated. Article 18 of the declaration states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion", and article 19 states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression".

I absolutely support those words, but nobody could have envisaged that those rights would be afforded to the likes of ISIS, al-Qaeda or the Taliban, whose expression of religious freedom of opinion is in part a provocation to violence and repression, particularly against minorities and women. Who can forget the 'Charlie Hebdo' attack or the Bataclan massacre? I have my experiences from Afghanistan. I will not get into the rationale of that, but, when you see a woman go in to vote, dip her finger in ink and then, when she comes out, see the Taliban standing outside cut off her inked finger, you suddenly realise how many human rights we have here compared with so many others. Those people preach hate, violence and anarchy. I cannot believe that, when we wrote the human rights declarations in 1948, 1953 or 1998, we ever intended them to support people like them.

Human rights have given us the right to peaceful protest and assembly, the right to paid holidays, the rights to privacy and a family life, but we also have to remember that 21 million people —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 1:15 pm, 5th December 2016

Can the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

— are still victims of forced labour, and 121 million people have never had the chance of an education. There are 300,000 child soldiers, of whom I was one. I support the motion and the amendments —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

— and I hope that they pass.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

While I appreciate that the irony of a motion on human rights being tabled by Sinn Féin may not be lost on some in the Chamber, I nevertheless thank that party for bringing it forward in recognition of the journey that it and others in the Chamber have taken on human rights in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and around the world. The Alliance Party also intends to support the Green Party and SDLP amendments.

The European Court of Human Rights, the Human Rights Act and the Good Friday Agreement — yes, our Good Friday Agreement — all underpin the pillars of the democratic positions that we find ourselves in today: the right of Members to speak in the Chamber and the rights of our citizens across Northern Ireland. While Europe and all its institutions are greatly confusing for many, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights are not part of the European Union; they are, of course, as others have mentioned, part of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is the custodian of the convention, which we entered into in 1953. Indeed, in large part, the United Kingdom was the fundamental author of the convention — I for one am proud of that — which, through the Council of Europe, represents not 28 states in the EU but 47 states of the Council of Europe. While the United Kingdom may be contemplating leaving the European Union, we are not leaving the Council of Europe, as the Prime Minister has made clear. Our withdrawal from the EU will not and must not have any effect on our international convention requirements, whether they are those in respect of human rights or of the many other international conventions to which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

At this stage, I should declare an interest because I play a small part in the Council of Europe as I represent the Assembly in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. We too have a solemn duty to uphold that convention.

In 1998, the Human Rights Act brought into domestic law all the rights, freedoms and protections of the European Convention on Human Rights for citizens in the United Kingdom. Whatever the views of the House on a party that I may have some connection with — the Liberal Democrats — one of its achievements in the last Government was to defend the Human Rights Act from the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, and her attacks on the Act in favour of a British bill of rights. It is, today, for the Executive to commit to an action plan to ensure compliance with our obligations under human rights standards and to protect the Human Rights Act.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Does the Member hope, like me, that, in protecting the Human Rights Act, the First Minister will raise the issue of human rights in China during her visit there this week?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you. I sincerely hope and trust that, when Ministers or representatives of the Assembly have such an opportunity when they visit states that perhaps do not fully subscribe to international standards on human rights — we know that China does not — they take it. Indeed, we should ask our First Minister whether she has taken the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He mentioned his connection to the Council of Europe. He will be aware that Human Rights Watch criticised the Council of Europe in 2014 for standing by while the regime in Azerbaijan cracked down on dissidents and opposition politicians. I assume that he took the opportunity, through the Council of Europe, to condemn that indecision.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I was not a member at that time. I wholly understand the flaws of all international bodies, and, where they are found wanting, we need to speak out. The Member is right to do so.

