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Written Evidence to Northern Ireland Assembly Ad Hoc Committee on A Bill of Rights - Human Rights and Peacebuilding

Dr. Amanda Cahill-Ripley


I am a Senior Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool, UK. My expertise is in international human rights law, in particular, economic, social and cultural rights. My research focusses on such rights in the context of conflict-affected settings and peacebuilding. In 2018 I briefed the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva on ‘The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Sustaining Peace’. In 2019 I was invited to address an Expert Consultation on Human Rights and Conflict Prevention at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva. I have also undertaken research on human rights and peacebuilding within the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland and most recently participated in a community event as part of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival in November 2019. 

I have been requested to brief the Committee on the topic of human rights and peacebuilding and my research working with the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community on human rights.


Table of Contents

A. Introduction

B. Human Rights and Peacebuilding

C. Reflection on the ‘Particular Circumstances’ of Northern Ireland as a Conflict Affected Setting (CAS) and the Rationale for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

D. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Inclusive, Peaceful Societies: Human rights for Everyone in Northern Ireland

E. Recommendations for Action by the Committee, Government Departments and/or Others


A. Introduction

1. This paper provides an introduction to the subject of human rights and peacebuilding, outlines the evidence for the use of human rights in peacebuilding generally and then proceeds to set out the case for the use of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) within peacebuilding. Further it sets out the case for inclusion of ESCRs within a Bill of Rights (BoR) for Northern Ireland with the objective of building a peaceful and inclusive society. It considers in particular the need to engage all sections of society including those communities who have traditionally been wary of human rights. It concludes with a number of recommendations for consideration by the Committee.


B. Human Rights and Peacebuilding

2. In recent years there has been a growing discussion as to how human rights can meaningfully contribute to peacebuilding. With the advent of the new ‘Sustaining Peace’ approach outlined by the UN Secretary General and the UN ‘Transforming Our World 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ it has been an opportune time to examine the role of human rights as essential to both sustainable peace and sustainable development.

3. UN Security Council Resolution 2282 recognised that ‘development, peace and security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing’. It defined sustaining peace as both a goal and a process ‘to build a common vision of a society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account, which encompasses activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes, assisting parties to conflict to end hostilities, ensuring national reconciliation, and moving towards recovery, reconstruction and development.’[1] Protecting and promoting human rights are an essential tool in realising sustainable peace.

4. One significant gap that has been identified in peacebuilding approaches to date is the role of ESCRs in building and sustaining peaceful societies. In the past, much of the focus on human rights within peacebuilding has been on civil and political rights, for example democratic rights such as the right to vote and personal integrity rights such as the right to life and freedom from torture. Of course, protecting these rights is imperative to any peacebuilding process and to ensuring a sustainable peaceful society but the importance of protecting and promoting ESCRs for effective conflict prevention, peace-making, transition and post-conflict peacebuilding cannot be underestimated.

5. ESCRs are important for building and sustaining peace because:

  • The denial of economic and social rights can be a causal factor of conflict: a root cause and a driver of continuing unrest. Secondly, violent conflict itself can cause violations of ESCRs or exacerbate existing inequalities and the lack of enjoyment of ESCRs. Consequently, these grievances need to be addressed if society is to transition or transform into a peaceful and inclusive society.
  • Real or perceived discrimination in access to services such as housing, healthcare, social security or social assistance and employment can damage any prospects for lasting peace and reconciliation
  • Positive peace, that is not just the absence of direct violence but the absence of structural violence requires long-term, persistent, social, economic and cultural changes if peace is to be sustainable. This is why embedding ESCRs and all human rights within a legal framework specific to Northern Ireland, a Bill of Rights is so important. It is a first step towards deeper social and cultural change for peace, not the end point.

6. Significantly ESCRs can be part of early warning of renewed tensions and violence. The monitoring of ESCR violations can act as an important part of conflict risk assessment to ‘effectively inform […] preventive efforts.’[2] Data which monitors ESCRs enjoyment can be used as indicators of discrimination against specific groups; more widespread or deepening discontent and grievances and/or repression and intensifying poverty, which can fuel conflict. It can also indicate increasing or broadening issues with implementation of key services.

7. ESCRs are also a key element of a comprehensive strategy for building and sustaining peace in the transitional or post-conflict period: An ESCRs framework can help prioritise resources to ensure that basic needs and services are met and that sufficient attention is given to addressing and safeguarding the needs of those most vulnerable and marginalised in society.  This process can be monitored through the benchmark of a state’s compliance with its duty to respect, protect and fulfil the economic, social and cultural rights of its citizens.


C. Reflection on the ‘Particular Circumstances’ of Northern Ireland as a Conflict Affected Setting (CAS) and the Rationale for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

8. In the context of Northern Ireland, the recognition of human rights as essential to peace is reflected in the peace agreement adopted as part of the ongoing peace process: the Belfast Agreement 1998 and consequent agreements such as the St Andrews Agreement 2006 and the Stormont House Agreement 2014 regarding legacy issues.

