The potential of a re-drawing of human rights laws in the UK is deeply concerning, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has warned.
The Conservative Government is proposing a new British Bill of Rights to replace the current Human Rights Act - a move that could raise doubts over the UK’s future adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The historic Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 paved the way for the ECHR to be incorporated into Northern Ireland law.
The NIHRC, which was created in the 1998 agreement, said nothing should be done to undermine what it described as a “foundation stone” of the peace process.
Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said: “It is deeply concerning that after 17 years of improving lives and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in society that a newly elected Government should be indicating its intent to repeal the Human Rights Act.
“This is even more worrying during a time of austerity.
“Any changes to our current human rights framework, must not reduce the protections contained in the Human Rights Act, nor weaken the mechanisms for securing redress for breaches of human rights.
“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement committed the UK Government to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law, with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breaches of the Convention. The Human Rights Act fulfilled this commitment.
“The Commission has repeatedly advised against a move which can only serve to undermine a foundation stone of the Northern Ireland peace process, reduce hard won protections for everyone living in the UK, and damage the state’s international reputation.”
Independent human rights organisation the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has written to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers seeking “urgent clarification” on the Tories’ plans.
CAJ director Brian Gormally warned that if the Act was repealed then it would have to be simultaneously re-introduced in Northern Ireland.
In the letter, he told Ms Villiers that not re-introducing the legislation in the region would represent a “flagrant breach” of the Good Friday Agreement.
DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the Human Rights Act had failed victims in Northern Ireland.
“The DUP has long been critical of the Human Rights Act and the way in which it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights,” he said.
“The Human Rights Act has been abused by criminals and terrorists who have used spurious challenges to avoid deportation. It has failed to adequately protect the rights of innocent victims. We want to see laws which assist victims secure justice rather than enabling perpetrators avoid justice.”
He added: “The DUP did not support the Belfast Agreement and has no affinity to it. In fact the DUP has long argued that the United Kingdom should have a Bill of Rights which recognises and respects the diversity of the devolved arrangements across the country.”
However, Sinn Fein MLA Caitriona Ruane challenged the Government over its plans.
“Reports that the British Government are planning to scrap the Human Rights Act are very worrying,” she said.
“Unfortunately, however, it is not surprising coming from this Tory government.
“Theresa Villiers is fond of telling locally elected politicians on the need to implement agreements but seems to be oblivious to the fact that scrapping the Human Rights Act would result in a breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Good Friday Agreement is an internationally recognised agreement, endorsed by the people in referenda and lodged with the United Nations.
“I am calling on Theresa Villiers and her government to reflect on the implications for the Good Friday Agreement before taking any decisions on this important matter.”