Island Rights Initiative – Introduction


The Island Rights Initiative has grown out of two passions – a drive to promote human rights internationally and a deep-rooted sense of being an Islander, no matter how far I may be from the sea. 

I was born and grew up in the Isle of Man.  Over the past 20 years working in international human rights, the Island has followed me across the world as I have found myself explaining the principle that human rights law is a “living instrument” that adapts to developing conditions, famously established by the European Court of Human Rights in Tyrer v UK – a case about corporal punishment in the Isle of Man in the 1970’s.  But while Tyrer v UK was a case about the Isle of Man lagging behind its neighbours in human rights terms, there are also examples of the Island being ahead of the curve.  The Isle of Man was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to introduce women’s suffrage in 1881 almost four decades before the UK and last year it became the first place in the British Isles to bring in equal civil partnership alongside equal marriage.  Islands can innovate where their larger neighbours sometimes struggle to get consensus. 

As my work in human rights has developed, I have increasingly realised that there are specific human rights and governance issues that are commonly faced by islands across the world but there are also unique opportunities for islands to lead the way on global human rights issues that can have a particularly acute impact on island communities.    

The impact of climate change is an immediate threat for many islands whose very existence and ability to survive is put at risk by rising sea levels.  This is both a challenge and an opportunity as island communities and leaders can take the lead on pushing forward international human rights law as a tool to effectively address environmental issues.  The inclusion of the right to a healthy environment in the Cayman Islands constitution is an example of the way islands can innovate to move the human rights agenda forward.

Islands with international financial centres have found themselves at the sharp end of global debates about tax justice, global inequality, transparency, and international financial crime.  Many islands have limited opportunities for economic diversification and international finance has given them an opportunity to thrive.  But they will need to adapt their business models if they are to survive in the changing landscape.  For small jurisdictions this can feel like an overwhelming challenge.  But it does also provide an opportunity for innovative thinking – bringing together business and human rights principles along with the drive to combat climate change, for example, could transform small island international financial centres into beacons of ethical finance if they are prepared for fundamental reform.

But it is not only on a global level that islands face human rights challenges.  Stretched resources and capacity can mean limited expertise on developing standards of human rights and limited means to ensure effective frameworks and access to justice or to implement and report on their international human rights commitments.  Setting up governance and accountability structures that reflect the scale of a small community but provide sufficiently independent checks and balances is a complex task.  Raising a voice to challenge the status quo on human rights issues can be daunting in a small community, particularly as human rights can often be perceived as a set of standards being imposed from outside.  But human rights touch us all – they are our rights of access to and dignity in healthcare, children’s rights to education, family life and protection from harm, our rights to a fair trial in criminal and civil disputes, rights to equality, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and belief and our rights to vote. 

Island Rights Initiative aims to support island communities to protect, promote and defend their human rights at home and on the international stage so that they can tackle the challenges they face effectively, learning from each other and grasping the unique opportunities they have to be leaders in some of the key human rights issues of our time.   

Susie Alegre – Director