9. The rationale for embedding ESCRs within a BoR for Northern Ireland has been set out in previous advice issued by inter alia the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. This included recommendations for the adoption of provisions including the rights to an adequate standard of living, health, social security, accommodation (housing), education and work. It also paid particular attention to the need for the protection and promotion of the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised including children and women.[3]

10. In 2020 much of this rationale remains unchanged: The many years of protracted conflict continues to negatively impact upon the population of Northern Ireland.  The violence and ‘Troubles’ have had an acute effect upon the health of individuals, both mental and physical. Lack of investment and business has led to a lack of development, poor transport infrastructure; high unemployment and consequently mass migration by youth. Segregated housing and education ensure ‘the trans-generational impact and continuing legacy of the conflict [which] has had serious consequences for children in Northern Ireland’.[4]

11. Despite improvements post the Belfast Agreement, such as the increases in tourism and despite extensive help with redevelopment through inter alia EU peacebuilding funds, weaknesses in social services, healthcare, and housing still persist. These have been compounded by the financial crisis and austerity measures from 2008 onwards. The lack of a functioning executive and most recently the impact of the COVID 19 global pandemic has only exacerbated the existing weaknesses in public services. Further affordability of food has become a real problem for many across Northern Ireland even in those areas usually seen as affluent. Finally, the impact of Brexit upon the economy, human rights and the peace process, particularly for border areas, remains to be seen.

12. The cumulative impact of these events has resulted in a situation whereby there is a lack of enjoyment of many ESCRs due either directly to the conflict itself or as a result of the negative impacts of the conflict on communities over many years.  Structural inequalities compound this lack of enjoyment.[5] Therefore, there is a need to make provision for such rights within the new BOR for NI to reflect the particular needs of the people within NI as a conflict affected setting;  to enshrine in law the obligation of the state to respect, protect and fulfil ESCRs and consequently to contribute to building and sustaining a peaceful and inclusive society for all the people of Northern Ireland.


D. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Inclusive, Peaceful Societies: Human rights for Everyone in Northern Ireland

13. The need to ensure that all sections of society within Northern Ireland are supportive of a Bill of Rights is clearly set out in the New Decade New Approach agreement which states, ‘The establishment of cross party and cross community support will be critical to advancing a Bill of Rights’.[6]

14. The underlying principle of human rights is that they are universal – applicable to all human beings equally. Human rights are for everyone regardless of their background, religion or ethnicity. However, in the past it is a fact that some within the communities of Northern Ireland have been wary or even hostile to the idea of human rights, particularly within the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) communities.

15. Whilst there have been opinion polls on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland (which show strong support for a BoR by those who identify as PUL) and research on the PUL political parties’ attitudes to human rights, there has been very little exploration of the grassroots opinions of constituent communities outside of urban areas.

16. One small-scale research study was carried out by undertaking interviews and completing questionnaires with a cross-section of people across the PUL communities in the rural borderlands.[7] The study illuminated a number of issues for engaging the PUL community with human rights and ESCRs. In particular it found:

  • All participants had either experienced difficulty realising their own economic and social rights or were working in frontline roles where they were helping those who were struggling to realise their rights. This finding is particularly of note due to the perception by many that these communities are in the main, well-off. This perception ignores the impact of austerity measures across NI and especially the high incidence of rural poverty.
  • Many end users had been affected by welfare cuts and had experienced difficulties with providing enough food for themselves and their families without assistance.  In response Churches and faith -based organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations have taken up the mantle providing food banks and support services.
  • The poor state of the health service in Northern Ireland had also impacted negatively upon those middle class and more affluent in the community, highlighting the importance of protecting and promoting human rights for everyone.

17. Contrary to many public perceptions of the PUL community’s views on human rights, participants did not oppose the idea of human rights.  In fact, they firmly supported the idea of rights, especially ESCRs. What was felt to be more problematic was the way such rights were implemented in practice.

18. A number of obstacles to the use of economic and social rights within these communities were identified including

  • the way human rights have been used and framed in political discourse in the past and their association with being pro-republican or as being anti-state
  • the limited knowledge and understanding of human rights and / or misconceptions around rights (rights enable dependency and laziness). Conversely, the impact of austerity measures upon participants has shown them that this is not necessarily the case.

19. More unexpected were obstacles/ particularities pertaining to the locality:

  • The rural nature of the border, poor transport infrastructure, limited public transport and a lack of central facilities were all noted as obstacles to engaging with human rights initiatives. These barriers ensured there was a lack of national and international NGOs and advocacy groups operating in the area.
  • Another barrier was participants experiences of the Troubles in border villages and rural areas, which contributed to a high level of mistrust of State institutions and city based human rights NGOs.
  • Lastly, deeply ingrained cultural and communal norms such as pride (not asking for help as this is seen as a weakness), individualism and the strong notion of self and family responsibility, mean there is a lack of a ‘voice’ or leadership from within the community itself on human rights. These individuals look to family when it comes to realising basic human needs. Failing that, people look for assistance from the Church rather than the State.

