Why human rights in Northern Ireland are still internationally important

We welcome this guest post by Brian Gormally, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) www.caj.org.uk

Why human rights in Northern Ireland are still internationally important

The significance of the conflict

Over 3,600 people died out of a population (in the North) of about 1.5 million. If that figure is extrapolated to Britain, it is the equivalent of 144,000 deaths – well over twice the number of British civilians that died in the Second World War. Extrapolated to the United States it would give a figure of 720,000 deaths – more than one and a half times the total US casualties in the Second World War or the equivalent of eight 9/11 attacks for each of the 30 years of the conflict.

Ten times as many people were injured as were killed – over 36,000. It is estimated that at least 20,000 people were imprisoned for offences arising out of the conflict. If we take people’s immediate families into account, that makes at least 300,000 people directly affected by the conflict. That does not take into account those forced out of their homes, intimidated, beaten up, harassed, made to leave their jobs and all those who lived in fear and constant tension.

This occurred in Western Europe, amongst the population of one of the leading liberal democracies in the world. The causes, features and responses to such a conflict are therefore of abiding significance.

The nature of human rights abuses during the conflict

The proved or alleged human rights abuses that were perpetrated by the UK state during the conflict include state sanctioned murder, torture, collusion with non-state armed groups, detention without trial and denial of a fair trial, accompanied by a culture of impunity, together with toleration of religious and other forms of discrimination. The exposure and holding to account of elements of the state for these crimes is a so far uncompleted task.

The nature of the peace process

In spite of the deep trauma caused to Irish and British society by the conflict, a relatively successful peace process was undertaken and consolidated. The process of negotiation and agreement involved an inclusive approach to all political parties and armed groups and a lengthy period of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration of state and non-state forces. The fundamental foundation of the settlement was a serious commitment to human rights and equality. The political settlement guaranteed a place in governance for representatives of the two main communities but this was underpinned and guaranteed by an infrastructure of legislation and institutions designed to promote human rights and equality. These included:

Fundamental police reform with extraordinarily powerful oversight and accountability mechanisms

  • Reform of the criminal justice system with new oversight and inspection institutions
  • Incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights in domestic legislation
  • Uniquely strong (for the time) equality legislation
  • A human rights commission and equality commission to oversee all elements of society

Civil society organisations like CAJ played a massively important role in the negotiation, settlement and consolidation elements of the peace process and are well-equipped to reflect upon and generalise from the experience.

The lessons from Northern Ireland in how to deal with fractured societies, rebellion by armed groups and the characteristics of inclusive peace processes – all on the basis of a commitment to human rights – are of wide applicability.

Unfinished business and continuing problems

The major unfinished business of the peace process is the UK government’s failure to legislate for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland including identified rights supplementary to the European Convention. The significance of building in human rights protections to a constitutional document – or failing to – is demonstrated by the Northern Ireland experience. There are other failures to carry out commitments which have a tendency to weaken the stability of the peace settlement.

There are continuing problems with attempts to roll back the human rights elements of the peace settlement, especially with regard to policing. The ways in which exemplary institutions can be subverted and the methods of preventing and opposing that process are being demonstrated in the current situation in Northern Ireland.

There is no comprehensive method of dealing with past abuses and unsolved crimes in Northern Ireland. Although there are many interesting projects within civil society, neither the state nor political society has been willing to agree a truth recovery or reconciliation process. This is a fundamental weakness and efforts to use international examples and to continue the debate on dealing with the past are important not just for the local situation but also to demonstrate the problems and possibilities in such processes.

The UK state is seriously in breach of its European Convention Article 2 responsibilities to protect the Right to Life in respect of cases where state involvement in unlawful killing is alleged. In a number of high profile cases it has refused to carry out proper investigations into possible direct or collusive involvement in killings. This is not a matter of the past but of the protection of the right to life in the present and the future. The reality is of a major Western government failing to put in place the investigative and regulative mechanisms necessary to prevent its agents from engaging in extra-judicial executions or other unlawful killings. There is evidence that this failure has led to further unlawful killing by British forces in Iraq and elsewhere. There is also evidence that the failings by the UK government give cover and encouragement to those states – including Council of Europe members – engaged in much more egregious human rights abuses. These cases arising from the past in Northern Ireland are therefore vital to pursue for all those who care about human rights and the responsibilities of major Western powers to take the lead in their protection and promotion.