We in Northern Ireland have had our human rights enshrined in law, and Northern Ireland and Scotland have a particular interest in any change to the United Kingdom Human Rights Act. Others, such as Mr Attwood, have referred to the relationship between human rights and the Good Friday Agreement and the international agreements that underpin all of that. We have all felt what it is to be in a minority at one point or another in our life. We can also and should also understand how the Act protects our right to freedom of expression, our right to a fair trial and our right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

I do not want a United Kingdom Government from the right or the left to cherry-pick our rights. I firmly believe that the rights hard fought for through world wars and enshrined in the convention since 1953 are so important and so right. Through the processes of the Good Friday Agreement, they have been given to the citizens, and we must always protect them from attack. They must never be undermined or watered down. The removal of the Human Rights Act in the United Kingdom would send out the wrong message internationally. As a country with a historic past and connection to our Commonwealth, we must make sure that we set the standard and try to educate and encourage others to meet those standards.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Yes. How could we encourage those other states if we were to remove or water down —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

— the rights of our own citizens?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I thank all Members thus far for their contribution to the debate, which has been measured and reasonable.

I am proud of the role that our country has played in shaping the world's understanding of human rights, going back all the way to Magna Carta, where the power of the executive over the citizen was checked for the very first time, even before the concept of a citizen existed, all the way to the Bill of Rights of 1689, when the power of the monarch was curtailed. We all know the background to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European conventions and so on. The victorious allies in the Second World War had the opportunity to put the powers that were responsible for so much human suffering on trial to give account of their actions and the rights that they removed from other people. Arising from that was an understanding of what I will call "fundamental rights". It is not necessary to have action plans for all parties to allow those fundamental rights to inform, guide and direct the things that they do.

What are those fundamental rights? The first fundamental right that I believe in is the right to life. Unlike some colleagues in my party and, I suspect, around the Chamber, I am consistently pro-life. I am opposed to the death penalty and to the introduction of anything like the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. I carry my pro-life ethic with me, and it informs, guides and directs the things that I believe in. Freedom from torture is also a fundamental right, and we must always guard against the power of the state over the citizen to impose inhuman constrictions or torture on them.

I mentioned earlier in the debate one thing of which I am very proud. I was a back-room boy in DUP headquarters at the time, but I had a role in helping the Lord Morrow with the human trafficking Bill. We can be proud of that legislation, which is designed to tackle modern slavery — one of the most fundamental rights violations that goes on throughout the world. It is ironic that one of the parties proposing an amendment to this motion was opposed to it, and another party that champions itself as a guardian of people's rights was also against it.

The right to a fair trial in a free society is, of course, fundamental, and then there is freedom of speech; freedom of conscience, thought and religion; and freedom of movement within the state in which you reside, in order to guard against the establishment of a Gulag system such as operated in Russia. Those are fundamental rights, and a belief in them is shared by a huge majority of Members throughout the House.

Reference was made to the Bill of Rights Forum. I served on it some time ago when it was producing its report, and the entire process was farcical. It was farcical because special interest groups were using the bill of rights process as a Trojan Horse to make fundamental rights out of things that are not fundamental rights. Some people were advocating that a bill of rights should be used as a means of reversing the trade union reforms that went through in the 1980s, for example. Well, I am sorry, but there is no fundamental human right to secondary picketing. An attempt was made to push through the Bill of Rights Forum a fundamental human right to a home of your choice. Now, we obviously have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that any citizen who needs to be housed is housed, but this is where we are in danger of going down a perilous path.

We have to stick to the fundamentals and understand what the fundamentals are. I want to finish with a quote from the academic Philip Alston:

"If every possible human rights element is deemed to be essential or necessary, then nothing will be treated as though it is truly important."

We must always guard against that.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Can the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am glad to do so, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important motion tabled by my party colleagues. We are also happy with the amendments being proposed and welcome the support that the motion has received from other parties.

In international human rights week, we in the Assembly can make a real difference. We can explore the implementation and incorporation of the key international human rights treaties — for example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Human Rights Day calls on everyone to stand up for someone's rights. The Assembly can explore how we, as MLAs and legislators, can embed human rights principles into everything that we do. Human rights treaties cannot be ignored. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed by the United Nations in 1948 set out a list of 30 universal human rights, and the UN has agreed a number of legally binding core human rights instruments. States that have ratified those instruments have specific obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the rights contained in them. The ratification of an instrument legally obliges a state to participate in a monitoring cycle and report to the UN oversight committee every five years. Sinn Féin supports participation in the UN human rights monitoring mechanism. The recommendations from these are about everyday issues in small places close to home — for example, childcare, poverty, housing, education and Irish language. They are the world of the individual person.

