Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Advocacy Services Research Report

 Today the Commission for Victims and Survivors of Northern Ireland (CVSNI) and Ulster University (INCORE & TJI) launched the Advocacy Services Report focusing on advocacy and dealing with the past. The report was authored by Dr Maire Braniff, Professor Brandon Hamber, Dr Catherine O'Rourke, Dr Philip McCready and Dr John Bell. 

The Report found that while the needs of victims and survivors are not homogenous there are core principles that underpin effective service provision. Essentially they should be victim-led, build trust, not create dependency, be compassionate and empathetic and value the lived experience and perspective of the individual. The groups offering advocacy were led by such principles. Further provision for dealing with the past should draw on and learn from the scale, diversity and experience of advocacy practice to date. 

Equally, however, our research found that this was challenging work. There was unanimity amongst all service users and service providers that the biggest challenge was the systemic delay and the slow nature of legacy investigation and information recovery. The biggest scope for improvement in advocacy services was the accessibility of information and more streamlined and quicker responses from statutory agencies. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Amnesty a line in the sand? It’s not even close

If we know anything about the Johnson government in the UK, they are not great at sticking to agreements or taking the views of the devolved nations seriously. The recent statement by the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, proposing new legislation to enforce a statute of limitations for all conflict-related violations in Northern Ireland fits this mould.

In July 2019, following a 15-month consultation on the legacy proposal in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) of 2014 agreed by all political parties, the British Government committed to its full implementation. Two years later, it is now proposing to pull the SHA apart.


The recent proposals remove a focus on justice and investigation, favouring information recovery and storytelling under an undefined banner of reconciliation. All of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties, the Irish government, civil society organisations and most victims’ groups are heavily critical of what amounts to an amnesty for conflict-era offences. Yet, the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and especially victims of both state and non-state violence, seem to matter little.

Ostensibly, Northern Ireland victims are less important than a Tory manifesto pledge to stop so-called “vexatious” legal cases against former British soldiers, even if the price is also a paramilitary amnesty.

Yet, the actual case for amnesty in Lewis’ statement is rather flimsy.

Firstly, Lewis points out that criminal investigations are increasingly unlikely to deliver in court. We know as time passes this is not incorrect. But because justice is unlikely, should prosecutions be abandoned? Could we imagine doing the same for other crimes such as rape because it has a low conviction rate? Choosing to abandon prosecution is not a logistical issue but a political one.

Secondly, it is stated that the current system is not working. But there is no current system. It is a mishmash of processes. No systematic and over-arching attempt has been made to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, despite a set of agreed proposals being put forward in the SHA.

Thirdly, it is implied that amnesty is the only viable route. Yet the British consultation on the SHA points out that the overwhelming view from the 17,000 responses was that amnesty was not appropriate. Two years ago, it was perfectly feasible for the other SHA mechanisms such as storytelling and information recovery to run alongside justice processes, yet suddenly this is off the table.

There are other options under discussion. For example, British soldiers remain eligible for the same deal as paramilitaries in terms of early release under the Belfast Agreement. If convicted, a maximum of two years can be served for conflict crimes. A discussion on reducing the length of this requirement to zero is an option. More radically, another option is to consider amnesty in exchange for truth as per the South African model.

Finally, Lewis argues that it is the criminal justice process that is hampering reconciliation. Is the implication that offering a blanket amnesty will lead to those who committed crimes miraculously coming forward, sharing the truth and seeking reconciliation with those they harmed? If so, this is devoid of reality.

Furthermore, contrary to Lewis’ assertion of amnesty fostering reconciliation, the British government’s own consultation on the SHA points out that curtailing the right to justice would “risk progress towards reconciliation”, not promote it.

What we also know internationally is that amnesties can create a short-term hiatus in a political process, but when justice is evaded, it simply festers and re-emerges rather than creating reconciliation.

The Spanish 1977 amnesty or “pact of forgetting”, following the Franco regime, has not stopped recent attempts to prosecute those responsible. Spain remains deeply divided. In Chile, the amnesty passed by Pinochet in 1978 was overturned in 1998. This led to dozens of prosecutions of those responsible for disappearance and torture over the following decades. Even in South Africa, there are new moves to prosecute those who did not avail of the amnesty offered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In this context, the current proposals are not the product of some difficult soul-searching and the only option left on the table. It is a cynical and calculated political move.

It fits a pattern of political evasion of truth that has been and continues to be fundamentally unjust to all victims. It demonstrates how little Northern Ireland victims mean to the UK government.

The major stumbling block to reconciliation and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland is not victims trying to exercise their rights to justice, but 50 years of avoidance, untruths and injustice.

