Thursday, 9 July 2009

Eames Bradley versus U.N. Rule of Law

The publication of the report and recommendations of the Consultative Group on the past and the announcement by the Northern Ireland Office of a consultation on those recommendations has placed the issue of how we deal with the legacy of the conflict very firmly on the agenda.
The Eames-Bradley report did cause controversy with some of its recommendations, but it more importantly created widespread public debate and discussion after a number of years of relative quiet on how to move forward together as a community.

In our discussions with victims and survivors, what we have learned is that there is consensus that the legacy of the conflict must be dealt with to allow people to address their needs, whether those needs be acknowledgement, truth, information recovery, justice or accessing services appropriate to their needs. Whilst the recommendations themselves will be agreed, disagreed, deconstructed and rebuilt, what is fundamentally important is that the publication of the report in of itself represents the only opportunity we are likely to have in this generation to begin a process of restoration and healing.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has published a suite of documents entitled “Rule-of-law Tools for Post-Conflict States,” which draws upon experiences in other countries and communities emerging from conflict and examines international good practice in the areas of addressing its legacy, developing transitional justice processes and partnership between government and non-governmental organisations.

In order to inform public debate and to encourage those who wish to contribute to the consultation process to do so, we now provide this simple side-by-side comparison of the CGP recommendations and UN best practice guidelines. This is a brief document designed to act as a primer which will facilitate further debate and discussion and perhaps encourage further reading. A full bibliography of source material is also included. Please pass this along to anyone you feel appropriate. Copies of the document can also be downloaded from

In doing so, the Commission does not advocate that all of these international approaches are correct, nor that they would necessarily work in the Northern Ireland context, but they do provide an international benchmark. We believe it is important that we learn from the experiences of other communities in transition as we strive to build and secure peace in our own community.

The NIO consultation process will close on 2 October 2009. Copies of the consultation paper can be obtained from and I would encourage you to contribute your response.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Paving the way for a more cohesive way forward

For the past year, the Commission has been subject of judicial review proceedings regarding the appointment of Commissioners. That process has now concluded and our appointments have been upheld.

The Commission welcomes the result of the Judicial Review, but all four Commissioners also wish to be clear that they regret anyone felt it was necessary to seek such a review of their appointments, especially if it reflects an impression that there is no-one in the Commission to represent their interests.

We hope now that those who supported the judicial review will give us the opportunity to prove we are there for them, and to deliver on the commitment we made on the day our appointments were announced, on the 28th of January 2008, when we said:

“For our part, we acknowledge each other’s commitment to victims and survivors and after our initial meeting, we emphasise none of us intends to limit our involvement to any group or sector or geographical area.”

Since then, some 300 victims and survivors have approached us, seeking our help and advocacy. That door remains open to every victim and survivor of our conflict.

As we prepare for a new way of doing business, based upon the Commission, the Forum and a new Victims’ Service, we hope this ruling paves the way for a more cohesive way forward.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Storytelling not a substitute for robust process

Malachi O’Doherty’s Comment piece in today's Belfast Telegraph examines the NIO’s consultation on the Eames-Bradley recommendations and makes a number of comments regarding that process and indeed this Commission’s role within the proposed Legacy Commission.

The Commission for Victims and Survivors are strong advocates for the development of a Living History programme which will record the stories of the conflict and make them publicly accessible. Fundamental to the creation of that resource is not just storytelling but story hearing. We believe that the facilitative dialogue processes we, and the other organisations we have worked with to develop this programme proposal, have developed are different and will encourage others to listen. In that act of listening, we believe perceptions and viewpoints will be challenged.

We acknowledge that many people have told their stories through the media over the years and that many do not want to speak. Our aim is to bring together the stories of those who wish to speak into a central archive for the first time, to create a counter-narrative of the history of the conflict and not merely affirm the contemporaneous accounts of it. By its very definition, those narratives will be self-selecting and will allow many who may not have had the opportunity to speak, for example those who were injured or were members of the fire and ambulance services, the chance to do so.

Mr. O’Doherty’s assertion, however, that “a massive archive of stories is one alternative to a Commission of enquiry such as Eames and Bradley envisaged” cannot be left unchallenged. Storytelling and story hearing have a place to play in building peace by creating understanding and opportunities for dialogue in a society where contested history is at issue. They do not, nor should they ever, form an alternative to a robust process which holds accountable those responsible for wrong-doing, whatever “side” of the community they may be from. We as a Commission would oppose any such position being taken.

We encourage the community to contribute to the NIO consultation on the Consultative Group recommendations and we ourselves will be continuing a process of dialogue on the matter internally and externally over the coming weeks.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The silence of our friends

Doudou Diene is UN former Special Rapporteur on slavery and human trafficking. He is Senegalese, French is his first language, and therefore the tone and inflection of his speech in English has a certain lyricism and rhythm that engender active listening.

The atrium of Memphis City Hall has a three storey-high railing that resembles prison bars of the old-style slide-shut American Movie kind. The setting seemed apt for him to recount the stories of slaves.

