The panel discussion can be viewed below:
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
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|
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.
Thursday, December 10, 2020
Friday, November 6, 2020
As part of the Geneva Peace Week (2-6 November 2020), I took part in a podcast discussion entitled "Militarised Masculinities and Sustaining Peace: Lessons from the Ground”. The podcast by Impunity Watch and the Master programme in Transitional Justice of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights provides space for an in-depth debate around this neglected topic. I argue for a more systemic understanding of masculinity and conflict that moves beyond individual acts of masculinised violence, to understanding how systems create militarised masculinity from the role of the military in society to the entertainment industry. I share the platform with human rights activist Brisna Caxaj from Guatemala, who talks about her experience of militarised masculinity in her context.
Sunday, November 1, 2020
|Our 2020 Halloween Turnip|
I was first alerted to the origins of Halloween by my wife, who is from Ireland, and told me that Halloween originated in that part of the world and as a child they carved turnips rather than pumpkins. Being of a sceptical mind, I thought this was a tradition peculiar to her home town of Derry or alternatively simply the practical outworking of the fact that fat American pumpkins are not common in the local environs. Then I did a bit of research. Turns out the turnip really is linked to the root of Halloween and not the pumpkin.
Thursday, October 29, 2020
Key Policy Documents & Resources
Sequential list of key policy documents & resources
- Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's past Northern Ireland Affairs Committee consultation (Interim Report) and Evidence (26 October 2020). Download [External].
- Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's past Northern Ireland Affairs Committee consultation: The UK Government's New Proposals (open to 1 June 2020). Download [External]
- Ministerial Statement: Addressing Northern Ireland Legacy Issues: Written statement - HCWS168 (18 March 2020). Download [External]
- Analysis of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) consultation responses (July 2019). Download [External]
- Consultation: Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past (closed 10 September 2018). Download.
- Draft Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill (10 March 2016). Download [External]
- Healing Through Remembering: Guide to the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) (2016). Download [External]
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence on his mission to Northern Ireland: Comments by the State (16 Nov 2016). Download
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, on his mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (March 2016). Download
- 'Model Bill Team' based at Queen's University Belfast and Committee on the Administration of Justice. Stormont House Agreement – Model Implementation Bill and Explanatory Notes (17 September 2015). Download [External]
- Stormont House Agreement (23 December 2014). Download
- Proposed Agreement (31 December 2013). An agreement among the parties of the Northern Ireland Executive on Parades, Select Commemorations, and Related Protests; Flags and Emblems; and Contending with the Past (also known as Haas O'Sullivan Proposals). Download [External]
- House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (December 2009). The Report of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland. Response. Download [External]
- Report of the Consultative Group of the Past (January 2009). Download [External]
- House of Commons. Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. (2008). Session 2007-08, evidence from Brandon Hamber, Cate Turner, Alan McBride and Sandra Peake. Download
- Healing Through Remembering (2006). Making Peace with the Past: Options for truth recovery regarding the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Download
- House of Commons. Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (October 2005). Ways of Dealing with Northern Ireland's Past: Government Response to the Committee's Tenth Report of Session 2004-05. Download
- House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Ways of Dealing with Northern Ireland's Past: Interim Report - Victims and Survivors Tenth Report of Session 2004–05. Download
- Healing Through Remembering Consultation on Dealing with the Past (2002). Download
- 'We Will Remember Them': Report of the Victims Commissioner (April 1998). Download [External]
- Hamber, B. (2020, 12 December). Moment of Truth…Victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubled Past Can’t Wait Forever. Belfast Telegraph.
- O'Neill, S. & Hamber, B. (2020). Response on Mental Health to Dealing with the Past Consultation. Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Consultation on "Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's past: The UK Government's New Proposals". INCORE, University of Ulster. Submitted online 31 May 2020.
- O'Neill, S. & Hamber, B. (2018). The need for a victim and survivor centred, trauma-informed approach: A Response to the Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past Consultation. INCORE, University of Ulster. Submitted online 5 October 2018.
- Hamber, B. and Kelly, G. (2018). Response on Reconciliation to the Consultation Paper: Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past. INCORE, University of Ulster. Submitted online 5 October 2018.
- Hamber, B., & Kelly, G. (2018). Reconciliation: A Northern Ireland Case Study. In Kofi Annan Foundation and Interpeace (Eds), Challenging the Conventional: Can Post-Violence Reconciliation Succeed? (pp. 98-148). New York/Geneva: Kofi Annan Foundation & Interpeace.
- Brandon Hamber, 2008, Submission to the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland. (Submission, January). Belfast, Northern Ireland.
- Brandon Hamber, 2006, Getting to the Truth Through Talking, Daily Ireland, 14 March 2006.
- Brandon Hamber, 2004, Time to stop permissible lies about the past, Polity, 26 November.
- Brandon Hamber, 2004, Submission to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Reconciliation: Ways of dealing with Northern Ireland's Past (Submission, December). London: Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
- Brandon Hamber, 2003, A Truth Commission for Northern Ireland, Blog Post, 11 June 2003
- Hamber, B. (2002). Rights and Reasons: Challenges for Truth Recovery in South Africa and Northern Ireland. [Journal Article]. Fordham International Law Journal, 26(4), 1074-1094.
- Hamber, B. (Ed.). (1998). Past Imperfect: Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland and Societies in Transition. Derry/Londonderry: University of Ulster, INCORE.
- Healing Through Remembering
- Transitional Justice Institute
- CAIN (Section on Victims and Commemoration)
- Bloody Sunday Inquiry
- Commission for Victims and Survivors
- Committee for the Administration of Justice
- Consultative Group on the Past
- Historical Inquiries Team
- Pat Finucane Centre
List of key academic papers on Northern Ireland, dealing with the past and transitional justice, review the annotated list (56 references).