What is needed now is courageous leadership that fulfils previous commitments and confronts the past head-on, not politicians trying to draw fanciful lines in the sand.

Far from dealing with the past, the proposed amnesty will simply redraw the battle lines for the future.

Published by Brandon Hamber in the Belfast Telegraph, 15 July 2021.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Seminar UN Secretary Generals’ Envoy on Youth

It was fantastic to chair a session on Thursday 20 May 2021, with the UN Secretary Generals’ Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake. In her talk the UN Envoy on Youth discussed UN priorities and issues concerning youth, peace and security.

    

This dialogue was part of the new seminar series entitled Youth, Peace and Security Leadership Series. The seminar series is a partnership between Ulster University (INCORE & TJI), The John and Pat Hume Foundation, John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace, International Fund for Ireland (IFI), the Centre for Youth Research and Dialogue and Interpeace.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves: ‘new normal’ is abnormal

I have published a new piece in Belfast Telegraph

In my work dealing with the impact of political violence, a constant challenge is reminding people that when addressing survivors’ needs during times of conflict, it is the social context that is often the primary stressor. For example, as much as therapy for victims of conflict is useful, its value is limited if the conflict’s legacy persists and the social environment is destroyed. 

 You also cannot think about conflict without understanding that it has differential impacts. In Northern Ireland, for example, the neighbourhoods with the highest conflict death rate are those with the highest levels of poverty. When it comes to addressing the mental health impact of Covid-19, it seems we have a similar situation. We are acting as if the pandemic is only a medical problem, a behavioural issue (wear your mask, wash your hands, socially distance) and finally, a psychological question of coping mentally. 

Continue reading on Medium, link.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Truth Commission for Colombia Dialogue

A dialogue was held on 16 December 2020 hosted by the Truth Commission for Colombia entitled "Let's talk about coexistence and reconciliation". This reflexive dialogue focused on the mandate of the Commission to promote coexistence and reconciliation. The dialogue sought to learn from international experience to overcome challenges and help to strengthen the work of the Commission and its legacy in Colombia. 

The dialogue was an online discussion between panelists. The participants, based on their experiences, responded to guiding questions put forward by the moderator. Participants included Brandon Hamber (Northern Ireland); Sergio Jaramillo (Colombia); John Paul Lederach (USA); Elizabeth Lira (Chile) and Kimberly Theidon (USA, Colombia). 

In my input I stressed how despite significant investment in relationship building work in Northern Ireland from the EU, IFI and Atlantic Philanthropies that has strengthened community relationships, opportunities have not always been maximised. This he argued was because community and political processes have been treated separately. Ongoing political division at the leadership level undermines community interventions. In addition, the vision for reconciliation has focused on limited co-existence that accepts social, educational and residential divisions or changing these issue marginally, rather than a more transformative approach. The has created a negative rather than positive peace in Northern Ireland.

The panel discussion can be viewed below:

Moment of Truth…Victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubled Past Can’t Wait Forever

I started working in Northern Ireland in 1996, the first question I was always asked was: “Did Northern Ireland need a South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)?” This was understandable, as I was at the time working in South Africa with victims testifying before the TRC that ran from 1995 until 2003. The troubling thing, however, is that I am still regularly asked that same question nearly 25 years later. During this time, how many victims have died without knowing the truth, or obtaining justice for atrocities?

The failure to deal effectively with the past remains a stain on the copybook of the Northern Ireland peace process. A potted history of the saga highlights how punishingly slow it has been.

The most significant Government-backed process was the Consultative Group of the Past that delivered its report in January 2009. But it ended up shelved, mainly due to its controversial recommendation around compensation for all those who lost relatives in the conflict.

"PM holds Northern Ireland talks" by UK Prime Minister Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Creeping headway was made over the following years, building upon the report in the failed Haass O’Sullivan talks in 2013 and subsequently. In December 2014, the political parties devised the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). It made a comprehensive set of proposals. The recommendations included setting up structures to collect the stories of the conflict in and about Northern Ireland, investigating unresolved cases, seeking information for victims from responsible groups, ensuring statements of acknowledgment for past hurts and identifying steps to build reconciliation. The SHA was put in a draft Bill in 2016. A public consultation started some two years later in May 2018. Over 17,000 written responses were received in the 21-week consultation. In between, the UN Special Rapporteur responsible for transitional justice significantly made two visits to Northern Ireland, tabling recommendations in November 2016. The British Government responded, “the recommendations can be best achieved through the full implementation of the SHA”.

In July 2019, a detailed summary of the consultation on the SHA was published. The British Government noted there was “an obligation to seek to address the legacy of the past” and it remained fully committed to the SHA.

