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(In)dependent

Deficiencies in the new Human Rights and Equality CommissionNiall Crowley 

 

Minister Alan Shatter has committed on a number of occasions to the highest standard for the new merged Human Rights and Equality Commission. This is the ‘A’ standard under the United Nations Paris Principles for National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs).

The Minister published Heads of the Bill for the new body that are blatantly in breach of these standards. He also ignored advice from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on what is required to achieve these standards. Is this a failure of commitment or has the Minister been hijacked by his Department officials?

It looks like a hijack. It was after all the Minister who sought out the advice of the UN Office of the High Commissioner. Village has seen a copy of this advice. It identifies a wide range of “issues for reconsideration”. These include:

• “The nomination of the selection panel by the Government may undermine the transparency of the appointment process”. (The selection panel is to organise recruitment of Commission members for the new body).

• The need to review provisions of the Heads of the Bill “in order to ensure that the new IHREC be able to recruit its own staff in an independent manner”.

• The lack of “reference in the General Scheme on how the budget of the IHREC will be allocated” and the need for funding provisions “in order to be independent of the Government and not be subject to financial control which might affect its independence”.

The Heads of the Bill provide for financial and budgetary control of the new body by the Minister and his Department. They include provision that the current Director of the Equality Authority is to be appointed Director of the new body. The Minister appointed the selection committee for the Commission members of the new body.

The selection committee, in an admirable display of integrity, has now stood down after being alerted to the advice of the UN Office of the High Commissioner. The European Group of National Human Rights Institutions is monitoring the approach to the merger to decide whether there should be a referral to the International Coordinating Committee that is responsible for accreditation under the Paris Principles.

Professor Alan Millar, chairperson of the European Group, said that ‘the European Group has written to the Irish Parliament to set out its concerns about the merger proposals”. He pointed out that “the Irish Human Rights Commission cannot fully function in its current circumstances. This is in part due to a situation where there are no serving Commissioners“. He said the European Group is monitoring the need for a review of the status of the Irish body with some regret given “Ireland has such a high profile on human rights issues”.

He pointed to the practice in Scotland, where he is chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, when asked what needs to be done. The Scottish Commission is recruited through an open selection process organised by the Parliament. It is publicly audited and is accountable to Parliament through the presentation of its Annual Report. The Scottish Commission is empowered to recruit and manage its own staff.

The Irish Human Rights Commission remained active on these merger issues until the departure of its last Commissioner – Maurice Manning – who was its President. The IHRC made over seventy recommendations about the Heads of the Bill. Its President briefed its fellow National Human Rights Institutions in Europe on the situation, as is customary. Village has seen this correspondence.

 

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n the letter (printed opposite) the President of the IHRC wrote “I am deeply concerned that the current developments may foreshadow the end of an independent NHRI in Ireland” and “I must tell you that our recommendations were met with some hostility by those responsible for drafting the legislation and I remain unconvinced that any more than a token number will be implemented”. He raised concerns about the current situation of the IHRC stating that “to leave an ‘A’ status NHRI without a President or commissioners is almost without precedent internationally” and concluded “I am sure that you will also be concerned that the taking of steps to effectively silence the IHRC, which up to last year was the Chair of the European Group of NHRIs and a leading model for NHRIs, may set a worrying precedent regarding the position of NHRIs in other States”.

The strength of this contrasts unfavourably with the position of the Equality Authority which has been strangely absent from the debate.

It did make a presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The bulk of this was taken up with, in the words of Chairperson Angela Kerins, “what the Equality Authority stands for and has achieved since its establishment”. Under questioning by Committee members, the chairperson stated that “we do not share the view” of those who were critical of the legal provision pre-empting the right of the new body to select its own chief executive.

During the same presentation the Chief Executive Officer of the Equality Authority, Renee Dempsey, endorsed the process of Government establishing the selection committee. She stated “I believe this is as good as any model. I do not want to impugn for one moment the Minister’s credentials in this”.

The Equality Authority’s absence from the debate has practical and negative implications. The selection committee nominated by the Minister has no members drawn from the NGO sector or academia working on equality issues. The public debate has focused on the Paris Principles and ignored the only international standard specifically dedicated to equality bodies – The Opinion of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe on National Mechanisms to Promote Equality. The Heads of the Bill contain a narrow and limiting definition of equality that falls short of that currently used by the Equality Authority.

Equinet, the European network of equality bodies, recently published a perspective on mergers between equality bodies and human rights bodies. It stressed the importance of a balance between the focus on equality and on human rights and set out six principles for mergers including “parity of esteem between the work of promoting human rights and that of promoting equality should be evident in the allocation of resources between and the priority accorded to the work in each area”.

What is the Minister to do to release himself from the shackles of his Departmental officials? It is fairly simple really. He should invite the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence to establish a selection committee that reflects a balance of equality and human rights expertise. He should review the Heads of the Bill to address the Paris Principles and to ensure the new body matches the standard set by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

 

Niall Crowley is a former chair of the Equality Authority