Legacy Scandal: Chris Albiston on the championing of human rights for all — except police

Les Allamby, above centre, NI Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) chief commissioner, above centre, at court for an  NIHRC case that NI abortion law is incompatible with human rights. Chris Albiston writes: 'The NIHRC ought to be advised that retired police officers are civilians'
Les Allamby, above centre, NI Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) chief commissioner, above centre, at court for an NIHRC case that NI abortion law is incompatible with human rights. Chris Albiston writes: 'The NIHRC ought to be advised that retired police officers are civilians'
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In the latest essay in our series, the former assistant chief constable CHRIS ALBISTON asks if the Human Rights Commission sought to compel people to speak when the terrorist campaigns were in full flight? (see beneath the article for a link to the rest of the series):

Hands up all those in favour of human rights!

Surely that should be all of us. Aren’t we all citizens who expect some sort of protection from an over-mighty state in our daily lives?

Don’t we all go on and on about our supposed rights (whether real or imaginary) on the street corner, in the pub or at the school gates?

And quite right too — the days of arbitrary government are long behind us, thanks to the sacrifices of our ancestors and perhaps even of our contemporaries.

So why is it so easy for writers and commentators to attract support when deriding the ‘human rights industry’ and all its works?

Those who describe themselves as ‘human rights lawyers’ or, worse, ‘human rights activists’, are frequently the subject of our scorn. What has gone wrong?

Most young women and men who take the difficult decision to make a career in the police do so in order to uphold human rights.

Nowadays they may even say openly that that is what they are doing. Prior to the turn of the century most would not have articulated their commitment in this way. But whether they joined before or after the implementation of the UK’s Human Rights Act (2000) they almost universally joined in order to protect the right to life, the right to enjoy a private and family life, the right to enjoy freedom of speech and association.

They wanted to enable people to feel safe in their homes and in the streets and parks.

They wanted to enforce the law and uphold public justice, which might result in the curtailment of the right to liberty for some who chose to offend; but policing was ‘human rights policing’ long before chief constables and police trainers started to use such expressions.

When some of our commentators criticise the human rights industry, or when they attribute its failings to malign foreign influences, they might do well to remember that it was largely British lawyers who, after witnessing the horrors of the camps at the end of the Second World War, were instrumental in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947 and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) a few years later.

The purpose was to protect the little man or woman against the big state.

In the perception of many, however, the outcome has instead been to expose the little man or woman to the depredations of the terrorist and criminal, because implementation of the ECHR prevents the state from doing effectively its proper job of protecting the vulnerable.

Of course we should treat with caution stories about a foreign criminal being excused deportation on the grounds that his ownership of a cat in the UK would mean depriving him of the right to family life. But we cannot deny that many people who ought to be grateful for access to a rights-based criminal justice system actually hold it in contempt.

How does this conundrum play out in relation to legacy issues here in Northern Ireland?

Consider another ‘bête-noire’ of our commentators, the ‘transitional justice industry’. The very use of the term ‘transitional justice’ implies a historical background and institutional change which might sit better in the context of some South American states, post-socialist societies or other liberated dictatorships.

Here we all experienced restrictions on our freedom of movement and access to shops and entertainment which were imposed on us by the murder gangs – but we had a free vote, a free press, free speech, a functioning criminal justice system and no pass laws; and the only people who made other citizens disappear were the murder gangs.

The problem is that if this is the transitional justice industry’s idea of the immediate past and the present, then many people will be reluctant to see their ideas for the future influencing our government.

Let us enjoy and develop our human rights; but let us make them available to everyone.

As part of our human rights industry we have a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) — financed by the taxpayer. Its ‘strapline’ is: “We champion and guard the rights of all those who live in Northern Ireland”.

I suggest that to this should be appended, “unless you happen to be a retired police officer”.

The lengthy and detailed submission of the NIHRC to the NIO’s legacy consultation might be considered to fulfil one of the body’s statutory obligations — to offer advice to government on human rights issues.

It is full of worthy references to such authorities as the ‘Minnesota Protocol’ etc. But what is its practical impact for retired police officers?

We might be lulled into a false sense of security by the invocation for the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to consider “all Troubles-related deaths”; but the phrase at paragraph 3.19, “ . . . considering the structural and systemic dimension of violence and rights violations and abuses” should not be construed as a potential reference to sectarian and ethnic cleansing on the border or targeting of civilians by the murder gangs, because we all know that it is a reference to the myth of ‘collusion’.

But what is truly extraordinary about this submission is the section at paragraphs 3.107 to 3.109 which appear to recommend, in relation to HIU inquiries, “compellability ... which includes all relevant public authorities and relevant private individuals” (my emphasis).

“HIU can compel written, oral and material evidence”.

There will be sanctions for non-compliance.

Are we to believe that this is intended to oblige recalcitrant members (or former members) of the murder gangs to come forward and disclose all?

Or are the true targets perhaps former members of the security forces, whose names and addresses are readily available to the HIU?

What about those retired officers who gave solemn (and legally-binding) undertakings not to discuss their work? Will the thumbscrews also be applied to them?

What are we to make of a so-called Human Rights Commission which seeks to compel people (whether police or terrorists) to speak? Did they recommend such measures when the terrorist campaigns were in full flight?

Or are human rights, as we have long suspected, the privilege of only certain sections of society? The NIHRC ought to be advised that retired police officers are civilians.

When they are in dispute with the state (for example in the person of the Police Ombudsman) then it is surely the retired police officer who is the little man or woman who should be defended by the warriors of the human rights industry.

The Police Ombudsman has all the powers of a chief constable — arrest, detention, interrogation, intrusive surveillance and so on; and yet, contrary to the requirements of Article 13, ECHR, there is no independent complaints mechanism.

This was raised years ago with the NIHRC, but absolutely nothing was done by the then chief commissioner or her successors.

And where was the NIHRC when the draft Stormont House Agreement bill indicated that it would be creating the HIU with similar police powers and again no independent complaints mechanism?

We recently saw the introduction of a Public Services Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

This office can hear complaints against just about every public body in Northern Ireland – except of course the Police Ombudsman, who can carry on without accountability or sanction so long as he does not actually break the law.

Where was the NIHRC when this legislation was being considered?

A senior judge has recently decreed that the rights of retired police officers under Articles 6 and 8 of the ECHR have been ignored by state organs in the form of the Police Ombudsman. Where was the NIHRC then?

The wider agenda to rehabilitate former members of the murder gangs is perhaps understandable; and politics, as opposed to violence, means that everybody has to give something and nobody gets everything.

But an agenda which seeks to facilitate the isolation and scapegoating of those who made sacrifices in order to protect ordinary people cannot be the basis for a lasting and just settlement.

• Chris Albiston served as a police officer in the London Metropolitan Police, the RUCGC (where he was an assistant chief constable), the UN Civilian Police in Kosovo and the PSNI prior to retirement 15 years ago

For other essays in the legacy scandal series, click here