"International mechanisms can be a powerful and effective tool for human rights organisations to leverage for change, especially when they have encountered significant obstacles and opposition at the local and national level."
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International Monitoring Bodies: Powerful Tools for Leveraging Local Change
by Paul Mageean
"The UN Committee on Torture, like other UN human rights mechanisms, tends to rely on NGOs and others to provide it with credible information on which to base its questioning of the country involved."
The Notebook describes how the Committee on the Administration of Justice succeeded in raising the issue of human rights abuses in Northern Ireland at the international level and, by doing so, brought about significant improvements in human rights conditions. This was accomplished through CAJ’s utilisation of the Committee Against Torture–one of the mechanisms available through the United Nations for monitoring governments that have signed international conventions. In order to use these international mechanisms effectively, a number of supporting tactics were necessary, including writing submissions to the Committee, lobbying in Geneva and monitoring the implementation and impact that the reports and recommendations of Committee Against Torture have had on Northern Ireland in terms of actually improving the human rights situation on the ground. International mechanisms can be a powerful and effective tool for human rights organisations to leverage for change, especially when they have encountered significant obstacles and opposition at the local and national level.
There has been a violent political conflict in Northern Ireland since 1969. The conflict involves three sets of protagonists: the Irish Republican Army and other republican groups that want Northern Ireland to unite with the rest of Ireland; loyalist groups that want Northern Ireland to remain within the UK; and the state. From the beginning of the conflict the forces of the state have been involved in human rights abuses. A key aspect of the human rights abuse has involved allegations of ill-treatment of those in custody. This notebook will outline how the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) was able to successfully utilise the United Nations Committee Against Torture to pressure the UK not only to address the allegations of ill-treatment of those in custody but also to establish mechanisms and standards ensuring protection for the accused and accountability of state actors.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice, the foremost human rights organisation operating in Northern Ireland, had long been concerned with the rights of those in detention. Concerns about the use and abuse of emergency law gave rise to our establishment in 1981. We had devised a set of recommendations to guarantee the rights of those arrested by the police and particularly those held in the detention centres. These proposals included suggestions that interviews be recorded electronically, that lawyers be permitted to be present during the interviews, that there be an independent system of monitoring the detention process, that those detained be brought before a judge or released after a shorter period than seven days and that there be independent investigation of complaints of ill-treatment. These proposals were strongly resisted by the government and the police, who maintained that the exceptional powers granted by the emergency legislation were necessary to deal effectively with those suspected of paramilitary activity. Both the government and police denied that any abuse was taking place even though those who alleged ill-treatment and were released without charge by the police often successfully sued for damages. In addition, it was difficult to get media coverage of the issue because at the height of the conflict much of the media was reluctant to give extensive coverage to allegations of this nature.
We needed to devise a response to this problem that would be effective in terms of improving the situation of those arrested under the emergency laws but would also trigger such a significant news story that the media could not avoid covering it. It became increasingly clear that this response could not be generated internally in Northern Ireland. Although we were still a relatively young NGO (having hired our first staff members in 1985), we had begun to think in terms of the boomerang theory. We were therefore increasingly alive to the possibility of exposing what was going on in the detention centres before an international audience to shed light on the situation from outside the country, which would demand accountability and a response from the government. It was clear to us that, on our own, we were not going to achieve our goal of ending the ill-treatment. We were not able to cultivate media interest in the issue–certainly not in Britain, where the key policy-makers were based. It was also the case that many simply disbelieved what we were saying. It is, of course, often the case that in a society in conflict human rights activists are disbelieved and dismissed as being partisan.
This was a phenomenon not exclusive to Northern Ireland, but it did create problems for the credibility of what we were alleging and weakened our chances of creating the necessary momentum to improve the situation. We therefore needed to find a tactic that would address these weaknesses by raising the profile of the issue both internationally and domestically, also lending credibility to what we, as a small NGO in Northern Ireland, were saying. We were fortunate to have a number of academic lawyers familiar with United Nations mechanisms on our executive committee. One of them suggested the use of the Committee Against Torture or CAT (referred to as "the Committee" for the remainder of this notebook). At this stage, we had not accessed any of the international mechanisms at the UN level designed to protect human rights.
The UK signed the Convention Against Torture in 1985 and ratified it in 1988, becoming thereafter subject to the reporting procedures of the Committee Against Torture. Essentially, this meant that the UK had to report periodically to the Committee about the extent to which the Convention was being respected in the UK. The UK must submit each report in written form to the Committee, which then holds a hearing on matters addressed in the report and questions UK representatives. The hearings take place in Geneva. Generally the Committee runs on a three-year cycle, but fortuitously for us, the UK was to be examined by the Committee for the first time in 1991. We consulted with our colleagues in international NGOs to assist us in using this UN mechanism when the UK had to appear before the Committee. We have subsequently been able to utilise such UN mechanisms with increasing success and the Committee Against Torture has been particularly instrumental in pressuring the state to implement actions long-recommended by CAJ.
These examinations by the Committee would have occurred with or without interventions from us. However, the Committee, like other UN human rights mechanisms, tends to rely on NGOs and others to provide it with credible information on which to base its questioning of the country involved. The previous recommendations from the Committee tend to set the parameters for each subsequent examination, so it was important for us to persuade the Committee to pay attention to the issues we wanted highlighted. This was particularly the case in 1991, as it was the first time that the UK had been examined. Increasingly, and certainly in 1998, the Committee would start the session by asking for information on what the state had done to meet the concerns highlighted by the Committee on the previous occasion. The UK has not been examined since 1998, although we anticipate an examination will be forthcoming again in the near future.
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