The UK government’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act could violate terms of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), says a Belfast-based human rights organization.
The recently re-elected Conservative government outlined the replacement of the Human Rights Act with the British Bill of Rights as part of its election manifesto pledge.
By doing this, however, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) claims that they would be in "flagrant breach" of the Good Friday Agreement and would “significantly roll back” the progress made towards permanent peace in Northern Ireland.
Les Allamby, the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) described the plan as "deeply concerning."
Concerns have also been raised among members of the Irish government with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, saying that the replacement of the Act would be “a matter of some concern.” Minister Flanagan plans to address the issue with reappointed Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Teresa Villiers.
Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, agreed by Tony Blair’s Labour government, the British government is committed to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law. This move allowed people direct access to the courts and allowed judges to overrule NI legislation if they believed it was not in line with human rights law. The Tory government has long hoped to row back on this commitment.
In their 2015 election manifesto, the Tories stated: "The next Conservative government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK."
“As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government takes very seriously our responsibility to safeguard the agreement. The fundamental role of human rights in guaranteeing peace and stability in Northern Ireland must be fully respected,” Minister Flanagan commented to the Irish Times.
Belfast-based group CAJ confirmed they wrote to Villiers on the matter last Monday following her reappointment.
"The Tories have committed to plans to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, including Northern Ireland law, within 100 days of taking office," they stated
Speaking to the BBC, CAJ’s director Brian Gormally said: "The secretary of state should urgently clarify the government's position as to whether it intends to breach the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in this way.
"Such a step would make the UK an international outlaw and significantly roll back the peace settlement in Northern Ireland."
In a separate statement, NIHRC’s chief commissioner Les Allamby said, "The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement committed the UK government to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law, with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breaches of the convention. The Human Rights Act fulfilled this commitment.
"The commission has repeatedly advised against a move which can only serve to undermine a foundation stone of the Northern Ireland peace process, reduce hard won protections for everyone living in the UK, and damage the state's international reputation," he added.
The Ministry of Justice announced that plans to scrap the Act would soon be discussed.
A spokesperson for the ministry stated, "The government was elected with a manifesto commitment to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. Ministers will be discussing their plans on this and making announcements in due course."