Human Rights Developments
Continuing disagreement over disarming paramilitary groups stalled implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and threatened to impede progress on the agreement's human rights provisions. Peter Mandelson replaced Marjorie Mowlam as secretary of state for Northern Ireland in October, causing concern in the human rights community that there would be a setback in the human rights progress made during Mowlam's tenure.
Continuing police abuse and the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were the most significant human rights issues in Northern Ireland in 1999. The Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (Policing Commission) issued its report on police reform in September despite the political impasse but failed to address several key human rights concerns. Fresh allegations of collusion in the 1989 murder of Belfast lawyer Patrick Finucane and concerns about the investigation into the March 1999 murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson led to renewed efforts to press the government to respond to persistent police intimidation of defense lawyers, an issue ignored in the Policing Commission's report. The director of public prosecutions' (DPP) failure to call for prosecutions in two controversial police abuse cases exacerbated the lack of public confidence in the criminal justice system, underscored the need for police accountability, and raised serious concerns about the prosecutor's independence. Nationalist demonstrators charged the RUC with the excessive use of physical force when protesters were brutally removed while blocking a road during the annual marching season.
In September, the Policing Commission-established by the Good Friday Agreement and chaired by current European Union Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten-released its report on police reform. The report called for "a human rights-based approach" to policing and recommended renaming the force the "Northern Ireland Police Service"; a new oath, including a pledge to uphold fundamental human rights; new codes of ethics and practice based on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); human rights training for officers; establishment of a civilian oversight police board; and the creation of a new complaints system based on a previous report recommending an independent police ombudsman.
The report called on members of the Catholic and nationalist communities-long disaffected from the RUC due to the force's record of persistent human rights violations-to join the force but did not lay the groundwork for building confidence in a "new" policing service primarily because it failed to recommend a screening process to keep abusive officers from continuing to serve on the force. For example, the commission recommended closing the notorious "holding centers"-specially designated detention facilities for political suspects-but did not require that detectives who operated within those centers be held accountable for egregious, well-documented physical and psychological abuse of detainees over the last three decades. The report also failed to address the past misconduct of the RUC Special Branch, the unit responsible for dealing with political violence. Credible allegations of Special Branch collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane have fueled urgent calls for the British government to establish an independent judicial inquiry into the killing. The commission also failed to recommend the repeal of emergency laws that have provided cover for the abusive practices of the RUC, to ban the use of potentially lethal plastic bullets, and to recommend measures to combat the well-documented systematic intimidation of defense lawyers by RUC officers.
In February 1999, British Irish Rights Watch submitted a confidential report to the British government containing new evidence of collusion between the RUC and the loyalist paramilitaries who murdered defense lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989. In April, John Stevens,deputy commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, was enlisted to reopen the Finucane murder investigation. In June, the Stevens team arrested William Stobie and charged him with Finucane's murder. Stobie subsequently claimed in court that he was an informer for the Special Branch at the time of the murder-he told the police on two occasions that a person was to be shot and the whereabouts of the murder weapons after the killing-but the police failed to take action. A June 27 Sunday Tribune article alleged that Stobie was charged with arms possession in 1991 but threatened the DPP that he would expose publicly RUC complicity in the Finucane murder if prosecuted. The DPP subsequently offered no evidence against Stobie and he was found "not guilty" of the charges.
The author of the Sunday Tribune article, Ed Moloney, was served with a court order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in July requiring him to surrender notes from 1990 interviews with Stobie, upon which the June 1999 article was based. Human rights organizations protested the order arguing that it could result in a "chilling effect" on reporting on governmental accountability and that coercing journalists who explored collusion-while shielding the police from a full judicial inquiry into the Finucane murder-contributed to the perception that the government had something to hide.
Moloney challenged the court order at an August hearing during which it was revealed that Stobie was actually arrested in 1990 for questioning in the Finucane murder. A member of the Stevens team testified that Stobie admitted to the police then that he was the quartermaster for the paramilitary group responsible for the murder and a police informer at the time, and that he had supplied the murder weapons and led the police to them after the killing. Stobie thus admitted to the police in 1990 the role that was alleged in the indictment against him in 1999. This account contrasts sharply with a prior statement by the DPP that during questioning in 1990, Stobie denied involvement in the murder. Stobie was granted bail on October 5, 1999. At the time of this writing, a decision on Ed Moloney's challenge to the court order requiring him to surrender his notes is pending.
The DPP came in for heavy criticism in early August when he decided not to prosecute criminally several police officers involved in the 1994 assault on David Adams, then a detainee at Castlereagh Holding Centre. In 1998, the Belfast High Court awarded Adams U.S. $50,000 in a civil action after finding that RUC officers lied under oath about their involvement in the assault on Adams. The court held that "all the principle injuries suffered by the plaintiff were the result of assaults by police officers and ...were not occasioned or contributed to by resistance on [Adams'] part." Human rights organizations urgently called for the DPP to offer a public explanation of the decision not to prosecute the officers for what appeared to amount to torture.
In another case of alleged police misconduct, the DPP decided on September 30 not to prosecute the officers present at the brutal assault on Robert Hamill, a Catholic man attacked by a mob of loyalists in Portadown in April 1997. Hamill subsequently died from serious head trauma. The Hamill family and witnesses to the attack alleged that the officers sat in a police vehicle twenty feet from the scene and failed to assist Hamill. The family is considering a private prosecution. The RUC commenced an internal investigation into the killing to determine whether disciplinary charges should be leveled against the officers.
