Memorandum submitted by the British Irish
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 partiesincluding
the state, the paramilitary groups and the political partiesto
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
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