Blog: Confronting NI’s past on Human Rights Day

Les Allamby
Les Allamby

Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), marks Human Rights Day by talking about the importance of universal human rights.

Today is international human rights day commemorating the day in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UK government has also signed up to many other important human rights treaties governing covering civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of children, women, people with disabilities, those seeking asylum alongside committing itself to the elimination of discrimination including on grounds of race, disability and gender.

Events in the world illustrate the importance of universal international human rights standards many of which were introduced to prevent conflict safeguard democracy and support the rule of law. Closer to home, the Commission launches its annual statement on human rights next week charting progress based on these international standards which apply equally to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In terms of moving forward, the statement is a mix of good, bad and indifferent. Progress has been made for example to protect the victims of child sexual exploitation with the extended role of the National Crime Agency, victims of modern day slavery through the implementation of human trafficking legislation and victims more generally through the introduction of a victim’s charter.

It is said that Northern Ireland once launched ships – now we launch strategies. Arguably we are now failing to do even that. Promised strategies on racial equality, sexual orientation, childcare, stopping domestic and sexual violence and tackling poverty remain unpublished. The impassé on comprehensively dealing with past remains. Victims are getting older and investigations and justice becomes more difficult to achieve the longer time passes. Our future well-being depends on properly dealing with the past.

Tying the global standards to local action is important. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said ‘where do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – in the neighbourhood, the school or college, the factory, farm or office. Places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world’. These words still have real meaning on international human rights day.

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