MAKING A BILL OF RIGHTS FOR NORTHERN IRELAND
ISSUES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Children and Young People’s Bill of Rights Group
For more information contact
Sara Boyce 90 245704
Teresa Geraghty 90 431123
Making It Real
You have probably often heard adults saying ‘ah the
young people, they are our greatest gift, they are the future
for Northern Ireland’. You’ve probably also heard
people saying that their one wish is to make sure that the
children growing up now will have a better life than they
had. The adults saying these things are most likely mean what
they say, especially here in Northern Ireland. But is there
any real way that adults can make this happen, so they can
really show young people they are valued and respected by
The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland gives the government
and other adults in Northern Ireland one of the best chances
ever to do just this, by making sure that young people’s
human rights are protected and promoted. If the Bill of Rights
is going to do this though it will need to:
a) include a list of all the special rights that children
and young people need and
b) make sure there is something that can be done if young
people’s rights are denied.
As it stands most young people don’t even know if/when
their rights are being denied because they don’t know
that they have rights in the first place. The Bill of Rights
should change all that.
So what rights do young people have?
We all have human rights because we are human – simple
as that. The United Nations has come up with lots of different
types of legal rights that people have. Civil and political
rights include the right to free speech, the right to a fair
trial, the right to vote, the right to privacy, the right
to practice your religion. Social and economic rights include
the right to housing, right to food and water, right to health,
to education and the right to a decent standard of living.
Because of their age and vulnerability children and young
people have special rights such as:
? the right to protection
? the right to participate and to have your say
? the right to a family life
? the right to have decisions that affect you made in your
? the right to be involved in making those decisions.
The United Nations drew up the Convention on the Rights of
the Child over 10 years ago. This Convention contains a set
of children’s rights that tells governments everywhere
how children and young people should be treated. The UK government
signed up to this Convention in 1991 and made a promise to
give children and young people all of the rights listed in
it. However, because it’s still only part of international
human rights law and not part of law in the UK itself, it
can’t be used to take the government to court if your
rights are broken.
There is a human rights law, the Human Rights Act, which has
been part of UK law since 2000. This law contains mainly civil
and political rights, which are the same as those in the European
Convention on Human Rights. It says very little about the
kind of rights that children and young people need.
Children and Young People’s Lives in Northern Ireland
Children and young people make up over a quarter of the population
of Northern Ireland, a bigger percentage than in England,
Scotland or Wales. Because of the conflict, young people’s
experience of growing up here has also been different to that
of young people in London, Glasgow or Cardiff. At the very
least it has probably influenced where you and your family
live, if and where your parents work or where you go to school.
It may also have had a much more direct effect on you and
your family. Over 3,600 people have died and many thousands
have been injured in the conflict during the last 30 years.
Of these 557 were children and young people under the age
of 20 years.
Children and Young People were forgotten about
Another important way that the conflict has affected young
people is that your needs as children and young people were
forgotten about most of the time. Because politicians were
so concerned with the conflict they didn’t think about
the needs of children and young people. This includes teenagers,
young people with disabilities, young people in care, young
people living in rural areas, young Travellers and young Chinese
children. Services for children and young people did not get
the money they needed and the kinds of laws needed to protect
them were not introduced.
Even though all of this broke young people’s human rights
in lots of different ways very few young people realised this
because they didn’t know that they had rights to start
The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement
The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement set out a plan to build
a more peaceful and equal society. While it specifically recognised
that young people from areas affected by the conflict faced
particular difficulties, it also recognised the need to address
human rights concerns of all communities, not just the two
main communities who had been involved in the conflict.
So will the Agreement help to make sure that young people
are treated with more respect and dignity and that their human
rights are protected? Will this let adults help young people
to see how much they are valued in society? The short answer
is ‘It could do, but not necessarily’.
Since the Agreement some really positive things have happened
already that will help to improve the lives of children and
young people. One of the most important is the setting up
of the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People,
who will act as a Champion for Children’s Rights. Another
thing that is happening is the drawing up of a 10 year plan
for children and young people (the Children’s Strategy).
However it’s important to remember that the Commissioner
for Children and Young People will only be able to work with
the laws that are already in place to protect children and
young people. This is where the Bill of Rights comes in.
What is a Bill of Rights?
