The indefinite postponement of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the past provisions threatens the rule of law, says CAJ, Northern Ireland’s leading human rights NGO.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire announced the delay on the very day that the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers called for swift action to investigate the past. The European Court of Human Rights called for proper investigation into a range of Northern Ireland cases back in 2001. The Committee of Ministers, which is part of the Council of Europe (an entirely separate entity to the EU) and oversees the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights, on Monday issued a number of decisions which:
- Expressed concerns about the delay in establishing the independent Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) provided for under the Stormont House Agreement and called upon the UK authorities to take forward consultation, the legislation and establishment the HIU ‘without any further delay’
- Strongly urged the UK authorities as a matter of urgency to take all necessary measures to ensure the Legacy Inquests blueprint by the NI Lord Chief Justice is properly resourced and that it receives full cooperation from statutory agencies. [i]
CAJ is outraged that rather than commit to the discharge of the UK’s international legal obligations the Secretary of State yesterday, the very day the Council of Europe pressed the UK to establish the HIU ‘without any further delay’, instead announced a further and potentially indefinite delay to its establishment. The Secretary of State also introduced a pre-condition of ‘political consensus’ between NI parties for any further progress, essentially providing for a veto for those opposed to independent investigations.[ii] The refusal also follows a recent UN expert report which called for, among other matters, the implementation of the Lord Chief Justice’s legacy inquest blueprint. [iii]
CAJ also has serious concerns regarding the risks to local lawyers discharging their functions in conflict-related cases following last week’s press coverage in the Sun and Daily Mail, which coincided with the Committee of Ministers’ deliberations. Both papers referred to investigations into soldiers as ‘witch hunts’ and falsely portrayed the establishment of the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch (set up from January 2015) as a new development. The Mail juxtaposed its headline with a previous comment from the Prime Minister Theresa May stating she would never again let human rights lawyers ‘harass’ the military. A Sun article at the weekend named and produced photographs of NI lawyers working on conflict related cases. Given our history and circumstances we believe these actions place local lawyers at risk and have referred the matter under an urgent action procedure to the UN body responsible for the safety of defence lawyers.
In the Sun a spokesperson for the Secretary of State James Brokenshire states the UK government believes in the rule of law but then qualifies this belief with a ‘concern’ regarding investigations focusing on the police and military.
CAJ deputy director Daniel Holder stated:
“We have seen a range of attacks on the rule of law of late – whether it is the blockage over funding legacy inquests to prevent a whole area of the rule of law being applied, or the granting of a veto over the implementation of the Stormont House mechanisms.”
“We are equally concerned over the newspaper attacks conflating lawyers with their clients’ causes and the assault on Supreme Court judges in sections of the media regarding the BREXIT process case in which we are one of the parties.”
“The UK does not regard itself as an international outlaw and cannot pick and choose which of its obligations to implement; it needs to respect the rule of law in its entirety, including living up to its legal obligations to protect the independence of the judiciary and legal profession”
[i] The full statement can be read here: https://search.coe.int/cm/pages/result_details.aspx?objectid=09000016806c51c5
[iii] See the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Grief http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/TruthJusticeReparation/Pages/CountryVisits.aspx