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 ‘possibility of establishing a charter – reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland’.

This proposed Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland should be an important element in the overall implementation of the Agreement. But who has heard of the Charter of Rights? You might know about the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. If only because of the rows, resignations and recriminations.

But there is another proposed instrument. It does not as yet exist (rather like the Bill of Rights) but it is mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement. The Joint Committee of the two Human Rights Commissions is charged with considering it.

Work has begun, but in contrast to the intense arguments in Northern Ireland over the Bill of Rights, it has received little public attention. So, a debate is overdue. That is why we have decided to organise a conference on the subject.

The Agreement’s provisions on the Charter raise several questions. As they should do. Any such document should be the result of extensive deliberation. And we remain at an earlier stage in the process. I assume here that a Charter of Rights would be a good thing. You may not agree with me.

You may think there are enough human rights instruments already. You might think: what about responsibilities? Or, you might distrust the idea of an all-Ireland Charter. If so, this is a useful time to enter the debate. What should be done about the idea of a Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland?