International Expert Panel: State Impunity and the Northern Ireland conflict
Brian Dooley & Aoife Duffy
Since the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement which ended the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, the region has largely enjoyed progress and prosperity owing to the peace dividend. However, there has been no overarching transitional justice process to fulfil victims’ right to truth and right to justice, and there is a particular accountability gap with regards to killings and torture committed by state security services. Access to information, justice, and reparations has generally been sustained by campaigns energized by victims, families, and survivors – many of whom have encountered cruel and unnecessary delays and obstruction by the authorities in their quest for the truth.
Some commentators have described this as piecemeal transitional justice: playing out in a range of forums, from Coroner’s Inquests, to public inquiries, petitions to the European Court of Human Rights, judicial reviews (under the Human Rights Act 2001), Police Ombudsman investigations, and various historic investigatory bodies established under the auspices of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Now all of these avenues for legacy work to address violations that occurred during the Northern Ireland conflict are being closed down by current UK government proposals to introduce a wide-ranging amnesty in respect of these historic crimes.
Against this tide, human rights organizations – the Pat Finucane Centre and the Committee on the Administration of Justice – have established the International Expert Panel: State Impunity and the Northern Ireland Conflict. We are both honored to be members of this panel alongside experts from Argentina, Norway, and South Africa. In the coming months we will be investigating claims that a de facto system of state impunity for serious human rights abuses has existed since the beginning of the Northern Ireland conflict in 1969.
It should not be necessary for civil society to fill the truth recovery vacuum through this panel. The UK government ought to abide by its international and domestic obligations to investigate, prosecute, and punish human rights violations. The UK government made specific commitments to address these issues through a suite of measures that would meet transitional justice and human rights standards – the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. This multilateral agreement, negotiated with the Irish government and the main political parties of Northern Ireland, is being abandoned is favour of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, currently being rushed through the House of Commons, which runs roughshod over victims’ rights. This proposal to grant immunity to those accused of killings and other serious offences, the UK government’s attacks on lawyers working on cases of killings and torture during the conflict, and its revisionist view of the European Convention on Human Rights, show the British government is determined to stifle the truth and prevent justice.
Our panel of experts cannot deliver justice – as a non-judicial body we cannot compel people to testify, subpoena documents, or press charges. However, we can examine evidence, request interviews, and ask witnesses to appear at hearings to be convened in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere in the region over the coming months.
This is an international effort backed by formidable expertise. The Norwegian Centre for Human Rights has agreed to provide secretariat and research support for the panel. Our organisations – the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre and Human Rights First – will be providing additional research support. Human Rights First has developed technology that allows for electronic searching of digitized historic British government and military memos which have been recently declassified.
Joining us on the panel are human rights lawyers María José Guembe from Argentina and Yasmin Sooka from South Africa, Ivar Husby, former detective and Asst. Chief of Police, Head of Specialiced Post Graduate Studies Dept. at the Norwegian Police University College, and Gisle Kvaning, Director of multilateral cooperation and head of the UN Police (UNPOL) secretariat in the international department at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights, see panel members’ full bios here.
We bring different perspectives and an international focus to what has happened during the Northern Ireland conflict. It will provide a reminder of the international standards that families and survivors ought to expect, and what they are being denied. This mechanism may enable participants to tell their stories for the first time publicly, to describe what difficulties they have faced, and the successes they have achieved, in discovering past truths.
There is a huge amount of work ahead of us, but we aim to investigate with open minds, consult with stakeholders in good faith, and share our findings publicly early next year.