Protesters demonstrating against an Apprentice Boys march on Belfast's Lower Ormeau Road on August 14, 1999, alleged that they were brutally removed from the road by police. The following week, the RUC raided homes on the road and arrested community leaders and others involved in the protests. Gerard Rice, spokesperson for the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community, was detained and charged with incitement to violence, reportedly for chanting civil rights slogans during the demonstration.
Defending Human Rights
On March 15, human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was killed in a car bomb attack near her home in Lurgan. A loyalist paramilitary group called the Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility for the murder. Nelson represented clients detained under the emergency laws and was one of Northern Ireland's most prominent human rights defenders.
In recent years, Nelson had become the target of a campaign of harassment by the RUC. In September 1998, she testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights that RUC officers had threatened her personal safety and leveled death threats against her through warnings made directly to her clients. Nelson complained to the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC). The results of the ICPC's initial investigation were made public on March 22-one week after the murder-and concluded that RUC officers interviewed by the ICPC were hostile and evasive, and that "the behaviour and attitudes displayed by police officers in the course of interviews was such as to be seriously damaging to the credibility of the investigation itself." In response, the RUC chief constable appointed an English police investigator to review the original RUC investigation. Predictably, he found the investigation "adequate." Subsequently, a commentary by the chairman of the ICPC was leaked to the press in which he complained about a seriously negative attitudinal approach by RUC officers "possibly tolerated by the organisation" and severely criticized the police complaints system for practices that favor RUC officers and could be perceived as the "outrageous, systematic undermining of the investigative process."
Given abundant evidence of RUC antipathy toward Rosemary Nelson, human rights groups called for an independent investigation of her killing free of RUC involvement. The RUC chief constable appointed Colin Port, deputy chief constable of Norfolk constabulary, to conduct the investigation but Port maintained that RUC involvement was critical to the success of the investigation. Public confidence in the investigation has been severely undermined by the RUC's involvement.
The Role of the International Community
In November 1998, the U.N. Committee Against Torture (CAT) expressed concern over the continuation of emergency laws in Northern Ireland; recommended the closure of detention centers for political suspects; called for a ban on plastic bullets; and urged the "reconstruction" of the RUC in conformity with the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.
In his January 1999 report, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Param Cumaraswamy emphasized the ongoing intimidation of defense lawyers in Northern Ireland. The report alleged that the RUC exhibited "complete indifference" to crediblereports by nongovernmental organizations of lawyer intimidation and that the chief constable had "allowed the situation to deteriorate." The special rapporteur called again for an independent inquiry into Patrick Finucane's murder.
The special rapporteur's assessment of steady deterioration in the situation of defense lawyers was proven correct by the murder of lawyer Rosemary Nelson. In oral comments to the Human Rights Commission in April, Cumaraswamy stated that he raised the issue of Nelson's personal security and the threats on her life in communications to the U.K. government. He expressed hope that RUC involvement in the Nelson murder investigation "would not affect or taint the impartiality and credibility of the investigation" given the fact that Nelson had lodged complaints against RUC officers and she expressed no confidence in the RUC investigatory mechanism.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson spoke at a memorial service for Nelson held during the April 1999 Commission on Human Rights session.
In a January 20, 1999, letter to the newly established Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Council of Europe Secretary General Daniel Tarschys underscored the centrality of human rights protection to the Northern Ireland peace process. On March 16, 1999, Tarschys expressed "deep sadness" at Rosemary Nelson's killing and supported the call for an "independent and transparent" investigation into her murder.
The European Parliament passed a resolution on April 15, 1999, condemning the murder of Rosemary Nelson and calling for an independent police investigation of the murder, free of RUC participation.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution in March condemning Rosemary Nelson's killing, calling for a murder investigation "totally independent" of the RUC, and renewing its call for an independent judicial inquiry into Patrick Finucane's murder.
The U.S. House Committee on International Relations held a hearing on policing in Northern Ireland on April 22. Victims of human rights violations and representatives of human rights organizations gave testimony regarding RUC abuses. The record of the hearing was submitted to the Policing Commission in July.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted in July to stop funding RUC training and exchange programs in the U.S. as part of the American Embassy Security Act of 1999. The act required the U.S. secretary of state to "take all appropriate steps" to ensure that RUC members do not participate in any educational or exchange programs unless the president certifies that independent investigations into the murders of defense attorneys Rosemary Nelson and Patrick Finucane have been initiated by the U.K. government.
In September, the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights held an open meeting focusing on the Policing Commission report. Commission chairperson, Chris Patten, testified. Members of the committee expressed concern over the absence in the report of an accountability mechanism for past human rights abuses by the RUC and the report's failure to call for the repeal of emergency legislation and a ban on plastic bullets.
The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 was disturbingly lacking in criticism of the U.K. government and contained several critical errors both of fact and interpretation. Instead of casting him as a defense lawyer or human rights lawyer for political suspects, the report described Patrick Finucane as "counsel to many IRA suspects" thus associating him with the views of his clients. The report also failed to report that in late 1998 the U.N. Committee Against Torture called for a ban on plastic bullet use and for the closure of Castlereagh Holding Centre. The report frequently recorded the U.K. government's justifications for dubious measures to address political violence without including any counter-arguments.