The UK Government remains firmly committed to the equality and human rights safeguards within the Northern Ireland Protocol, Lord Frost has insisted.
The Brexit minister made clear his attempts to secure changes to the protocol are only focused on the trade-related elements.
Article 2 of the protocol commits the UK to ensuring that Brexit will see “no diminution” of the extensive rights provisions that were enshrined in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday peace agreement.
EU law underpinned many of the equality and anti-discrimination laws that flowed from the 1998 accord.
Amnesty International wrote to Lord Frost expressing concern that Article 2 could be jeopardised if the UK Government follows through with its threat to suspend elements of the protocol amid its dispute with the EU over post-Brexit Irish Sea trade disruption.
In the letter, which was also sent to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, Amnesty raised concerns that additional commitments on rights contained in the Brexit trade agreement could also unravel if that deal collapses as a consequence of the protocol row.
Lord Frost has now replied to the human rights organisation to provide assurances.
In the letter, seen by the PA news agency, the Brexit minister says the Government is “firmly committed” to Article 2 of the protocol.
“The Government has always strongly supported Article 2 of the protocol, which became operational when the protocol was signed,” he wrote.
“Since that point, the Government has worked closely with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to set up the dedicated mechanism, funding and supporting both commissions and creating a system in which rights are safeguarded.
“We have absolutely guaranteed that there will be no diminution of these rights as a result of the UK leaving the EU.”
He said the UK proposals for securing significant changes to the protocol would leave Article 2 “unchanged”.
“The focus of those proposals is on the arrangements covering trade in goods and on the governance arrangements put in place by the protocol,” he added.
In regard to the “non-regression” commitments in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) on rights such as labour and environmental, Lord Frost said: “The TCA provides an excellent framework for managing all these issues and is working well.”
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s programme director in Northern Ireland, said while he welcomed Lord Frost’s comments he retained concerns.
“We welcome these assurances from Lord Frost,” he said.
“However, we remain concerned that any unravelling of agreements between the UK and EU threatens all the guarantees within the protocol, including essential human rights protections for people in Northern Ireland.
“Like a game of Jenga there’s a real worry that taking out one vital piece could bring the whole thing tumbling down.”
He said other moves by the Government – such as commissioning a review of the UK Human Rights Act and a proposal to prohibit future prosecutions for Troubles-related crimes – heightened Amnesty’s concerns about the potential consequences of the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute escalating.