Forgetfulness of wrong: a tale of international battles for human rights

European Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic

Blog by RFJ Caseworker Irati Oleaga

Relatives For Justice (RFJ) is a human rights-based NGO offering holistic support services to victims and survivors of the conflict. Our work ranges from organising social activities and offering therapeutical programmes locally, to reporting and engaging with human rights bodies internationally, with all that’s in between. By doing so, we seek to heal but also empower and give voice to those who suffered the worst and most egregious violations of human rights during our conflict; we seek to give agency to the silenced, the harmed, the forgotten.

Because we do not forget, we bring the interests of victims and survivors to the various human rights bodies of the United Nations such as the Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) and the Human Rights Council on a regular basis, as well as to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe two to three times a year. From our offices in Belfast and Dungannon to Geneva, Strasbourg and New York, we do not forget.

Nevertheless, we are not extraordinary people; there is no indication of any natural collective amnesia in our societies. It seems, however, that certain actors are willing to impose one through the so-called Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill which, if passed, would bring a de facto amnesty. It is funny though, isn’t it? Almost a cruel quirk, the etymology of that word.

Amnesty comes from the Ancient Greek ἀμνηστία, amnestia, which means ‘forgetfulness’ with a specialized sense of “forgetfulness of wrong” or loss of memory in the face of wrongdoing. Indeed, the Bill is intended to impose an active exercise of amnesia when it comes to past human rights violations and, ultimately, the role British authorities played in our conflict. In the meantime, it seems the UK Government is already experiencing symptoms of memory loss such as the bona fide participation in supervisory processes within the international field of human rights.

The system of the United Nations (UN) offers a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It is a State-driven process under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. As part of that process, the UK Government have recently been under review by the UPR Working Group in Geneva. RFJ submitted a comprehensive report for consideration of the Working Group in March 2022 regarding legacy issues, and we are aware of at least another NGO having done so. The representatives of the Irish, Swiss and Belarusian Governments in the UNHRC also raised legacy matters in the review session in November. In particular, they raised concerns regarding the Bill. The delegation of the British Government, however, forgot to even acknowledge or mention legacy in their original report as well as during the interactive dialogue in Geneva. They forgot they have international legal obligations; they forgot, in the Ancient Greek way of amnestia, forgetfulness of wrong.

We do not forget, neither do the UPR Working Group. The draft report which they are currently working on contains three mentions of legacy (paragraphs 6.27, 6.106 and 6.112) with one clear message: scrap the Legacy Bill and implement the Stormont House Agreement. The final report is expected to be published by the UNHRC in the new year; British authorities have “reserved their position” until then.

Another highly critical international body in this matter is the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (the Committee), with which RFJ maintains a constant working relationship through our quarterly submissions. The last one can be read here. The UK Government is compelled to engage with the Committee in its continued monitoring of their obligations to respond to the findings of the European Court of Human Rights in the variety of cases from this jurisdiction, which are known as the ‘McKerr group of cases’ and include the case of Pat Finucane, among others. Since the first official announcement of the Government’s plans to ditch the Stormont House Agreement in favour of a de facto amnesty, however, the British Government has offered little to no clarifications as to the justification, methodology, and desired outcomes of its plans, even presenting contradictory submissions to the Committee. Following that trend of forgetfulness, the latest communication of the British authorities was a mere 3-paragraph letter empty of content, a great disappointment even by the poor standards and record of the UK Government in the matter.

Disappointments are not always surprising, though. The contempt of British authorities towards our realities is as old as the hills. We do not forget the reckless disregard in which British intelligence agencies handled informers in paramilitary groups, allowing them to commit or allow murder. We do not forget the policy of state impunity by which anyone murdered by the so-called security forces was branded as an armed threat and therefore their killing – including children’s – justified. London turned a blind eye to the potential risk for human rights violations and in favour of their own interests during the conflict, and it is turning a blind eye to the ongoing suffering of hundreds of victims and survivors now. That is where the importance of the international human rights field lies; without the international scrutiny, the UK Government’s own approach to dealing with its actions would be a self-proclaimed amnesia, thus undermining the rule of law and respect for international human rights.

After three days of deliberations, the Committee of Ministers is expected to publish a set of decisions today, which we expect to be hugely defined by concern around compliance of the Bill with the European Convention on Human Rights. In fact, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, shares the same concern. She has published a report today and gone even further when stated that “the UK Government should consider withdrawing the Legacy Bill in view of the widespread opposition in Northern Ireland and the serious issues of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights it raises”. We agree with the Commissioner.

For anyone in any doubt, this Bill would not contribute to peace-building or reconciliation if passed. The fact that the word ‘reconciliation’ is even part of the name of the Bill is beyond insulting. These words are merely cover for the UK Government using its sovereignty as a shield to prevent exposure of its criminal actions during the conflict. The Bill would prolong the suffering of generations of families, some of whom were not even born when the violations occurred, but whose whole lives have been framed by the pursuit of truth and justice.

In the face of a call for a collective amnesia, we will continue remembering. In the face of ongoing human rights violations, we will continue reporting them and giving voice to victims and survivors in international human rights bodies. Let’s not forget: the legal requirements are clear. The required mechanisms are agreed. Legally compliant implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and its mechanisms is the only option forward.