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What we focus on

Within Northern Ireland, policing, criminal justice, and public administration have undergone significant reform as a result of the peace process. However, constant vigilance is needed to ensure our institutions are carrying out their duties appropriately and remain fit for purpose. CAJ believes holding institutions to account for the actions they take is at the very core of establishing a fair and humane system, in which people can have trust and confidence. We engage actively with policing and maintain a ‘watching brief’ on other aspects of the criminal justice system, including prisons.

PSNI and policing oversight

Police reform and oversight has been an essential pillar of the NI peace process from the 1990s onwards. It has now been 20 years since the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and wider policing oversight arrangements were established following the Patten Report. The monitoring of policing is an important, ongoing commitment for human rights activists.

When necessary, CAJ draws attention to specific issues within policing. At present, we wish to see clearer accountability for covert policing and agent handling; better monitoring of the use of anti-terrorism powers, especially stop and search; better enforcement of laws against hate expression; improved relations with ethnic minorities (particularly given the discriminatory policing of the Black Lives Matter protests); and further efforts to rebalance the composition of the service. Alongside Amnesty International, Include Youth, and the Children’s Law Centre, we are campaigning for an end to the use of spit and bite guards by the PSNI. Recently, CAJ partnered with our sister organisation, ICCL, to hold two cross-border seminars on policing reform. The report from the first of these two events, PSNI@20, has been published.

CAJ supports the existence of the oversight structures provided by the Human Rights Advisor to the Policing Board, the Police Ombudsman, Prison Ombudsman, and Criminal Justice Inspection NI. CAJ believes the powers of the Office of the Police Ombudsman need to be strengthened to allow it to compel the production of information and to investigate past complaints previously processed by the RUC (the police force in NI from 1921 to 2001, replaced by the PSNI). Our submission to the five year review of the Police Ombudsman is available via this link.

A public inquiry following the pandemic

After the social and economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on those who are already vulnerable, the importance of a rights-based recovery is becoming ever clearer. As a first step, CAJ believes there must be a human rights compliant, NI-specific inquiry into the handling of the pandemic and we have publicly called for this with UNISON and Amnesty International. Given the high number of (possibly preventable) deaths, this inquiry should be compatible with the investigative obligations under the right to life provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Such an investigation must be independent, prompt, effective, and directly involve the families of those who died. We recently responded to the consultation on the terms of reference for the UK-wide inquiry.

International obligations

International treaty bodies are committees of independent experts established to monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties within states. They provide a way of holding states to account for human rights abuses and, specifically, the implementation of all the conventions they have ratified. CAJ makes detailed submissions to the main treaty bodies on UK / NI compliance with these treaties. We encourage wider civil society to also participate in this process. CAJ sends regular submissions to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and various UN treaty bodies, including the UN Human Rights Committee and UN Committee Against Torture. Although generally not justiciable in domestic courts, international obligations apply to all elements of the state – we work to ensure that public authorities take these responsibilities seriously.