Charter debate: free play of ideas

Professor Colin Harvey sets out the ideas behind the Charter of Right e-debate and provides the background to the idea for a charter. And asks some basic questions that the e-debate will seek answers to.

By Colin Harvey

The Belfast Agreement contains a clear commitment to human rights. Human rights protection remains a fundamental pillar of the peace process. And all-Ireland human rights measures are, or should be, part of this process.

The Agreement led to the creation of two human rights commissions. It set in motion discussions about how human rights might be better protected. In Northern Ireland it resulted in a Bill of Rights process which is still ongoing. But this is not the only human rights instrument mentioned.

The Agreement also refers to the

  • Mark McGregor

    My admittedly sketchy rambling thoughts.

    To my eyes the Charter is not as important as the legal protections that will be incorporated in a Bill of Rights. It seems the charter may be more designed on setting standards of behaviour for political parties and as a result government.

    As most charters tend to be merely aspirational with no legal weight or the starting point for future legislated developments it is unlikely to have any true force. Though the idea of a document that political entities sign up to on how they will conduct themselves in relation to rights seems positive.

    A enforceable document would seem to be an extremely complex undertaking. How can you force those fundamentally opposed to gay rights to legislate and promote policies that enhance gay rights? How could you censure them for failure? How would you get them to sign?

    The charter due to the language of the agreement is not explicitly called for but as with many aspirational elements it

  • peteb

    Mark’s comments ably demonstrate a fundamental problem with the proposed Charter – it’s lack of place. By that I mean it’s legal position, who endorses it, who it applies to and how it could, or whether it should, be enforced.

    Without that position being clearly defined, the Charter itself will quickly become (albeit as a result of our own particular political environment) a party-political weapon to batter the ‘other’ – hardly an appropriate use for a Charter of Rights.

  • Mick Fealty


    Can I attempt to draw you out into a fuller explanation of how you see it being used as a party-political weapon? And what precedents are there that lead you to believe that?

  • peteb

    I may be overstating the potential problems, Mick, although I don’t believe I am.

    Several aspects of the Charter, as described, do concern me however – most of which are a result of the ‘lack of place’ I mentioned.

    Without a defined legal position the reach of the Charter could easily outstretch the remit of individual human rights into areas which, for reasons other than a wish to deny rights, I would argue against legislation – would that leave me open to criticism for