Northern Ireland: A Modern Approach to an Annual Statement

30 August 2016

Featured below is an interview with Colin Caughey, a researcher at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, in which he addresses how the NIHRC’s annual statement is produced and answers the key questions frequently asked by those interested in adopting a similar model. As well as that, we have a brief introductory video to the annual statement, filmed during its launch at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Why did you develop the annual statement?

The annual statement is principally a tool for the promotion of human rights. The annual statement is drafted in an accessible manner to facilitate its use as an advocacy tool with political decision makers and stakeholders. The production of the annual statement is not a statutory obligation in and of itself but assists the NIHRC in exercising a number of its statutory functions.

What were you trying to achieve?

The NIHRC initially developed the annual statement as an accountability mechanism and yearly publication that would record how Government were complying with their human rights obligations. We have used the statement as a tool to engage our local legislator, on publication we present the statement to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly (a devolved administration) at Stormont. Since we are accountable to the Westminster Parliament (UK) but have a mandate to review human rights compliance in Northern Ireland, the annual statement provides an informal mechanism of engagement with the Northern Ireland Assembly.

How did you develop the Annual Statement?

The NIHRC’s annual statement uses a traffic light system to classify the actions taken by or required the UK Government, Northern Ireland Executive or relevant public authorities in response to the issue. The traffic lights provide a readily accessible identifier for the NIHRC’s key priorities and concerns, using Red, Amber, and Green symbols.

How do you decide on the size of the report?

Since the first publication the report has grown in size each year reflecting the treaty body system, the current 2016 report will include Concluding Observations from all Treaty Bodies issued since the first year of the annual statement. It will likely grow in size again. However we intend to rationalise to ensure the document does not become unwieldy. There is a difficult balance in determining how much information to include within the report.

Who is your target audience?

The principal audience for the annual statement is decision makers, both elected officials and policy professionals. The document can also act as a reference point for our stakeholders.

How does the annual statement align with the NIHRC’s strategic priorities?

The annual statement is intended as a record of human rights development in Northern Ireland rather than a record of the work of the NIHRC. However the report inevitably fits with our strategic priorities.

Does the annual statement focus on the past or the future?

The issues recorded within the annual statement are live issues, if they have been addressed they are recorded as completed and receive a ‘Green’. Otherwise they are listed as ‘Amber’ or ‘Red’ dependent on the level of protection provided or the level of protection which is lacking.

What are the aims of the annual statement?

The aim of the annual statement is to promote human rights through holding decision makers to account for their actions or inactions in the furtherance of human rights protection.

How much reach does the annual statement have?

Copies of the annual statement are dispatched to all elected Members of the Legislative Assemby (NI) and Members of Parliament in Northern Ireland. In addition copies are dispatched to relevant Ministers (both Northern Ireland and UK).

How do you launch the Annual Statement?

We have developed a relationship with the Speakers office of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who has in recent years sponsored the launch of the statement. This allows us to launch the annual statement at the Northern Ireland Assembly, our key audience for the statement.

We develop a communication plan for the launch, send invitations through our social media platforms and to our stakeholders. We typically secure a guest speaker to speak at the launch. We seek media attention to promote the content of the report, inviting the local media to attend the launch. We also film the launch event to promote on our website.

How are you currently developing the annual statement?

The NIHRC is currently streamlining its information management system. We are modelling this process on the annual statement with the development of an IT drive in which staff members will be able to input or edit content and upload relevant files. This content will eventually be utilised for the annual statement. As the annual statement covers all human rights issues the input from other staff is required and the mega drive will provide an interactive IT tool allowing for this.

How does the NIHRC’s work feed into it as the year passes?

The NIHRC’s ongoing work, for instance treaty reports and the annual statement should be mutually reinforcing and supportive. With content from the annual statement used to populate ongoing work and vice versa.

What are the main benefits of the annual statement?
The benefit of the annual statement is having a statement of record which will at any one point be a maximum of 12 months out of date to provide to stakeholders and decision makers. The report acts as a tracking device for Government decision making.

Where do you take the structure from?

The programme of work included within the annual statement is set by the international human rights committees and the response of Government to it. A contents page is included at the start of the annual statement to provide an easy to understand overview.

What practical considerations are there to bear in mind?

Production of an annual statement can be onerous task and requires input from all staff members. Staff turnover can affect the production of the annual statement. The risk of high staff turn over can be mitigated by a robust knowledge management system which is essential to ensure any annual statement is up to date and conclusive.

How is the Annual Statement used in engagement with local decision makers?

When meeting with politicians the NIHRC will bring along a copy of the annual statement and use the material within the statement as background to the meeting topics. The statement is drafted in an accessible format, it highlights the key obligations of the state party and relevant Government Department.

How does the annual statement assist with Treaty body work and engagement with other UN bodies?

The content of the annual statement is used as the basis for our shadow report writing. With the move from numerous Committees towards the simplified reporting procedure the NIHRC has to produce reports to UN Committees without the State Party Report as a reference document, it is therefore anticipated that the annual statement will prove increasingly useful. The annual statement can also be used to populate briefings for UN special rapporteur visits to Northern Ireland.

How is the Annual Statement used as an advocacy tool?

The launch of the annual statement is key to the NIHRC’s advocacy role, the hope is that stakeholders will use the annual statement to inform their engagements with decision makers and that in turn decision makers will consider that they have a vested interest in seeing their issues receiving ‘Greens’ rather than ‘Reds’.

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