INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS DAY 10 DECEMBER 2004 Dame Joan Harbinson, Chief Commissioner, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. It is critically important to remind ourselves that throughout the world, human rights are routinely violated, and that we must never weaken in our work of challenging human rights abuses. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission states the view of both organisations very simply. We “consider that equality and human rights are inextricably linked, that progress is required in both areas in Northern Ireland and that a human rights and equality culture needs to be developed in Northern Ireland”. Equality is central to international human rights provisions and we in the Commission try to be sensitive at all times to the human rights context of our work. Bringing about equality is about much more than simply enforcing anti- discrimination law; although that law has played, and still does play, a crucial role in changing discriminatory behaviour and attitudes. This morning we have published our annual report on the monitoring returns made by employers. It shows continued progress to a more integrated (in terms of the two major communities) workplace. Indeed what has happened in the workplace demonstrates what could happen throughout our society if we were all to adopt a more thoughtful and less confrontational approach to what we do and what we say. Showing respect and understanding for others and being able to expect that from others is what human rights on a personal level is about. Monitoring has been said to cause concern to the business sector, particularly small businesses and we in the Equality Commission try to be responsive to this through support, help and training. But on the other hand employers are coming to us and saying they want to monitor all aspects of their workforce or to target one area where they know they have an under representation. Recently I launched an active plan in one of the Health Trusts targeting people with disabilities because as the consequence of a monitoring exercise the Trust realised it had virtually no employees with a disability. Here in the City Hall I was present a few weeks ago at the launch of a public sector/ service provider partnership. It is designed so that organisations can learn from each other, consult better, work together and as a result make better policy, more relevant to the needs of their customers. In Craigavon employers, service deliverers, trade unions and the voluntary and community sector have come together to provide support and information to the growing number of migrant workers. On Wednesday I attended a showcase event in Armagh where local public sector organisations came together to show what they were doing at many levels to implement the public duty to promote equality of opportunity and good relations. It was an exciting and stimulating day but also a good learning opportunity. Underpinning all of this work is the belief that each individual has the right to be respected and to be treated fairly and appropriately. Northern Ireland is currently developing new equality legislation to bring together the patchwork of existing laws and hopefully soon there will be a Bill of Rights too. The new Single Equity Act must be underpinned by international human rights standards and both the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission have reflected this in our responses to government. The Equality Commission wants the new legislation to be clear, straightforward and workable. It must take on board the lessons of 30 years of experience of working with equity law. And it must be legislation that will actually bring about the change to a better society which is its fundamental goal. So we want the new law to protect more people, and to be much more geared towards innovative and creative action to make discrimination, prejudice and hostility to others because they are different in some way, totally unacceptable in our society. These are strong messages that we all need to promote. None of the organisations charged with looking after the rights of individuals in whatever way can do it alone and I have already told you about the Memorandum of Understanding between the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. We also have one with the Community Relations Council and are in the process of developing one with the Children’s Commissioner. These are all important mechanisms for ensuring human rights are at the heart of what we do. In a wider context we work with all the equality and human rights bodies in Great Britain and the republic of Ireland and find this a useful way of sharing experience and ideas, and learning from each other. I have been very positive this morning as this is a celebration of HR day but the last year has been one in which we have seen human rights violated time and time again in Northern Ireland and I can’t ignore the awful racism which has become so prevalent. I know Jamal has spoken eloquently on this subject and is here this morning, so I want to stress that the Equality Commission is doing and will do everything it can to help in this shocking situation. We are working directly through our contacts with politicians, police, and voluntary and community groups. We will continue to work through patient, on-going training and guidance to employers and service providers and through our legal advice and assistance to people who believe they have been discriminated against. As well as this being IHR day, this is also anti-homophobia week- a campaign led by the Coalition on Sexual Orientation. It’s just one year since lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Northern Ireland gained protection from discrimination in the workplace and in training. All over the world, LGB people face attacks on their human rights. And here in Northern Ireland we have seen that prejudice, too, manifest itself in physical attack. We have to challenge homophobic behaviour wherever we find it and there have been a number of events this week to raise the profile of homophobia in our society. The struggle to achieve equality and human rights for all is not won yet but we are on the way. It is good to celebrate and remember as we are doing today.
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