A Bill of Rights lists all the basic rights that people in
a country are entitled to. In this way people can judge if
they are being treated fairly by the government. If they think
they are not, they can be protected by the courts. Many other
countries like South Africa have a Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
The Agreement also said that a Bill of Rights should be drawn
up for Northern Ireland. It was recognised that one of the
best ways to end the conflict and to build peace was to make
sure that everybody living in Northern Ireland was aware of
their rights and people’s rights were protected equally.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was given the
job of drawing up a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that
would do the following, among other things:
• Add to the rights in the European Convention on Human
• Deal with ‘the particular circumstances of Northern
• Use examples from international human rights laws
drawn up by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and
• Make sure that the ‘identity and ethos’
of the two main communities is protected and respected
What’s happening with the Bill of Rights?
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has said that
the Bill of Rights should “make a real difference to
the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland-young and old, rich
and poor, long established and newly arrived”. The Commission
has done lots of different things to find out what groups
of people want to see in the Bill of Rights, including employing
somebody to get the views of children and young people. In
September 2001 the Human Rights Commission produced a draft
of the Bill of Rights. People were then asked what they thought
about this draft.
The British and Irish Governments are also planning to set
up a ‘round table forum’ in autumn 2003. The plan
is that this forum will bring together all of the political
parties to try to get agreement among them on the kind of
rights they think should go into the Bill. It’s very
important that all of the parties give their support to the
Bill of Rights. The political parties will also be listening
to other people in this forum, including children and young
people and/or their representatives.
The round table forum will tell the Human Rights Commission
what they think is needed. The Human Rights Commission will
then give their final advice to the Secretary of State who
will decide whether legislation should be introduced in Westminster
to make the Bill of Rights law in Northern Ireland.
What do young people want to see in the Bill of Rights?
When young people were asked about the Bill of Rights, they
did not want the rights to be limited to the Unionist and
Nationalist communities and they were clear that there should
be specific rights for children and young people. (See “What
you Said” published by the Northern Ireland Human Rights
Commission 2002). Young people said that they want rights
• the right to equality for all
• the right to the information they need
• the right to have their best interests taken into
consideration in any decision affecting them
• the right to have a say and take part in decisions
• the right to a family
• the right to play and to leisure facilities
• the right to protection from threats, harassment,
violence and abuse
• the right to a good education relevant to young people’s
• the right to work with a minimum wage
• the right to a decent standard of living
• the right to a healthy life
• rights for victims and for young people in conflict
with the law
A lot of the rights chosen by the young people are what we
call ‘socio-economic rights’. They include the
right to a decent standard of living, the right to a healthy
life, the right to play and leisure facilities and the right
to a minimum wage. If you don’t have these basic things
in life then it’s very hard to take an active part in
anything else going on around you.
How should the Bill of Rights ‘reflect the particular
circumstances’ of Northern Ireland?
As mentioned earlier the Agreement says that the rights in
the Bill of Rights should “reflect the particular circumstances
of Northern Ireland”.
People have come up with different answers as to what rights
need to go into the Bill of Rights to do this. What is decided
on will have a big influence on what kind of rights young
people could end up with in the Bill of Rights. Here’s
Rights for the two main communities only
You could decide that the ‘particular circumstances’
of Northern Ireland are those circumstances that relate to
the situation of the Unionist and Nationalist communities
only. The kind of rights that you would end up with in the
Bill of Rights would include protection from discrimination,
equality, identity, criminal justice, language rights and
minority rights. Because of the conflict it’s very important
that the rights of the two main communities are protected
for the future. The Agreement also says that the Bill of Rights
should make sure that the ‘identity and ethos’
of the two main communities is protected and respected by
If you take this view then young people from the two main
communities would enjoy the right to mutual or equal respect
by the state for their identity and ethos. You would not however
be given any specific rights as young people, such as the
right to have a say in decisions being made about you or the
right not to be discriminated against as a young person, regardless
of your background.
Rights for everybody
However, if you decide that ‘the particular circumstances’
of Northern Ireland is about the particular circumstances
for everybody, not just Unionists and Nationalists, then there
is a much better chance that your rights as a young person
will be protected in the Bill of Rights. Earlier we talked
about the effect of the conflict on children and young people.