But in March 2020, apparently motivated by political pressures from British Army veterans, the Government rowed back. The Secretary of State essentially proposed to pull the SHA apart, largely removing a focus of justice and investigation, favouring information recovery and storytelling under a broad, and undefined, banner of reconciliation. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee rightly took issue with the approach, but then they argued for yet another consultation. Reading this abridged history, it is hard not to conclude that the dealing with the past process is nothing more than a protracted and shameful tale of delay and avoidance. How painfully frustrating must this be for victims and survivors.

This does not mean that a South African-style truth commission is the right answer. The exact structure of the South African commission, including its ability to grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed to gross violations of human rights, is unlikely to work in Northern Ireland. Amnesty meant that some victims had to forgo retributive justice for truth in the name of the wider peace process. Closing down the potential for victims to get their cases to court, or preventing public inquiries, in exchange for a truth-recovery process is an unlikely (and arguably unnecessary) option in Northern Ireland. The public nature of parts of the South African process, with perpetrators and victims testifying openly, might also be a tall order for the more closed culture in Northern Ireland.

Handing over of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report

The South African process had other failings. The administrative treatment of victims and the lack of follow-up was a problem. Sometimes a simplistic language of reconciliation and healing was used that implied that truth and testimony alone could mend a deeply divided society, rather than coupling this with a long-term political process and socio-economic transformation, ensuring equality between black and white South Africans.

On the positive side, South Africans were confronted on television and radio directly with the past and could not ignore it. We had to face the harm we did to one another and listen to the stories of survivors. The five volumes of the South African TRC report, built on the testimony of approximately 22,000 victims (not just the 1,800 who testified publicly), tells a detailed and thematic story of human rights violations. The report and the extensive archive provide a historically authoritative record that cannot be erased.

One of the biggest successes of the process, however, was when the TRC challenged narrow assumptions about the past. I recall a survivor whom we worked with over many years. She believed, as did most of us who knew her, that the police were responsible for her 18-year-old son’s assassination as they had routinely threatened him. Through the TRC it transpired, however, that her son, an underground ANC operative, was shot dead by his own Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) unit, the then military wing of the ANC. His killers, who the family knew well, accused him of being a spy. Whether these allegations were correct or not, as they have never been proved, the news was shattering for the family. The personal price of truth was enormous. However, as much as it pains me to write this, the TRC did its job in this case.

There were many cases of this kind that challenged dominant narratives. For example, during apartheid it was common to hear about MK activists who had killed themselves in operations. It turned out through the TRC that some of these deaths were the result of state entrapment. The state also carried out what were called “false flag operations”. Sections of the security police undertook illegal acts, such as sabotage and arson, to give credibility to their agents; they also blamed MK activists for bomb blasts they had planted. It was these types of cases that brought home how “dirty” the war was in South Africa. But they also helped to create a “grey” picture of the past, challenging the blinkered view some had of the state and political groups they supported. Arguably, this loosened the narratives of the past, opening the door for new understandings.

Confronting the truth in this way is risky and unsettling. But is foot-dragging risk-free? In Northern Ireland, the past continues to dominate the present. Every day, we hear stories of tensions concerning unresolved cases, memorials and commemorations. Politicians and the public are in continuous narrative battles about who was the most responsible for the hurts of the past and why. Victims also cannot be asked to forget. A significant amount of work has been done by the community sector to fill the gap created by political indecisiveness. But still the unresolved past remains a threat to a stable future, particularly as new challenges, such as Brexit or border polls, loom.

International lessons unequivocally suggest the past will not go away over time. Many countries, where little has been done politically to address the past, such as those in the Balkans, remain polarised. Unresolved cases, as we have seen in Chile and Argentina, are also transferred generationally with new family members continuing the struggle for truth and justice. By any international standards, the undeniable pattern of evasion and political obfuscation of truth is fundamentally unjust to all victims seeking answers. Inaction on the past is not a neutral act, it is an active denial of rights to victims. It is also creating ongoing political tensions in itself. Something must be done.

The South African process is not a blueprint and had its problems, but South Africans developed it to meet their specific set of needs at a critical historical moment. South African politicians showed leadership and courage to undertake a concerted and holistic attempt to deal with the past. In Northern Ireland, a set of workable, locally developed and previously politically agreed proposals have been made in the Stormont House Agreement. These proposals are not perfect, but surely it is time for the governments and political parties to show some backbone and act in unison finally, supporting a way forward on dealing with the past? At the very least, no one can accuse them of rushing into anything.

Published by Brandon Hamber in the Belfast Telegraph, 12 December 2020.