What Biden Should Say in Belfast About Human Rights
By Brian Dooley
Belfast: President Joe Biden visits Belfast on Tuesday, 25 years and a day after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The Clinton administration’s role in helping to stop the large-scale violence of the conflict is seen as a rare recent United States foreign policy success, and Biden should make clear his administration won’t abandon the achievement.
But the agreement is in trouble from a British government increasingly reluctant to honor the human rights elements of the document, which was overwhelmingly endorsed in referenda in the north and south of Ireland in 1998.
Locals hope Biden will help protect the agreement, and he should meet and listen to local human rights activists here who are campaigning for justice for crimes committed during the conflict.
President Biden should speak out against legislation about to pass in the British Parliament which would end the possibility of prosecutions of British soldiers and others responsible for killings, torture, and other crimes during the conflict. The bill would also close down coroners’ inquests into killings and prevent families from discovering the truth of what happened to their loved ones.
I represent Human Rights First on a panel of international experts examining the issue of impunity for acts during the conflict, and activists here say Biden’s visit offers a chance for Washington to affirm its commitment to the peace deal, and to warn the British government against reneging on its promises.
I asked some local human rights activists and experts what they hope Biden will say publicly when he speaks here this week.
Paul O’Connor is director of the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry. The NGO provides advocacy support to families bereaved due to the political conflict on the island of Ireland. O’Connor said:
“President Biden should make clear that his administration does not expect the British government to push through legislation on legacy issues that falls short of London’s human rights obligations, legislation opposed by every major political party and NGO working on these issues in the north of Ireland.”
Natasha Butler has been campaigning for years for the truth to be made public about how her grandfather Paddy Butler and four other people in the Springhill/Westrock area of west Belfast were shot and killed by the British army one night in July 1972. Butler said:
“Joe Biden’s visit is a historic one, marking the 25th anniversary of the agreement that has delivered much peace on this island, and helped build a better future for my generation. Yet it is important to recognize the pain and trauma that still resonates for many legacy families who 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement are still dealing with wounds of the past that have not healed. Many families like mine are still fighting for truth and accountability for some of the most horrific atrocities faced in the north of Ireland. I hope Joe Biden’s first point of business is to oppose the British government’s shameful legacy bill, and call for its removal. The legislation will set us back generations, causing further trauma and suffering by pulling the shutters down on truth and accountability, and it will continue the cycle of abuse and trauma for legacy families, causing irreparable damage and preventing true peace and reconciliation.”
Professor Colin Harvey is Director of the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. He said:
“The human rights agenda in the Good Friday Agreement remains unfinished business. The British Government never enacted a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, even though evidence strongly suggests that people across all communities want to see it delivered. In addition, they are now threatening to repeal and replace the Human Rights Act 1998, as part of their broader assault on human rights. Hopefully, President Biden will remind the British Government of the values that underpin our peace process and the fundamental significance of human rights protections. The Agreement is about creating a better society for everyone and that is why the human rights promises remain essential.”
Human Rights First’s advocacy for human rights reform in Northern Ireland predates the agreement, and we support the struggles of the “legacy families” — those who had relatives killed during the conflict, are still looking for answers about the circumstances of the killings, and want some form of accountability for these crimes.
Twenty five years after the historic accords, President Biden’s visit to Belfast is an appropriate time for him to speak out against the legislation now in British Parliament that contravenes the human rights obligations of the U.K. and would derail the possibility of justice sought by so many Irish legacy families.