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10 DECEMBER 2004

Dame Joan Harbinson, Chief Commissioner, Equality Commission for Northern

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

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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