Today and tomorrow injured victims from the WAVE Trauma Centre will hold a series of talks in Westminster to advance the issue of a pension for those seriously injured during the Troubles. The move to Westminster comes in the wake of the collapse at Stormont, but also a lack of leadership to deliver redress to all victims of the Troubles/conflict in and around Northern Ireland. While much of the debate on the pension has surrounded who should be eligible, there has been little reflection on the human rights implications. Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, why have we not addressed the suffering of seriously injured victims who bear the burden of the consequences of the past in their daily lives? Why have we left seriously injured victims to suffer without adequate redress, compounding their harm as they get older and making them more vulnerable?
While criminal injuries compensation was paid out during the Troubles for serious injury and death during the Troubles it was generally deemed inadequate, exclusionary and biased. Victims were assess on their earning capacity, and that their likely lifespan would be 15-20 years, yet 40 years on many are struggling to provide for themselves. Many victims have their claims refused or reduced to a pitiful amount, some through adversarial court proceedings. Others accepted smaller settlements due to ongoing costs for adaptions to their house or to cover the costs of losing their job after being seriously injured.
Despite the gravity of the issue, the Stormont House Agreement fudges the pension issue saying that ‘further work will be undertaken to seek an acceptable way forward’. In research we conducted last year across Northern Ireland amongst different victim groups there was a strong sentiment that seriously injured victims living with severe disabilities felt like ‘beggars’. One victim noted that they were left to choose between spending the meagre support their receive on keeping their home warm in the winter and to ease their chronic pain or some physiotherapy to reduce spasms and pain in their legs. Others who received lump sums after being injured in the early 1970s and 1980s spent it on buying a house, but are left living on basic benefits. Many of these victims were attacked when they were children, on their way to work, or in their homes.
Last week reports of a 60% increase in paramilitary attacks in Northern Ireland over the past four years also highlight a hidden victim group in Northern Ireland who are often forgotten when talking about redress. Victims of paramilitary punishment attacks are often seen as ‘bad victims’. As they were somehow ‘deserving’ of receiving mutilation and disability through ‘kneecappings’ as paramilitary vigilante justice, because they were involved in ‘anti-social behaviour’. The compensation scheme during the Troubles often refused to provide compensation to these victims, as they did not cooperate with the police due to fear of intimidation. In our research we were also told of a victim who did receive a reduced amount of compensation, but was attacked again by the paramilitary group that had shot him and confiscated his award. Effectively in many cases the legal system marginalised these victims on the basis of them being targeted by paramilitaries, rather than providing them protection, and instead leaving them to suffer in silence and disability. Yet these attacks should be labelled as inhumane and degrading treatment and potentially torture a violation of Article 3. Victims of punishment attacks that left them severely injured should receive adequate support and redress as part of a human rights approach.
A human rights approach
The investigative obligations under Article 2 on the right to life have dominated the debate and proposals on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. However, there is emerging jurisprudence at the European Court of Human Rights on Article 3 (freedom from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and punishment) that could be applicable. In some cases the European Court has found that a failure to properly investigate an attack on an individual by private actors as a violation of the investigative obligation under Article 3, with the Court awarding €20,000 to the victim. The European Court has ruled that compensation for serious injuries is insufficient to redress the investigative obligation for Article 3 violations.
The European Court of Human Rights has recognised that intentional ill-treatment, such as serious suffering resulting in disability, requires adequate compensation. In the case of Kopylov v Russia, even though the claimant received €12,500 for his injuries, found this insufficient and awarded him a further €105,000. In our research last year we found similar stories from victims who had been part time reserves on short term contracts with the UDR, housewives or students who were on low incomes and thus received minimum amounts of compensation not fit to meet their needs in the long term.
Under human rights law reparations are intended to as far as possible wipe out the consequences of a wrongful act or violation. For victims seriously injured in bombing and shootings during the Troubles their suffering remains ongoing, the violation continues, as they have not had their suffered acknowledgement or adequately redressed. In November 2016 the UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non-Recurrence, Mr Pablo de Greiff called upon the Northern Ireland parties to provide a pension for seriously injured victims. He noted that the right to reparations for victims as the ‘area of least achievement’ in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. Importantly Mr de Greiff argues that reparations take a human rights approach which have a ‘socially integrative power’, highlighting the ‘overriding importance of rights’ and values, not moral mud-slinging of who is a deserving victim. Reparations are a right to victims of serious violations of human rights, no matter their background or who is the responsible actor (state or paramilitaries). The British and Irish government were also supporters and signatories of the 2005 UN Basic Principles on Reparations that has non-discrimination and human rights at its core, yet have failed to follow through on implementing this in Northern Ireland.
The First Victims’ Commission Sir Kenneth Bloomfield found the compensation scheme was fit for purpose for ordinary crimes in Great Britain, but struggled to do deliver redress to victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. A pension for injured victims is not intended to be a ‘top up’ for compensation awards, but rather reparations to acknowledge and alleviate their ongoing suffering. The campaign by WAVE for the pension as #recognitionforall reflects that injured victims have too long been forgotten by Northern Ireland society. Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, human rights should not be a dirty word, but a common language and values that we share as a society to prevent violations and ensure effective remedy when they occur. It is time to respond to the human rights of seriously injured victims to ensure that they have a dignified life and adequate redress.