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Northern Ireland

The April 1998 Multi-Party Agreement, confirmed by a clear majority in a public referendum on May 20, established new political arrangements for Northern Ireland and dominated the news throughout the year. The agreement, steered to completion by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as peace talks chairman, confirmed the principle of consent, requiring that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland must be agreed upon by a majority of its people. It provides for a Northern Ireland Assembly, cross-border bodies between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and—at the urging of human rights groups—a series of initiatives aimed at the enhanced protection of human rights. The agreement appeared to have survived the worst act of political violence in the history of “the Troubles”—a car bomb explosion on August 15, 1998, claimed by republican paramilitary dissidents belonging to the “Real IRA,” which killed twenty-nine people in Omagh. In the wake of the bombing, public revulsion evolved into a united resolve to ensure that the historic agreement survived. On October 16, 1998, John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party and long time civil rights campaigner, and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, were awarded the Noble Peace Prize for their efforts to advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Although the agreement’s human rights provisions are strong, the initial implementation phase proved disappointing as the U.K. government consistently failed to translate the provisions into practical and effective human rights protections. Moreover, rights groups criticized the government for failing to bring the U.K. into compliance with existing international obligations in areas not directly addressed in the agreement. The continuation of draconian emergency laws, strengthened in response to the Omagh bombing; intimidation of defense lawyers; allegations of security force collusion in loyalist paramilitary murders; routine police abuse; and the indiscriminate use of plastic bullets remained serious human rights concerns.

Despite the agreement’s commitment to “normalize” security arrangements, the U.K. government immediately moved to strengthen existing emergency laws in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing. On September 3, 1998, parliament passed new laws relaxing the rules of evidence to facilitate convictions for membership in illegal organizations. The new laws require the testimony of a senior police officer, claiming that a suspect is a member of a proscribed organization, as the basis for prosecution. Inferences of guilt can be drawn from a suspect’s silence in the face of questioning about potential membership or refusal to cooperate with “any relevant inquiry.” Such inferences can be used to corroborate the police’s opinion that a suspect is a member. The new laws abrogate the right to remain silent, undermine the prohibition against self-incrimination, and run contrary to the presumption of innocence by unacceptably shifting the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused. Bestowing the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland’s police force, with such extraordinary powers in the face of longstanding allegations of human rights violations committed by the police under cover of the emergency laws belies the U.K. government’s stated commitment to change fundamentally Northern Ireland’s policing and security arrangements.

Although the agreement reflects a basic understanding that human rights are an essential component of any just and lasting peace, other early indicators pointed to a lack of commitment by the U.K. government to translate words into action. The agreement provides for the establishment of a human rights commission, an essential building block in the creation of a human rights culture in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the draft legislation establishing the commission fell far short of ensuring that it is an effective institutional mechanism for the protection of human rights. Despite the agreement calling for a commission “independent of government,” commissioners will be appointed by the secretary of state. Moreover, the draft legislation does not provide the commission with any powers of investigation. The inability to investigate individual cases and patterns of human rights violations will profoundly compromise the commission’s authority and undermine the crucial role it can play as an independent accountability mechanism. In July 1998, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson wrote the U.K. government urging it to provide the commission with the necessary investigatory powers.

Human rights provisions in the agreement also provide for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); a bill of rights augmenting the ECHR with relevant minority, economic, social, and cultural rights; enhanced protections for language rights; a review of the criminal justice system; and the establishment of a commission to monitor anti-discrimination legislation. Noticeably absent is language regarding much-needed judicial reform.

The most significant human rights issue addressed by the agreement is Northern Ireland’s longstanding problems with policing, exemplified by a police force plagued by serious allegations of human rights abuses. The agreement established the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, chaired by former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, whose remit is to ensure that future policing arrangements result in a policing service that is “professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, [and] free from partisan control; accountable, . . . and operat[ing] within a coherent and co-operative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms.” Areas for the commission’s review include composition (the RUC is 93 percent Protestant and 11 percent female), recruitment, training, culture, and accountability. Significantly, the agreement states that the commission should “consult widely. . .with non-governmental expert organizations.” Deep concern has emerged that the commission will focus solely on the managerial dimensions of “downsizing” and “diversifying” the force in anticipation of creating a “peacetime” policing service, instead of emphasizing accountability for human rights violations by the RUC and the creation of effective accountability mechanisms for the future. The commission is expected to present its findings and recommendations by the summer of 1999.

Human Rights Watch has urged the U.K. government to take action on a number of immediate human rights concerns that cannot and should not be required to await the final report of the policing commission. The government’s embarrassingly inadequate response to a United Nations report condemning police intimidation of defense lawyers ( see section on United Nations), continuing allegations of police abuse under Northern Ireland’s emergency laws, and the excessive use of force by RUC officers during the 1998 marching season are emblematic of longstanding policing problems rooted in an implicit government policy of impunity.