We also mentioned how, because of the conflict, the needs
of children and young people in general were more or less
forgotten about. It’s only since the signing of the
Agreement that the government and politicians have started
to really think about young people and their needs. This is
also true for other groups of people in society such as women,
older people, ethnic minorities including Travellers, people
with disabilities, gay men and lesbian women and asylum seekers
If the Bill of Rights is to “make a real difference
to the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland-young and old,
rich and poor, long established and newly arrive” like
the Human Rights Commission has said, then it has to recognise
that there are lots of different communities and groups of
people living here, with lots of different problems and needs,
including children and young people. It is clear that children
and young people are among the most vulnerable groups in the
Support for children and young people’s rights in the
Bill of Rights also came from Olara Otunnu, the United Nations
Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict. He said
that “children’s concerns must remain priority
concerns throughout the building of peace and the voices of
young people should be heard throughout the peace processes”.
He also said that “children’s rights should be
incorporated into the new NI Bill of Rights.”
Where should children and young people’s rights go in
the Bill of Rights?
Young people we talked to said that they want to be able to
pick up the Bill of Rights and to be able to easily find the
rights that apply to them as young people. In other words,
they want to be able to ‘see themselves’ in the
Bill of Rights if it’s going to be of any relevance
There are a few different ways of including children and young
people’s rights in the Bill of Rights:
1. In a special section or chapter that lists all of the rights
that children and young people alone have.
2. Added in to the other chapters where appropriate e.g. under
the heading dealing with criminal justice you could have a
list of the rights young people have who are involved with
the juvenile justice system.
3. A special section or chapter and the rights added into
the other chapters as well.
Number 3 seems to be the best option for a number of reasons:
• Young people have asked for a separate section
• Having children and young people’s rights also
included throughout the Bill would make sure that they are
equally entitled to enjoy the rights granted to everyone in
the other sections of the Bill
• It means that young people can pick up the Bill of
Rights and immediately find the rights that apply to them
without having to read through each and every single chapter
to find their rights
• There are some rights that only apply to children
and young people e.g. the right to protection, decisions being
made in the child’s best interests, that really wouldn’t
fit anywhere else except in a separate chapter
• Other Bills of Rights drawn up recently have done
it this way e.g. South African Bill of Rights
• It would give a very strong message to young people
that their rights are being fully recognised and respected
If young people do get the rights they need in the Bill of
Rights, will it really make any difference?
Only if the government is committed to making it work (enforcement).
To protect all children, it is necessary to guarantee the
rights of all communities as well as all individuals, and
then make sure that those in positions of power stick to them.
Unless those in positions of power are forced to make sure
that what it says in the Bill of Rights happens in people’s
lives, it will not work properly. It could be enforced in
the same way as the Human Rights Act which means that courts
would look at laws to make sure they fit in with the Bill
of Rights. People who feel their rights have been denied or
abused could go to court to challenge such neglect or abuse.
The Assembly and/or government at Westminster would also have
to check all laws it made to ensure that they live up to the
Bill of Rights.
The rights could be even better protected by giving courts
more power to stop laws which they thought would deny or abuse
human rights, and especially to look at laws before they came
into force to see if this was the case.
Another really important part of making the Bill of Rights
work will be making sure that everybody knows what their rights
The Bill of Rights offers a unique chance for the government
and other adults to demonstrate to children and young people
in Northern Ireland how they are valued and their rights are
respected. For the Bill of Rights to do this it needs to:
• Include a special section which lists children and
young people’s rights and also makes it clear that all
other rights in the Bill also apply to children and young
• Include all of the rights that are in the UN Convention
on the Rights of the Child and any other rights young people
living in Northern Ireland need
• Include ‘socio-economic’ rights like the
right to housing, health and a decent standard of living
• Have ways built into it that allow young people to
enforce their rights if they are broken
Jargon Buster – what does it mean?
Asylum seeker: A person who has had to leave their own country
because they are afraid of being mistreated because of their
race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership
of a particular social group and who feels they won’t
be protected if they stay in their own country. The person
applies for asylum in a safe country. The person will not
always be an asylum seeker – see refugee below.
Champion : A defender and supporter.
Children's Strategy: This is a ten year plan for improving
the lives of children and young people in Northern Ireland.