Memphis is home to the National Civil Rights Museum, housed at the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. martin Luther King Jr. It is the venue for the International Coalition of sites of Conscience conference, drawing together museums and human rights organisations from throughout the world committed to not only the preservation of memory, but to ensuring that those memories are developed as a tool for civic action, education on human rights, promotion of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

Doudou's remarks drew together the common thread for all of those organisations and sites present in the words of Dr. King: "in the end, will will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." The silence of our friends who have died in brutal and bloody conflict. The silence of our friends isolated and marginalised from injuries both physical and emotional.

It brought to mind a quotation from Voltaire, himself ironically an investor in those same slave ships and the trade they plied. He said: "to the living we owe respect. To the dead we owe only the truth." Truth is, of course subjective, but is also a fundamental need for all who seek to be reconciled with a difficult and divisive past.

We ahve much to learn and much to hear. I hope to hear and learn more tomorrow from those involved in recording the experiences of Guantanamó.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

A day late and a dollar short

Travelling and lack of a reliable connection have kept me away from posting. Having tried and failed miserably to post via an iPhone (but will try again soon!) I am dependent on the generosity of friends and free WiFi.

Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State, announced on Tuesday that the NIO was to begin a formal consultation on the recommendations of the Consultative Group on the Past.

The silence of the last five months has been deafening from government circles. Yet for victims and survivors and community and voluntary sector organisations that I have spoken to, there is a perhaps surprising consensus about the CGP report and that is this: it is likely to offer us the only chance in this generation to begin to put structures in place to tackle the legacy of the conflict.

Of course there is disagreement on the various recommendations. But that is healthy, for it least it means that people, albeit in a whisper, are talking.

So if the NIO's opening of formal consultation is a day late and a dollar short, at least it is now here.

In an op-ed piece in the Newsletter, Shaun Woodward said: " it will never succeed as a top-down edict from the British Government because reconciliation must be as much a part of a shared future as the peace process and the political process."

He is right that it will not succeed if it is directed by the British government, because they too must make the difficult leap of acknowledging their role as an actor in the conflict. We all must being to realise that none of us can walk away with a clear conscience and clean hands, even if our only crime against our fellow citizen was indifference and avoidance.

The consultation runs until October 2 and submissions can be made via

Monday, 15 June 2009

Delivering REAL Change

Rights, Empowerment, Action, Lobbying - REAL Network was launched today at the Long Gallery in Stormont.

Disability Action's Centre on Human Rights for People with Disabilites has created this network of disabled human rights activists that work to promote and protect the human rights of disabled people.

With statistics estimating that there are up to 40,000 people wounded as a result of the conflict, it is fair to say that a significant proportion of them will have an acquired disability as a result. The wounded survivors are often forgotten, but todays launch is one more tool we can use to ensure their needs are met.

The five key areas of work the Network seeks to address are independent living, education, employment, health and the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilites which was ratified here only last week.

What was most interesting about the launch was that each of the political parties in the Assembly were represented on a panel and asked a number of questions about rights and responsibilites and the audience were given electronic keypads to rate their response. It's fair to say there was a mixed response, with some parties scoring better in certain areas than others. It was participatory democracy in action and it certainly caused the politicians to pay more than lip service. The key will to be keep pressure on to ensure the UN convention is implemented via a cross-departmental strategy.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Omagh civil action asks as many questions as it answers

The judgement in the Omagh Bomb civil action has led to speculation that many more victims and survivors of the conflict will consider taking civil actions against those they believe are responsible for the death and injury of their loved ones.

We have also heard reported that the judgement is being looked at internationally with a view to examining how the precedent could apply in civil actions taken in other countries.

I was in court when the judgement was delivered and what I witnessed was a mixture of profound relief amongst the families and survivors that they were finally able to hold someone accountable for these horrific and tragic events. Yet there was still an undercurrent of anger that it was only through their sheer dogged determination as a group of individuals and families that this had been achieved.

The Omagh Bomb civil action should not have happened. It is an indictment of our legal system and how we deal with victims and survivors that it did. Police investigations into the Real IRA, criminal procedings, Police Ombudsman investigations, investigative reporting and even the Gibson Inquiry into the role of British Military intelligence failed to deliver concrete results for the families and survivors in terms of accountability.

Whether this judgement leads to a rash of civil claims no one can predict, but I would suggest that the cost involved, personal strength required and persistence in the face of at best adversity and at worst obstruction would make such a course of action impossible for individual families who have lost loved ones.

More importantly however, the legal system itself needs to be robust enough to deal with these issues. The precedent set in the criminal trial in respect of the Omagh bomb and the passage of time since many events of the conflict have taken place make prosecutions through the criminal courts very difficult and these are likely to be rare.

That doesn't mean that the issue of accountability disappears for victims and survivors. It means we as a community and a Commission face a huge challenge in developing robust processes that deliver acknowledgement of wrongdoing and hold accountable those responsible - in all sections of our society.

The recommendations of the Consultative Group on the Past provide a starting point for dialogue on how we might achieve that end. Let's talk...