A lot of issues have been raised by the treaty monitoring bodies. There are a number of recommendations specific to the North of Ireland in each of the three recent treaty reports, namely the report from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the UN report on economic, social and cultural rights; and the UN report on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The lack of engagement with the UN reporting processes by the Executive has been raised, in particular by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To quote:

"The Committee regrets that the absence of representatives of the government of Northern Ireland did not enable it to make a full assessment of the enjoyment of Covenant rights in Northern Ireland."

Les Allamby from the Human Rights Commission recently said:

"Turning up to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, for example, means that the fact that we have a racial equality strategy is acknowledged and given a positive recommendation."

It is important that the Executive are represented at these UN Committees to tell the good-news stories where they exist.

The Human Rights Commission, in evidence to the Executive Office Committee, suggested a coordinating role for the Executive Department for scrutiny of the concerns and recommendations identified in UN reports that cut across all Departments, be it Justice, Education, Communities, Health or others. The Equality Commission, too, has mentioned a scrutinising role for the Assembly Committees and said that, for example, recommendations on childcare should be fully scrutinised by the Department for Communities. The Assembly needs to take an active interest in all this.

The Human Rights Commission's response to the Programme for Government consultation sets out a variety of international treaty obligations and outlines where they fit in terms of law, policy and practice of the European Convention. It is important to note that, in the three most recent UN reports, there are concerns and recommendations regarding three important areas: the equality Act, the bill of rights and the repeal of the Human Rights Act. Let us stand up for somebody's rights today. Take a stand and defend someone's rights, because each one of us can make a difference.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 1:30 pm, 5th December 2016

I am pleased to contribute to this important debate. As with others, the irony is not lost on me that Sinn Féin proposed the motion. It is sometimes difficult to take lectures from Sinn Féin on the issue of human rights, given its background. One hopes that that is in the past, but it is important that those issues are not forgotten.

International Human Rights Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved since the universal declaration was first adopted 68 years ago; what work needs to be done, both here in the United Kingdom and on an international scale; and how we can use our influence to improve the lives of people living in countries that still have appalling records when it comes to the human rights of their own citizens.

It is important to remember the context in which the United Nations general assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Europe, we remember, had been torn apart by war and by the genocide of millions at the hands of Hitler's Nazi regime, which had demonstrated the brutality that humans could visit upon fellow men and women, and the declaration gave the universal protection of the rights of all for the very first time. When you consider how, just a few years before, elements of humanity had demonstrated how little value they gave to the lives and dignity of their fellow human beings, you get a sense of the enormity of that moment.

One such person who cared deeply about human rights was Austin Hunter, who very tragically died over the weekend. It is right that we refer to him. Austin Hunter was one of the outstanding broadcasters and journalists of his generation, but he was also a man of great humanity and compassion who, through his professional career, covered some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. He did so with care and respect to those most deeply affected and with great courtesy, and I know that the House will join me in extending our sympathy to his wife, Jean, and to his family at this time.

The theme of this year's international Human Rights Day is to stand up for someone's rights today. In the past 12 months alone, we have seen the importance of defending the human rights of others as we have witnessed that there are still groups and individuals out there who hold little regard for human life. The rise of ISIS and the ongoing conflict across the Middle East, not least in Syria, have provided striking reminders of the importance of the universal declaration and the need for democratic nations to continue to uphold its ideals. The images of beheadings, torture, slavery and genocide that have emerged from the region are a chilling reminder of the evil that can take hold when a nation does not embrace human rights.

Of course, 24-hour media has now allowed us an insight into the conditions in which people live in regions such as Syria and Iraq, but we must also be mindful of the more secretive nations and regimes and their failure to adhere to human rights requirements. It is important that the Executive, when building relationships with other nations, give consideration to the adherence to human rights requirements and make that an important factor when assessing whether to progress the relationship.