The Children and Young People’s Unit in Stormont has
the job of finding out from people, including children and
young people, what should go into it and then drawing it up.
Civil and political rights: Rights such as the right to vote,
the right to a nationality, not to be tortured, not to be
Discrimination:To be treated unfairly because of say your
religion, gender, race or because you live with a disability
Enforcement: Making sure it happens – to insist on it.
Entitled: Something that is yours by right.
Equality: Making sure that everyone has an equal chance. It
does not mean treating everyone the same as some people may
be at more of a disadvantage than others so they might need
to have more help if they are to reach the same goals or have
the same chance of achieving something, e.g. passing exams,
using a leisure centre.
Ethos: Culture or customs, traditions, way of life.
European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): An international
law from the Council of Europe - not the European Union. It
mostly contains civil and political rights.
Human Rights Act:The law in the UK that introduced the ECHR
into national or local law and that allowed people to use
the ECHR in courts in the UK, without having go to the European
Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Identity: The things that make you the person you are. It
could be your nationality, your gender, religion, sexuality.
You have an individual identity as well as several group identities.
For example you have an identity as a member of your family
that is different to your identity as a student or pupil or
worker. Your identity as a young person is different to the
identity older people have.
Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: The Northern Ireland
Human Rights Commission was set up under the Belfast (Good
Friday Agreement) in 1998. Its job is to promote and protect
the human rights of everybody in Northern Ireland. It does
this in different ways including providing information and
education on human rights, providing legal advice and helping
people to take court cases if they believe that their rights
have been broken and doing research and investigations into
the state of human rights in Northern Ireland. One big piece
of work it is doing is drafting advice on the Bill of Rights.
Commissioner for Children and Young People: This person will
act as a champion for children and young people’s rights
(up to the age of 18 or 21 if you have been looked after by
Health and Social Services Trusts). They will promote and
protect children and young people’s rights. Some of
the things they will do will include telling you about your
rights, examining laws or what organisations are doing and
making sure that they are in keeping with children's rights.
The Commissioner’s name is Nigel Williams and he starts
his job in October 2003.
Social and economic rights: The right to a proper standard
of living, to decent housing, to work and to be properly paid,
to health care and to education.
Refugee: A person whose application for asylum in a safe country
has been successful. Once they are granted asylum they are
entitled to many of the same rights as UK and Irish citizens.
Round Table Forum A gathering of representatives of all the
political parties in Northern Ireland to make suggestions
as to what should be in the Bill of Rights. Other people and
groups, like young people and their organisations, might also
be invited to join this Forum.
Irish Traveller: A member of a minority ethnic group. Travellers
have always lived in Ireland and are a nomadic group (they
travel around the country). Travellers are the second largest
minority ethnic group in Northern Ireland (after the Chinese).
United Nations (UN):An organisation with representatives of
all of the countries of the world.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:An agreement
drawn up by the UN and signed by almost all of the countries
of the world saying that all children under the age of 18
have rights and promising to do their best to make sure children
get these rights.
Vulnerability: In need of protection and help by others.
Special thanks to the members of youth@clc
and to Naomi Sheehan, age 12, who assisted
in the compilation of this booklet.
In March 1999 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
was set up. One of its tasks was to come up with suggestions
for a new Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
Before doing this the Human Rights Commission decided that
it needed to ask other people in Northern Ireland about what
they would like to see in a Bill of Rights. Voluntary groups
like Save the Children and the Children's Law Centre saw this
as a great opportunity to make sure that the ideas that children
and young people have got heard so we decided to get involved
in the Bill of Rights Project.
First we trained and spoke with over 30 people who work with
young people from a wide variety of backgrounds such as young
people with disabilities, young parents, young people in the
care and justice systems, young people excluded from school
and young people who have been directly affected by the conflict.
We started this project in the summer of 2000, planning the
training sessions and gathering materials from the Human Rights
Commission. In September 2000 we ran the training and from
then to the end of January 2001 those workers worked with
their own young people to come uup with suggestions for the
Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.
In total 80 young people from 10 different groups throughout
Northern Ireland took part in the Bill of Rights Project.
In February 2001 they all met together with a number of Commissioners
and staff members from the Human Rights Commission to tell
them what they wanted to see in a Bill of Rights.