New powers for NI rights body

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is to be given right of entry to prisons and powers to compel witnesses to give evidence to it, under proposals published by the British government today.

Publishing a consultation paper on the extended powers, Britain's political development minister David Hanson said: “The government believes strongly in the importance of human rights and is committed to ensuring that the Commission has the right powers to enable it to carry out its duties effectively.”

He said ministers had assessed recommendations put forward to them by the Commission and were satisfied that it already broadly possessed the right powers to carry out its duties.

However, he said: “In two important areas, the right of access to places of detention and the power to compel evidence and witnesses, we agree that it is right to amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make sure that the Commission can fulfil its existing functions properly.”

The consultation will run until early February and Mr Hanson said he particularly wanted views on how the two new powers should be implemented and how the government could ensure the right safeguards were in place.

Getting the new powers has been a lengthy business for the Commission – it first sought them in 2001 in recommendations to the government after its first two years in operation.

The government outlined an initial response in a consultation paper in 2002 and the Commission submitted a request for additional powers in 2004.

Chief Commissioner Professor Monica McWilliams welcomed Mr Hanson’s announcement, while admitting they did not get all they wanted.

“We are delighted that the Secretary of State has issued this consultation paper which, though it does not offer the Commission everything that it sought, includes several recommendations, which if accepted, will empower us to more effectively carry out our investigations,” she said.

She added that, after first asking for the power to compel evidence back in February 2001, “it is gratifying that, at long last, we may soon be able to more effectively investigate allegations of human rights abuse”.

Prof McWilliams said that at the moment, contrary to the United Nation’s Paris Principles on human rights investigations, NIHRC had no power to compel anyone to provide evidence during the course of an investigation, nor did it have access rights to places of detention.

“Hopefully these new powers will enable us to act fully independently in the conduct of inquiries and investigations,” she added.

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