...But the Centre for Justice says changes do not go far enough

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Legislators are today being urged to reject proposed changes to the Human Rights Act in favour of amendments which bring Bermuda’s human rights regime in line with international standards.

The amendments to be debated today do not go far enough to create a truly independent Human Rights Commission, according to the Centre for Justice.

“Until such time as the Human Rights Commission can be truly independent of Government it cannot, according to the Paris Principles and the Commonwealth Secretariat, claim to be a legitimate and genuine national human rights institution,” said Venous Memari, Managing Director of the Centre for Justice.

“They should send it back for further amendments.”

Families Minister Glenn Blakeney, who has responsibility for human rights, will today attempt to pilot changes to the legislation intended to improve the administration and functioning of Bermuda’s human rights regime.

In a press release issued when the bill was tabled in December last year, Minister Blakeney claimed that the proposed measures would bring the Human Rights Commission in line with international standards, a claim he is expected to repeat when he introduces the bill to his House colleagues this morning.

But Ms Memari insists that the changes will ensure that the HRC continues to “be an extended arm of Government as it will lack independence”.

The proposals, she said, fall “woefully fall short of international baseline standards with respect to the independence of a legitimate and genuine human rights commission, specifically the Paris Principles.

“According to the Paris Principles and Best Practice Guidelines established by the Commonwealth Secretariat, independence is the cornerstone to the effective functioning of a national human rights institution and good governance.

“In order for a national human rights institution to be effective and maintain public confidence, it must be independent and be seen to be independent of Government and the political process and not subject to pressure or influence from those who might have a stake in the national institution’s community activities and educational programmes that are designed to promote equal treatment of all members of the community.”

Among other administrative changes, Minister Blakeney’s bill proposes to remove the Minister from adjudication of cases and replace the Board of Inquiry with Human Rights Tribunals composed of a small number of Commissioners.

Currently, if unable to settle a complaint, the Human Rights Commission will ask the Minister to refer the matter to a Board of Inquiry.

But under the proposed changes, complaints that are not resolved within the nine month period will be referred to the tribunal by the Executive Officer.

That, says Ms Memari, is a “most welcome change”.

Minister Blakeney’s bill also proposes a new system for selecting Commissioners.

Commissioners would be selected by a five member Selection and Appointment Committee via a recruitment process.

That committee would be headed by the Minister’s appointee who selects two members from the general public. Another two members of the selection committee would be selected by the Opposition and the ruling party.

The recruitment process for Commissioners, to include advertisements, direct invitation and an application and interview process, is also prescribed by the new bill.

“What is the likely independence of the Committee in light of the fact that the Head is selected by Government and the Head appoints two members of the public?” asked Ms Memari.

“Also the criteria for the selection of the commissioners will be prescribed by the Minister in consultation with the Executive Officer and the department responsible for human affairs.”

Ms Memari also noted that the bill retains provisions which maintain political control of the Human Rights Commission.

“The commission will continue to be responsible to the Minister for the administration of the Act,” she told The Royal Gazette.

“Guidelines prepared by the Commission under section 14B (which may not have the force of law but may be received in evidence) and codes of practice (with respect to elimination of racial discrimination in the field of employment and the promotion of equality of opportunity in that field between persons of different racial groups) cannot be published without the prior approval of the Minister.

“Annual reports must still be submitted to the Minister rather than directly tabled in Parliament.”

The Centre for Justice is also raising the alarm over a new clause which allows the Executive Officer to discontinue an investigation under certain circumstances but does not allow a right of appeal.

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Published Feb 3, 2012 at 5:43 am (Updated Feb 3, 2012 at 5:41 am)

...But the Centre for Justice says changes do not go far enough

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