Calls for Solidarity as Attacks on Colin Harvey Intensify
By Brian Dooley
I warned back in January that social media attacks against prominent Northern Ireland human rights academic Professor Colin Harvey could escalate, and they have.
In recent weeks the attacks — which never went away — have intensified. This is of grave concern, as previous murders of leading legal human rights figures Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson were also preceded by vilification and smears.
There have been dozens of social media postings smearing Harvey, questioning his academic integrity, and challenging his political motives. Now-deleted tweets responded to a post from Harvey with “We used to behead traitors like this” and “we used to behead people like you.”
Harvey told Human Rights First “It is disappointing to watch this highly personalized campaign against me continue and intensify further. I am a Professor in the School of Law at Queen’s and Director of the Human Rights Centre. I have served as Head of the Law School and I am a former Commissioner on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.”
The attacks appear to be a reaction to Harvey’s prominent role in public discussions around the post-Brexit future of Ireland and possible reunification. He says, “I view active civic engagement as a central part of my role. Whether that is in working towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, defending the rights of refugees, or joining the conversation about constitutional change in Ireland post-Brexit. The work that I do is comfortably framed by the Good Friday Agreement, and existing guarantees and protections, so in some ways the intimidation is hard to understand.”
Harvey is being harassed and harried on social media virtually every time he says something, and often when he doesn’t. Much of the criticism also questions Harvey’s position as an academic at Queen’s University.
In recent weeks, senior figures in Unionist politics tried to make a fuss over the use of Queen’s University Belfast’s branding on some of Harvey’s research. The mini furor was accompanied by renewed smears against Harvey, but those hoping to ignite Logogate into a major scandal were disappointed when the university confirmed it had given permission for the branding to be used.
Those familiar with the political context know that vilification can be a prelude to something else. Allies often use the phrase “We know where this can lead,” and local police have urged people to “calm the rhetoric.”
Harvey says, “In a volatile environment, where loyalist armed groups are openly questioning their ceasefires, it is all deeply disturbing. I would urge those engaged in this appalling and coordinated campaign to stop and consider the potential consequences of their words and deeds. We all should know where this repetitive and sustained vilification can end here. It only takes one misguided person to believe it, and think they’ll be regarded as a ‘communal hero’ for mounting a physical attack against me. Things are, in my view, that serious here.”
Since January, Harvey has also received a huge amount of solidarity from international and local supporters.
In March, four independent UN experts raised the issue of Harvey’s safety with the British government, citing “An ongoing smear campaign against human rights lawyer Colin Harvey [that] threatens academic freedom in Northern Ireland and has the potential to spark physical violence.” The British government’s response noted “a worrying rise in the amount of online abuse, harassment and intimidation directed at those in public life.”
In this case, Harvey says the solidarity matters. “I am heartened by the many, many expressions of solidarity and support. I want to thank everyone standing with me at this difficult and challenging time. In this moment, I will be thinking about brave human rights defenders everywhere and the pressing need to reaffirm our collective global commitment, once again, to a strong culture of respect for human rights.”
The issue for all of us seeking to support and protect human rights defenders across the world is how best to do that.
Handwringing or tut-tutting in private about what’s happening doesn’t help much. Post your solidarity with Colin Harvey on social media. Show him, and those attacking him, that he’s not alone. He’s at @cjhumanrights and further information about him can be found here.