As Newton Emerson pointed out in Saturday’s Irish News, Northern Ireland’s first human rights commissioner, and erstwhile “father of an all singing, all dancing Northern Ireland Human Rights Bill“, Professor Brice Dickson, has had something to say about ‘red lines’ and a ‘rights-based’ society. From the Irish News article
Northern Ireland’s first human rights commissioner, Prof Brice Dickson, has penned a robust article in the Irish Times explaining that the Stormont talks issues Sinn Féin is describing as “rights” are nothing of the sort. Same-sex marriage, for example, is not recognised as a right by the European Court of Human Rights and this has just been upheld in a ruling by the High Court in Belfast.
Prof Dickson also notes that the process for a bill of rights was delivered as per the Good Friday Agreement, only to fall apart for exceeding its remit. If Sinn Féin wants that process restarted the agreement requires the Republic to enact equal rights protections, which nobody north or south ever mentions. Should Prof Dickson’s successors not be pointing all this out?
The article in question in the Irish Times (23 Dec) makes a couple of points worth highlighting during what is, ostensibly, a review of the book Human Rights and the Northern Ireland Conflict: Law, Politics and Conflict, 1921-2014 by Omar Grech.
Grech reminds his readers that during the Troubles, human-rights abuses were committed not just by the State but predominantly by unlawful paramilitary groups, especially the IRA. Most human-rights NGOs came relatively late to this realisation and even today some activists and politicians are reluctant to describe, say, the “punishment” shooting or beating of alleged juvenile delinquents as human-rights abuses.
Human rights are entitlements we claim not just because various international treaties require states to protect those rights. Their protection is the fundamental rationale for criminal justice systems worldwide and for civilised interaction between individuals within every society.
As Brice Dickson goes on to note
Grech laments that the promise of the Belfast Agreement regarding human rights has not yet been fully realised. In evidence he cites the failure of the UK government to enact a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. But that agreement did not promise a bill of rights. It merely required the Human Rights Commission to advise the government on what a bill of rights might contain. Advice was eventually delivered in 2008 but was roundly rejected by the UK government a year later. The proposed Bill went far beyond the Agreement’s requirements.
A bill of rights might well have helped stabilise the peace process in the early 2000s. Today, alas, it would contribute little to intercommunal harmony. Unionists are not as willing as nationalists to see unelected judges (who are almost invariably rich old men) deciding on whether government policies adequately protect social and economic rights. And the Irish Government cannot be taken seriously when it supports the idea that such rights should be justiciable in the North, for it knows full well that it would not be able to match that position in the South, despite its duty to do so under the agreement.
And, in his concluding paragraphs
The reality is that human rights are social constructs. They are simply claims that individuals and some groups are entitled to because national and international law-makers have agreed that they are important enough to merit the “human rights” label. They develop over time. At present, for example, the claim of 17-year-olds to vote is not a human right, nor is the claim of a child not to be smacked. Not even the desire of gay people to marry has yet been recognised as a human right by the European Court of Human Rights.
Human-rights issues remain at the heart of intercommunal difficulties in Northern Ireland, but today they are very different from those that were central to the conflict between 1968 and 1998. It is now the right to use Irish in official discourse, the right to gay marriage and the right of victims to the truth which are to the fore. The reproductive rights of women are in the mix, too, just as they are in the Republic at present.
Politicians will inevitably manipulate the language of human rights in order to achieve their goals. Grech’s thoroughly researched and insightful book reminds us of that truism time and time again. Yet, important though they are, there is more to politics than the protection of human rights. Any political party that vetoes the re-establishment of the Northern Assembly until further human rights are recognised (or not) is putting the cart before the horse. [added emphasis]
As I may have mentioned before, I believe the poet Michael Longley was there first
On the one hand, I’m interested in how we avoid tearing one another to pieces. Peace is not that, peace is the absence of that, peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization. Civilization is custom and manners and ceremony, the things that Yeats says in “A Prayer for My Daughter.”
We have a vocabulary of how to deal with one another and how to behave, a vocabulary of behavior, as well as things to say to one another . . . and out of that come laws and agreed ways of doing things . . . and that in daily life are a bit like form in poetry.
And, if I may suggest, it’s a process…