I urge those, particularly from the party proposing the main motion today — Sinn Féin, which recently rushed to pay tribute to Fidel Castro and Cuba — to consider how it might have tempered its words with a bit more condemnation of his appalling record on human rights. The liberal establishment nearly fell over itself to laud the achievements of a leader who had scant regard for human rights and those who opposed his regime —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Broadly speaking, we are content with the motion and the amendments and will give our support where needed.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and I rise in support of the SDLP's amendment.

Like Mr Dickson, I welcome the fact that Sinn Féin proposed the motion. That is progress, as its history has been anything but great and glorious in terms of human rights. We have only to —

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party


We have only to look at the history of the Troubles and at how Sinn Féin's military wing gave little respect to the most basic of human rights, the right to life. We recall the disappeared and the abused. Families such as the McVeighs in Donaghmore, just outside Dungannon, still await the return of their loved ones, and individuals such as Mairia Cahill still seek the human right to justice. There was also the unlawful killing of Paul Quinn in south Armagh. These, along with many more abuses, on both sides of the conflict, need to be addressed now. They are critical human rights issues.

The SDLP, a party formed out of the civil rights movement here, would like to join with other parties in the Assembly in supporting international Human Rights Day. We welcome the United Nations slogan:

"Stand up for someone's rights today".

It has been 68 years since the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was signed by most Governments in the world but it remains concerning that abuses and breaches of the most fundamental rights continue to grow. Freedom of speech and other human rights are taken for granted in the UK but, over recent years and months, human rights have deteriorated on the international stage.

In the Islamic world, women lack equality, religious dissenters are persecuted and political freedoms are curtailed. In China, there is political and economic repression. States such as Russia, Turkey and Hungary have authoritarian leaders with little respect for even the most basic of human rights. The LGBT community in places such as Russia and Nigeria has faced oppression. Meanwhile the US, which is meant to be the pillar of western civilisation, has failed to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate groups when targeting terrorist groups such as ISIS and others in the Middle East. Xenophobia and racism are also growing across Europe.

The protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is therefore as relevant today as it has ever been. It is concerning that in Northern Ireland, over the past 18 months, the Executive Office has failed to send any departmental officials to reporting committees for three major international treaties, one on the rights of the disabled.

The SDLP brought forward the amendment because we have genuine concerns over the future realisation of human rights in the North of this island. The European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, has played, and continues to play, an important role in the delivery of peace here by ensuring that the state does not act ultra vires and that it is held accountable for the gross violations such as those committed during the Troubles.

I will take that intervention now.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Thank you very much for taking the intervention. I have heard enough from across the Chamber, and particularly from you, Mr McPhillips, trying to say that somebody on these Benches is guilty of violating human rights. If you have any evidence that I have violated anybody's human rights, I think that the good people of Mid Ulster would like to know about it, given that they elected me. People across the Chamber have used this issue to cause insult to Members sitting on these Benches. There is no call for it.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will leave it to others to decide on what I have said. I did not mean anything personal to any individual in the House.

Those rights are now under threat from the Tory agenda to quell all things European, including the right to a fair trial, the right to liberty, and the right to have the death of a loved one properly investigated.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I appreciate the Member giving way. You talked about being against anything European. Those rights existed long before we were in the European Union; there is no logic in saying that they will not exist after we leave the European Union.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you to the champion for Europe.


We have seen much progress in the realisation of those rights in the North, but that progress is now at risk due to the debate over sovereignty. The people of the North will lose out the most. My worry is that, if the Tories get their way, we will witness a massive chilling effect on human rights law in the UK. People's freedoms could be at risk. If there is to be a British bill of rights, there would be limited means for redress. The European Court provides the last court of appeal against the state. We would simply be handing back control to the English judiciary, which has mistreated people from the North for years.

