Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Irish Rights Watch


  British Irish Rights Watch is an independent non-governmental organisation that monitors the human rights dimension of the conflict and the peace process in Northern Ireland. Our services are available to anyone whose human rights have been affected by the conflict, regardless of religious, political or community affiliation, and we take no position on the eventual constitutional outcome of the peace process. In light of this remit, we take a close interest in existing and potential mechanisms to address the numerous human rights violations that were committed during the conflict and to ensure their non-repetition.

  The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has specified that it will be examining, in particular:

    The experience of efforts in other jurisdictions to move forward from a history of division and conflict, on a basis as widely acceptable as possible to affected communities and individuals who have suffered from violence.

  Given our limited remit, British Irish Rights Watch does not have direct experience of other jurisdictions and the various mechanisms that have been established to deal with conflict and human rights abuses around the world. We therefore wish to focus our short submission to the Committee on the situation in Northern Ireland itself and on the need, as expressed by the Committee, to ensure that whatever processes are put in place they are "widely acceptable" to Northern Ireland's communities. Indeed, it is our view that without broad political and public acceptance and support, any mechanism established to examine Northern Ireland's troubled past will be doomed to failure.

  Much has been written in recent years on the relatively new concept of "transitional justice" and the range of options that can be pursued to establish "truth" or achieve "reconciliation" among divided communities in post-conflict situations. In the academic and NGO literature, experts have argued over whether there can be an agreed upon "truth" in such situations, or whether reconciliation can be generalised or promoted through particular strategies. Without entering into such broad debates, British Irish Rights Watch here would like to emphasise the importance of "truth" in Northern Ireland at a simple and individual level, alongside the need for acceptance of responsibility. In addition, we would caution against an overemphasis on the details of what has been created elsewhere. The broad lesson from the ever-growing number of mechanisms that have sought truth, justice or reconciliation around the world must be that each situation needs to be examined closely in its own individual context, taking into account the needs and views of its own communities and the realities on the ground.


  For many years, we have been working closely with individuals and families in Northern Ireland who have been directly affected by the conflict, through loss of or serious injury to a loved one, threats or violence directed at themselves, or by way of injustice at the hands of state institutions. The overwhelming concern of all of these people is to know exactly what happened to them or their family members, and how it came about. In many cases, little is learned from inquests, and police investigations have been inadequate or mired in cover-up and collusion. Each of these cases deserved, and continues to deserve better.

  However, these cases also starkly illustrate a major factor inhibiting any effective examination of the past and attempts to move forward towards some kind of reconciliation in Northern Ireland: the continuing lack of will among the parties—including the state, the paramilitary groups and the political parties—to acknowledge their own responsibility for wrong-doing. Unless there is a fundamental shift in this attitude, the attempts of individuals and families to establish the truth in their cases will remain fruitless.

  A particularly damaging and distressing form of this culture of denying responsibility is the ongoing effort to cover-up systematic collusion between the security forces and paramilitary groups. Without a full examination of all allegations of collusion, publicly exposing the extent of involvement of the intelligence agencies in paramilitary activity, sanctioned by successive governments, public confidence in the institutions of the state will remain low. Any truth-seeking mechanism established by the state will similarly lack public confidence, unless the government demonstrates its willingness to get to the root of collusion in Northern Ireland and acknowledge its responsibility.

  In addition to knowing the truth, those who we work with in Northern Ireland demand accountability. Holding someone accountable for their actions can be a form of acknowledgement of wrong-doing, so long as there is no attempt to find scape-goats. Similarly, creating accountability goes a long way towards ensuring non-repetition of wrongful action and can prevent others from seeking alternative forms of revenge that lead to a continuing cycle of violence.

  Since our creation in 1992, British Irish Rights Watch has worked to ensure greater accountability on the part of all those who committed human rights abuses during the conflict and who hinder the peace process by continuing and perpetuating such abuses. We welcome all initiatives that contribute to achieving greater accountability, but we remain to be convinced that the current situation in Northern Ireland is conducive to a generalised process seeking truth and some agreed upon concept of reconciliation. Until all parties involved are ready to accept responsibility for their actions and recognise that those actions constituted serious human rights violations in many cases, it will be extremely difficult to establish the truth and even more difficult for the individuals and communities affected by the conflict to get over their divisions and move forward together.

3 December 2004

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