20. The lack of ‘framing’ of human rights that has resonance or meaning for the communities in question and the absence of any human rights advocacy also served to prevent the development of knowledge and understanding around such rights (and how they can be utilised to build peace). It also meant that misconceptions and apprehension regarding ESCRs remained unchallenged. The result is overwhelming silence on the question of human rights within such communities.

21. There are opportunities within these communities to put human rights on to the agenda: Dialogue can be enabled through a number of entry points including,

  • Using international human rights standards as a starting point for discussion (rather than the more politicised context of rights within NI)
  • Focussing discussion on rights which are prioritised by the community themselves through drawing upon personal experiences. The key is that human rights, need to be adapted to make them relevant for local communities and local priorities.
  • Using alternative language that resonates with the PUL community as a starting point for important conversations too.
  • Also, capacity building, training and education on human rights needs to take place in the locality through outreach programmes. Further investment is required to adequately resource and expand such outreach programmes.
  • Finally, and significantly, leadership from within the community itself is crucial – developing a local legitimate voice for human rights mobilisation and advocacy is key to persuasion.


E. Recommendations for Action by the Committee, Government Departments and/or Others

22. The Committee has a crucial role to play in advocating for ESCRs within the new BoR for Northern Ireland as essential to the success of building a sustainable, peaceful and inclusive society for all within Northern Ireland. Human rights should continue to be viewed as an integral and imperative element of peacebuilding policy and practice of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

23. Fundamentally the Committee should consider enshrining ESCRs within the BoR for Northern Ireland on the basis of the ‘particular’ circumstances of Northern Ireland as a conflict affected setting and the UK’s existing international obligations under international human rights law. The universality of rights under international law is key as there is existing societal consensus around this.

24. It is crucial that the new BoR has cross-community support. As such, there is a need to harness participation and gather further ideas from all communities on how to ensure human rights are relevant to people’s lives. The Assembly and the Committee as well as other stakeholders need to continue to broaden and deepen the discussion of human rights and their role in building a peaceful and inclusive society and try to ‘break the silence’ on human rights within the PUL community, as well as continuing discussions with the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican community and ‘newcomer communities’. It is also imperative to ensure the voices of the most marginalised within society are included in meaningful participation, e.g. women and youth.

25. As such and in line with the commitments under New Decade New Approach agreement citizen participation will be crucial to ensuring everyone is ‘on board’ with the human rights agenda within Northern Ireland.  The most recent poll on attitudes to human rights in Northern Ireland notes strong support for human rights within both Protestant and Catholic communities (82% and 87% respectively).[8] However further participatory research is required, both large scale and quantitative but also more qualitative locally based projects to ensure the widest cross section of the population is involved in co-design of a BoR and relevant policy including peacebuilding programmes.

26. The role of other stakeholders, such as businesses and civil society is fundamental to a comprehensive and inclusive approach to building peace.  Further civic engagement, and knowledge exchange with a variety of actors: the general public, academics, NGO’s and other civil society organisations is imperative to success.

27. To conclude, clearly, progress has been made on the issue of cultural rights but work remains to address the issue of economic and social rights. Many of the priorities set out in the New Decade agreement can be mapped onto corresponding economic and social rights.[9] However, the added value of a human rights lens ensures such commitments are reflected in legal obligations: Thus, a human rights approach provides empowerment to communities to claim their entitlements and a process to seek assistance, remedy and accountability for violations where necessary. A human rights framework also seeks to guarantee that ‘no one will be left behind’[10] and ensures the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised in society are prioritised. Lastly, a human rights framework embodies the principles of transparency, accountability and meaningful participation as set out in New Decade.



[1] UN S/RES/2282 (2016), 27 April 2016, Preamble 

[2] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), (2016) Early Warning and Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, OHCHR: Geneva, p.16.

[3] Inter alia Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, ‘A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland Advice to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 10 December 2008’, NIHRC: Belfast, December 2008.

[4] Ibid.p.129.

[5] Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, ‘Statement on Key Inequalities in Housing and Communities in Northern Ireland’, April 2017; Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, ‘The 2019 Annual Statement - Human Rights in Northern Ireland’, NIHRC: Belfast, 2019.

[6] New Decade, New Approach, January 2020, Annex E: Rights, language and identity, Bill of Rights, 5.29.

[7] Amanda Cahill-Ripley (2019): ‘Exploring the local: vernacularizing economic and social rights for peacebuilding within the Protestant/Unionist borderland community in Northern Ireland’, The International Journal of Human Rights, 23(8) 1248-1275 DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2019.1597715. See also Dr Amanda Cahill-Ripley: ‘Breaking the silence on human rights within the protestant/unionist/loyalist community’, Belfast Telegraph, December 09 2019 

[8] Human Rights Consortium, ‘Attitudes to Human Rights in Northern Ireland Polling Data’ Human Rights Consortium: Belfast, July 2017.

[9] For example, Transforming the health service – right to health; Transforming public services – right to education; right to an adequate standard of living (housing, water and other essential services) and Delivering a fair and compassionate society and the Anti-poverty Strategy - right to an adequate standard of living (housing; food: water); right to social security and social assistance; children’s rights.

[10] UN General Assembly, ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ A/RES/70/1, 21 October 2015, Preamble.

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