I welcome today's motion on Human Rights Day; it is an important day for many suppressed peoples across the world. However, more locally, I have serious concerns over the future of the Human Rights Act and that of the Good Friday Agreement. I urge support for the amendment.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

There are many fundamental human rights, but there is the absolute human right of the right to life; it is written in the universal declaration at article 3. Some have referred to the irony of the source of the motion; I refer to the hypocrisy of the source of the motion today. It comes from a party that has gone out of its way over many years to justify and stand over the denial of that absolute human right: the right to life. Take the proposer of the motion, Mr Lynch: an unrepentant convicted terrorist. He was caught by the SAS in April 1986 while seeking to plant a landmine with murder in his heart to kill soldiers on the road to Rosslea, for which he got 25 years but, sadly, served only half of that.

Only in Stormont could someone have the audacity to stand unrepentant about their own attempts to deny human rights while proposing a motion on human rights and clutching to themselves the clothing of human rights when they stand convicted of possessing explosives and a rifle with intent to endanger life. If he had had his way that day, he would have delivered murder to a passing patrol of soldiers.

Of course, it is interesting to reflect that, on international Human Rights Day — 10 December — the same IRA robbed many individuals of that most absolute human right, for which we hear no apology today.

On 10 December 1971, two UDR soldiers, a Protestant and a Catholic, Kenneth Smyth and Daniel McCormick, were murdered by the IRA on international Human Rights Day at Claudy. The very next year, on 10 December 1972, Stewart Middlemass, a soldier, was murdered by an IRA booby trap at Fort Monagh barracks. The very next year, on international Human Rights Day, James Hesketh, a 21-year-old soldier, was shot by an IRA sniper in Leeson Street. In 1980, on international Human Rights Day, 10 December, Colin Quinn was shot by the IRA when leaving his work.

Yet some, who, to this day, have no apology to make for their actions or the actions of their comrades in delivering murder and denying the fundamental right to life, have the audacity to come to the House and cloak themselves in the language of human rights and talk about defending international Human Rights Day. Where were the human rights of Kenneth Smyth, Daniel McCormick, Joseph Parker, Stewart Middlemass and James Hesketh on international Human Rights Day? They were denied them, primarily by the IRA, and, in April 1986, the proposer of the motion would have denied the same human right had he not been stopped in his tracks by the SAS.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 1:45 pm, 5th December 2016

Will the Member please bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

For the very reason of the stench of hypocrisy that arises from the source of this motion, I will vote against it.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I call Nichola Mallon to make her winding-up speech on amendment No 2. She will have five minutes.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

This week, we have international Human Rights Day. There was universality across the Chamber in recognising the importance of marking this day and taking the time, particularly during this period, to pause and reflect on the harrowing experiences of those right across the world who live an existence in which they are denied their human rights. Mr Logan and Mr Beattie shared some very personal memories, having witnessed what that existence means and, in particular, the pain and suffering that is endured by children and women across the world.

There was also agreement across the Chamber on the importance of reflecting on how far we have come as a society in our compliance with human rights standards and the Human Rights Act. Sadly, however, that is where agreement ended, and, as Mr Logan informed us, the DUP will oppose the motion and the amendments.

Yes, we have come far, but as many Members have highlighted, there are several areas where we still fall short. I add my voice to those of Members from other parties who welcomed the efforts to bring a motion on this issue to the House. It is also important to acknowledge and recognise the views that Members have expressed about the hypocrisy of the proposers. It would be foolish and unrealistic not to acknowledge that, but I accept that it has caused considerable discomfort and unease across the Benches.

I welcome the fact that there is support for the motion and for our amendment, as indicated by all parties except the DUP. It is important, given that the European Convention on Human Rights is a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement and a fundamental part of our hard-won architecture here, that both are explicitly referenced in the final motion. I would argue that this is more important, given the hostility of the current Tory Government, and in particular the Prime Minister, to the Human Rights Act and the turbulence and stirring of hostilities as a result of Brexit.

