The election of the new Labour government has raised hopes of renewed impetus in the search for peace in Northern Ireland.
Human rights activists have long argued that issues of justice and equality must be at the heart of any political settlement in Northern Ireland, as they were at the genesis of the conflict. Indeed, this belief was reiterated recently on International Human Rights Day when the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Liberty, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties and the British Irish Rights Watch issued the Human Rights Challenge.
This called for the human rights agenda to take centre stage in the development of a peaceful future in Northern Ireland. The challenge identified a number of issues which needed action. Many have a direct basis in international law, either in the jurisprudence of the European Court and Commission for Human Rights, or in the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture.
Mo Mowlam, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has already indicated her intention to address some of the issues outlined in the challenge. The Government has said it will incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into the domestic law of the UK. While a welcome step, other constitutional action is required, for example, the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the outstanding protocols to the European Court of Human rights. Ratification of the Optional Protocol would allow individuals to lodge complaints with the Human Rights Committee and add to the protection of human rights within Northern Ireland.
Human rights protection will require more than constitutional entrenchment. Changes will have to be made on the ground and quickly. The closure of Castlereagh detention centre was called for by the UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture.
A visiting delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture concluded that those detained there were at significant risk of psychological, and occasionally physical, ill-treatment. Such detention centres should be closed immediately.
Short of that, video and audio recording of all police interviews under the emergency powers should begin. This will protect both those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and police officers involved in their interrogation.
It would be equally encouraging to see the incoming Northern Ireland team begin to refuse to sign extensions to detentions under the Act beyond the time limit laid down in Brogan by the European Court of Human Rights – four days – and withdraw the subsequent derogation from the convention. This will end the situation where the UK is in the sole company of Turkey in derogating from the convention. The Murray decision should also be complied with by allowing solicitors access to interviews with their clients arrested under the Act.
Given the events of the summer of 1996 a fundamental review of policing is clearly required. It appears that Mowlam has recognised the need for reform of the RUC, something which has become particularly acute since her arrival in Northern Ireland, amidst allegations that members of the force failed to intervene as a Protestant mob beat a young Catholic father to death. One step which could immediately be taken is to announce, in accordance with Labour Party policy and the practice in the rest of the UK, the withdrawal of plastic bullets from use. This may assist in avoiding some of the disturbances witnessed last summer.
Additionally, some mechanism needs to be found to deal with the legacy of the past. The establishment of a new public inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday is a priority, as is the need to transfer permanently all prisoners seeking repatriation to Ireland, north or south. This will remove the intolerable burden suffered by the families of those imprisoned.
Human rights are the property of all. Everyone in Northern Ireland shares an interest in, for example, an accountable police service, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination. Obviously there will be radically different notions of how these interests can be met but they are shared interests all the same. Those interests that can be mutually accommodated should be; they need not await a political resolution.
Indeed, the resolution of the political tensions that arise from the abuse of human rights will ease the search for an overall settlement. In the welcome event of a renewed IRA cease-fire many of the problems which arose in the course of the 1994 ceasefire may recur. To ensure that those problems do not undermine the process, some mechanism needs to be found to integrate human rights issues into the political framework. Such an approach would ensure that if the political process encounters difficulties, the rights agenda should continue to provide tangible evidence that real change is underway.
Human rights should not be presented as concessions to nationalists or as bargaining chips in the wider political process. They are instead absolute prerequisites for a lasting peace.
It is essential that some mechanism is established to ensure that human rights are at the centre of the ongoing attempts to secure a just and lasting peace.