Strengthen human rights in Ulster, urges Robinson

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The Independent Online
THE FORMER Irish president, Mary Robinson, now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is exerting behind-the-scenes pressure on the British and Irish governments to strengthen Northern Ireland's new human rights provisions.

In private letters to Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, Mrs Robinson has asked the two governments to consult her on giving extra powers to the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

In the letters, copies of which have been seen by The Independent, Mrs Robinson cautions that the credibility of the new body could be undermined if its powers are not more clearly defined.

The letters, while couched in the most diplomatic language, make unmistakably clear the ex-president's view that the commission, as presently envisaged, is inadequate for the task of safeguarding human rights issues.

Now based at the UN in Geneva, Mrs Robinson enjoys huge personal stature in Ireland. Last year she stepped down after seven years as the most popular president in the country's history.

Her intervention may be regarded as unwelcome in both London and Dublin, given that the commission's remit was laid down in the Good Friday agreement, which was so exhaustively negotiated and agreed on by the governments and most of the Northern Ireland parties.

She argues that the new commission's powers and functions are set out "only briefly and in fairly broad terms". She says there must be guarantees of its independence, adequate resources and specified powers of investigation into patterns of alleged abuses and individual cases. Her letters to the two prime ministers conclude: "I attach great importance to this aspect of the agreement and to the responsibility my mandate requires to assist your government in its implications. I would therefore ask you to consider my comments and liaise with me."

The new commission, which may come into being later this year, will replace an existing advisory committee which has in the past made many recommendations on human rights to the government, most of which have not been acted on. Legislation setting out the commission's brief is making its way through Parliament at the moment.

Mrs Robinson's concerns reflect a widespread feeling in the often influential human rights lobby that the new provisions may not go far enough in dealing with the human rights issues which are certain to persist in Northern Ireland.

Similar points have been made to the Government by participants in a high-level seminar in Belfast last month, among them the heads of five public bodies. A letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, said that those at the seminar felt strongly that changes were needed to ensure the commission would be effective and credible.

They said it should have powers to investigate alleged human rights abuses and to undertake any of its functions on its own initiative. They added that it should be an independent body with adequate resources.