Mr Attwood made the point that life on these islands and across the world is increasingly being shaped by the lifeline of human rights and less by the bloodline of ethnicity. It is an important development, but its progress requires effort. It requires, as many Members pointed out, education, awareness raising and campaigning. I echo the praise articulated by several Members about recognising the efforts of the many organisations and agencies working tirelessly to promote and protect human rights here and abroad.

A number of times, we heard the slogan — stand up for someone's rights today —and about the framework within which we are to view this year's international Human Rights Day, and yet not a single Minister in the Executive felt it worth their time to make the very short journey from their offices into the Chamber to stand and respond to the debate. For me, that is the most disappointing aspect of the debate. Regardless of the contributions we have all made, for the citizens in Northern Ireland and anyone with an interest in human rights, to look in here today and see that the Executive did not deem it worthy or important enough —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Does she agree that, if the issue were being taken so seriously, the leader of her party would be here instead of posing for a photo opportunity in London? Yes, I know that you were going to tell me where he is instead of posing for a photo opportunity in London.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute. Tá nóiméad breise ag an Chomhalta.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr Stalford for his intervention. If he had listened to the debate, he would have heard quite clearly — he prides himself on understanding the history and politics of this part of the island — that the Good Friday Agreement, its links to the Human Rights Act and its convergence with our membership of the European Union are all inextricably linked. In showing leadership today, my party leader is in London at the Supreme Court trying to protect and stand up for that right and for the democratically expressed consent and wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

As I said, it is bitterly disappointing that not a single Minister made the effort to come down today to respond to the debate. It also shows that, on an issue of such fundamental importance — human rights and how we manage our society and protect our most vulnerable — the DUP and Sinn Féin are completely and utterly split. It is very telling and is another very disappointing outcome and realisation from the debate.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Since the whole debate about the EU and, indeed, the Conservative policy of repealing the UK Human Rights Act, we have felt the need in debates to talk about the threat from the UK Government to human rights in this part of the world. As today's debate shows, the threat is here and is much more local. Despite the Human Rights Act and our responsibilities in it, we are not meeting minimum human rights standards in many areas. My colleague Clare Bailey highlighted those in her opening remarks. Mr Dickson rightly raised the issue of human rights in China, and our First Minister should be raising challenges on very significant abuses of human rights in China, which are extreme in many cases. To give ourselves the credibility to lecture and admonish others, we need to ensure that, in Northern Ireland, we uphold the human rights standards that we are signed up to through the Good Friday Agreement and the UK Human Rights Act.

We are well aware of the Human Rights Commission challenge on reproductive rights in Northern Ireland and the court ruling that we are not meeting minimum standards; indeed, we had the opportunity to correct that in the Assembly, but, unfortunately, that opportunity was not taken.

The right of same-sex couples to marry is being tested in our courts. Again, we have the possibility of legislating for that; indeed, a cross-party group of MLAs is seeking to bring forward a private Member's Bill to do just that. We know from each debate that we have had to date that there has been a rejection by some of the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples and, indeed, that the DUP blocked a majority vote in favour of it.

In 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement and the protections that went with that, Northern Ireland became the exemplar of rights. We led the game by enshrining in law the protections set out in section 75. That led the way for others in the UK to follow. Unfortunately, we have done little since then to build on that foundation, and we are now behind the rest of the UK and, indeed, Ireland. Our failure to bring forward or even to discuss seriously and consult on a single equality Act has meant that the updating of rights legislation across other parts of the UK and Ireland has left us lagging behind. Indeed, access to those rights, which a single equality Act could simplify, has again been denied to our citizens. Of course, others rightly spoke about the legacy issues that remain outstanding in Northern Ireland and the rights that are denied to the victims of our conflict here.

Human rights are for all. The Human Rights Act is for every citizen of the UK. It is something that we should not only uphold but embrace and be proud of. We should promote human rights to other parts of the world and act as an exemplar. Our amendment calls for minimum human rights standards for Northern Ireland. That is the least that we can ask for. It is not enough. It is not all-embracing. It is not making us a champion for human rights —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

— but we believe that the Assembly should at least commit today to that modest outcome.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, so I suggest that the House take its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Cathal Boylan, who will wind on the motion.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)