Much of the debate centered on the tension between human rights and the opinion of the 'majority.' Martina Anderson MLA, member of the NIPB Human Rights Committee, made the point that just because the majority of people support something, doesn't make it right. This was particularly in reference to Operation Exposure in Derry/Londonderry (in which PSNI published photos of young people they wished to identify in order to speak to them about disorder over the 12 July period). She further made reference to the 'days of majoritarian policing,' saying 'we know what that feels like and we don't want that anymore - human rights are for everyone, not just those who are perceived to be virtuous.'
This point is a fundamental tenet of international human rights, and one that was picked up by other panelists as well, including Include Youth's director Koulla Yiasouma, who, in reference to the rights of children and young people, reminded the room that children and young people have the right to be protected regardless of their behaviour - also true of the wider community.
is a point that bears remembering during societal discussions around
human rights - it was one of the more contentious issues during the
heated debates around a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Human
rights do not go away when someone has a committed a crime - they are
not only for the virtuous, as pointed out by Martina Anderson. They
cannot be taken away because the 'majority' think it is expedient for
policing. As pointed out by the NIPB and accepted by Chief Constable
Matt Baggott during the discussion, any limitations on human rights must
be proportionate, legitimate and necessary, and, when this is debated,
the final decision ultimately lies with the courts (as we see with the
current judicial review of Operation Exposure).
Northern Ireland now has the most sophisticated human rights structures in the world in terms of policing - today's launch and discussion are proof of that - but, as was pointed out by several panelists - what is still lacking is a human rights culture, and not just in terms of policing. Several questions were fielded regarding regarding dealing with the past, as well as the issue of 'plastic bullets' (to which the Chief Constable insisted that they were no longer used; they are now called AEPs), illustrating how important it is that these human rights structures are robustly utilized in order to avoid repeats of past abuses.
Overall, the panel seemed to agree that the PSNI is improving - on policy. Marie Brown of Foyle Women's Aid in particular noted the improvement in dealing with instances of domestic violence. However, it was acknowledged that the PSNI still have a long way to go, as John O'Doherty of the Rainbow Project and Neil Jarman of the Institute for Conflict Research both raised the issue of hate crime detection. It is clear that despite the improvements in policy, human rights as a culture within the police is still lacking. To paraphrase both Basil McCrea MLA and Martina Anderson, it is extremely important that these debates are being held - and it will perhaps open the door for a wider discussion around human rights in society.