In a rare judicial comment on police abuse, the Northern Ireland High Court awarded David Adams £30,000 (U.S. $50,100) on February 2, 1998, after finding that RUC officers lied about their involvement in a series of brutal assaults upon Mr. Adams following his arrest under the emergency laws in February 1994. Adams’ injuries included broken ribs, a punctured lung, a serious head wound, and a broken leg—the result of officers taking running kicks at him during his detention. An independent investigation into police involvement in the assaults is underway.

None of the police officers on duty the night of Robert Hamill’s murder have been subject to disciplinary action or charged in the killing of the Portadown Catholic man. Hamill died on May 8, 1997, after a brutal attack by a crowd of Portadown loyalists on April 27, 1997. The RUC acknowledged that a land rover with four officers in it was stationed twenty feet from the spot where the beating took place. The RUC was accused of gross negligence for failing to come to Hamill’s aid. Despite eyewitness testimony concerning the proximity of the police vehicle to the beating scene and the improbability that officers inside could have remained unaware of the attack, no action had been taken against the officers as of this writing. On April 22, 1998, one of six men arrested was remanded into custody to await trial for the attack; five others were released.

Human Rights Watch observers in Northern Ireland to monitor security force operations during the July 1998 marching season reported that RUC officers fired plastic bullets indiscriminately and in violation of RUC guidelines. On July 5, 1998, the Protestant Orange Order and its loyalist supporters commenced a standoff against the security forces at Drumcree Church in Portadown after a Parades Commission ruling that rerouted the order’s parade away from the predominantly Catholic Garvaghy Road. Orangemen and loyalist supporters massed around the church for seven days. Loyalists breached the security cordon erected around the area and were targeted with plastic bullets by police and British troops stationed opposite a barbed wire barrier, although it appeared that no threat to life or of serious injury to security force personnel existed. The high number of head and upper body injuries indicated that plastic bullets were fired in violation of RUC guidelines that require officers to target people below the waist. One woman lost the sight in her right eye and a man required brain surgery as a result of plastic bullet wounds.

On July 12, 1998, three young boys died in Ballymoney in a sectarian arson attack perpetrated by loyalists. This tragic event, coupled with a police operation on the Drumcree site July 15-17, 1998—which revealed a small cache of explosives and arms and resulted in arrests of dissident loyalists—effectively ended the standoff. A small group of Orangemen have been permitted to carry on a symbolic protest. Loyalist supporters of the Orangemen continued to riot in Portadown. On October 6, 1998, a police officer died from injuries suffered on September 5, 1998, when he was wounded by grenades and petrol bombs thrown by a crowd of loyalist rioters.

Cease-fires called by the major paramilitary groups were broken intermittently throughout 1998 but the political wings of the major paramilitary organizations survived to participate in finalizing the Multi-Party Agreement. Dissident republican paramilitary groups opposing the agreement executed a number of bombings in the aftermath of the referendum, culminating with the car bomb explosion on August 15, 1998, in the town of Omagh (near the Irish border) that killed twenty-nine people and injured hundreds, both Catholic and Protestant. The “Real IRA”—based in the Republic—claimed responsibility for the bombing and subsequently publicly apologized for the loss of “civilian” life. In the face of public outrage across Ireland and in the U.K., the “Real IRA” announced the complete cessation of all military activity on September 7, 1998. As of this writing, cease-fires called by the major republican and loyalist paramilitary organizations, as well as cease-fires called by most of the dissident groups, remained intact.

On January 29, 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the establishment of a new inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday—January 30, 1972—when British paratroopers in Derry fired on civil rights marchers killing thirteen people. Blair repudiated the findings of the original Widgery Tribunal which was plagued by allegations that its findings of impunity for the British soldiers involved were politically influenced. Blair also noted that recently recovered evidence deserved a fair and impartial adjudication. The families of the victims cautiously welcomed the new inquiry. Relations between the tribunal and the families have been strained by questions regarding possible immunity from prosecution for anyone giving evidence and problems with the level of legal counsel requested by the families. Substantive hearings begin in February 1999.

On March 9, 1998, Roisin McAliskey was released from custody after U.K. Home Secretary Jack Straw declared her medically unfit and announced that it would be “cruel and inhuman” to extradite McAliskey to Germany. McAliskey was pregnant when arrested in November 1996 for alleged complicity in an IRA bombing in Germany. She was ill throughout her detention and gave birth while on bail in the hospital. Human rights campaigners criticized the quality of Germany’s evidence against McAliskey and questioned the motives of British security forces and prison officials in her arrest and ill-treatment in detention.





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