Guest post: How can National Human Rights Institutions support communities to claim their economic and social rights?

Seán Brady speaking at ENNHRI workshop in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 26 March 2019

Last month, ENNHRI held a workshop in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the work of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Europe on economic and social rights in situations of (post-)conflict. At the event, Seán Brady, Associate Director (Programmes) of the Northern Ireland NGO Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), shared how NHRIs can work with organisations like PPR to support communities to claim their economic and social rights.

Seán Brady, Assistant Director (Programmes), Participation and the Practice of Rights*

How can NHRIs support communities to claim their rights in these turbulent times?

This question recently fuelled debate in Bosnia and Herzegovina between European NHRIs about efforts to realise economic and social rights in (post-)conflict societies. The meeting of human rights defenders from across the continent was made possible by the hard work and dedication of the staff at ENNHRI. PPR was invited to facilitate workshops on our approach and the challenges and opportunities it presents.

The workshop was timely as confidence in the efficacy of human rights frameworks are being tested while Europeans experience increased homelessness, unemployment and precarious work, hostile immigration regimes and social insecurity. In many states, resistance to this status quo is palpable but often being harnessed by interests hostile to a human rights agenda.

Over the course of four days in Mostar, against a backdrop of conflict ruins and scenic beauty, we explored how human rights defenders are adapting to these challenges and the potential to embed economic and social rights as a bulwark against conflict.

PPR supports communities to document the denial of rights, develop human rights indicators and benchmarks as a form of democratic participation and build power to engage state authorities using diverse tactics and strategies to deliver measurable change.

Human rights institutions, including NHRIs, cooperate with us in different ways to achieve this.

Examples of cooperation

In Belfast, where religious inequality in social housing provision, a key driver of conflict, remains unaddressed to this day, we have supported homeless people living in homeless shelters and substandard housing to force change for over a decade. Successive United Nations Committees on Economic Social and Cultural Rights have intervened. The UN Special Rapporteur’s on Housing and Extreme Poverty and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner have carried out site visits to meet Equality Can’t Wait – Build Homes Now campaigners.

These interventions provided crucial support, pressure on authorities and validation for families whose rights are being denied. Significantly, the regional and international interventions were followed by a series of statements from local human rights institutions in 2015, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (Northern Ireland’s NHRI), as well as the Children’s Commissioner and Equality Commission.

South of the now infamous Brexit border, PPR supports traditionally nomadic Irish Travellers in County Cork to use the approach to challenge institutional racism and discrimination. Last year the Chair of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, Virginia Brás Gomes, and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Ireland’s NHRI) participated in the launch of their monitoring report documenting the state’s continued failure to deliver on accommodation rights. This launch, and ongoing campaigning pressure, led to new accommodation for families and significant work is now scheduled on one of the only Traveller sites in the local council area.

In Scotland, high rise tower block residents suffering substandard housing provision in Edinburgh worked with the Scottish Human Rights Commission (Scotland’s NHRI) and PPR to engage with the community in developing effective rights-based responses. The NHRI has invested considerable time and resources to support a rights-based culture. Residents subsequently secured £2.3m of public investment in their homes with further funding to follow.

Our experience demonstrates that NHRIs can play an extremely positive and proactive role to develop a favourable context for human rights approaches. There are many challenges and often powerful resistance to change in government, public services the private sector. However, it was clear from the collective experience in Mostar that we have to rise to these challenges and that many of the NHRIs in attendance are already acting creatively to deliver on their mandates.

More power to them.

* Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), located in Belfast, puts the power of human rights at the service of those who need it most. PPR uses a unique human rights-based approach to support communities to assert their rights in practical ways and make social and economic change. Their work is showing that this approach leads to better outcomes, long-lasting change, and has the potential for widespread replication.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to ENNHRI.