United front for human rights

British pressure groups meet next month to stimulate debate and action. Sharon Wallach reports

A human rights convention organised by Liberty and more than 50 other pressure groups is to be held in London next month. The "Festival of Rights" hopes to stimulate debate and action on the principles and practice of human rights, and expects to attract between 3,000 and 6,000 participants.

The convention will set the scene for the examination of the UK's record by the UN Human Rights Committee in July. For the first time, a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will jointly submit views and evidence to the committee. They include Liberty, Mind, Justice, the Anti- Racist Alliance and Stonewall.

"The virtue of the convention is that it is a way of promoting this joint work, and it is so broad-ranging it will allow us to discuss all the variety of issues that concern us," says John Wadham, the legal director of Liberty.

The decision by the NGOs to make a concerted approach to the Human Rights Committee is particularly poignant in the year that sees the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It was as a result of that war that the United Nations was established and that it published its universal declaration of human rights in 1948.

At that time, there was a sea change in values, largely as a result of the atrocities carried out during the war, says Mr Wadham. "There was a shift in international opinion from a belief in complete national sovereignty to faith in absolute values that the world community wants to be able to impose on all countries."

A parallel move was the establishment of the Council of Europe, which in 1950 agreed the European Convention on Human Rights. It was a crucial development, bringing in its wake the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights.

Then, in 1976, came the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, modelled on the European Convention but significantly improving it. The covenant set out basic rights - such as the right to life - as well as establishing the UN Human Rights Committee.

The committee has two roles: first, to deal with individual complaints under the "optional protocol". The UK has not adopted the protocol, which means that individuals in this country do not have the right to petition the committee.

The committee's second role is the periodic reporting process, and it is this that will take place in July. Every five years, signatories to the covenant submit written reports to the committee, setting out their progress in human rights matters. Some months later, the committee conducts a series of hearings, held in public, when representatives of the various governments are questioned over the two-week period. The committee will then produce a written report of its findings. It will be the fourth such report for the UK.

The committee has only the power of embarrassment to back its findings. But this can be effective, says Mr Wadham. He believes that the last report on the Republic of Ireland was one of the main reasons that the country lifted its broadcasting bans. If they had continued, he says, the issue would have been raised again this time round. "The committee can only ask questions, but they do create publicity."

The NGOs will then send their material to the secretariat of the Human Rights Committee in Geneva to be distributed to members. The NGOs have no formal role in the process, but Mr Wadham says the committee will listen with "a little more scepticism" to the answers it receives. It will make a difference: the committee is bombarded with information, reports and lobbying, so a collective approach will be better heard.

"We are trying to encourage the NGOs to raise their own issues, at the same time to look for common concerns on the issues; for example, how the state collectively protects human rights," he says.

The precise issues to be raised in the joint NGO report to the committee have yet to be finalised. Some may well duplicate matters raised by the committee in the last round of questioning in 1991. But others, such as miscarriages of justice, may take a back seat. Since then, there have been fewer high-profile cases and the Government can point to setting up a body to investigate the issue.

"It will be possible to work out from the committee's questions and its report what its concerns are," says Mr Wadham. "The difficulty is that the committee members change, even though the framework is the same, and individuals have their own pet concerns. But they can't take up every issue, so to some extent their lines of questioning depend on what issues are raised by the NGOs."

One issue the committee has raised at every hearing is whether the UK's current protections - systems and constitutional structures to ensure rights in the Covenant - are adequate. "The Covenant is not incorporated into our domestic law, nor is the European Convention on Human Rights, nor do we have a Bill of Rights," says Mr Wadham.

The matter is likely to be much discussed at next month's festival for human rights, which, the organisers expect, will in turn lead to increasing pressure on the Government to establish a Bill of Rights. And, says Mr Wadham, we can expect a similar pressure from the Human Rights Committee, particularly in the run-up to a general election.

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