The human rights commission has to go where the law signed up to by the UK takes us, without fear or favour

Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, where the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal against a lower court's ruling that abortion legislation was incompatible with the UK's Human Rights Act
Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast, where the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal against a lower court's ruling that abortion legislation was incompatible with the UK's Human Rights Act

I have followed the News Letter’s series of articles on legacy with great interest — it has provided a platform for many people who are sceptical and sometimes hostile to the approach taken by the NIO in its consultation document and draft Bill.

The commission’s response and analysis is based on the bedrock of human rights international standards and principles signed up to by the UK government allied to the pragmatism of providing a fair trade wind to see outstanding investigations, truth recovery, legacy inquests and the collection of historical narratives under way as quickly as possible.

Using human rights standards as a guide means we often end up clashing with different political interests on different occasions.

The commission for example, informed the UN Human Rights Committee in 2015 that the operations of the on the runs scheme has potentially hampered the prosecution of individuals for offences committed both during and following the conflict in Northern Ireland.

On the question of whether a statute of limitations could be applied to military and police personnel for conduct during The Troubles the human rights position is clear.

Case law on the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights holds that an effective official investigation is required which must be independent and prompt, capable of identifying perpetrators, allow for public scrutiny of the investigation of its results and involve the next of kin to the extent necessary to safeguard their interests leaving in mind other people’s right to life may be at stake in the investigation.

This means there must be some prospect of a criminal justice process at the end of the investigation.

I recognise the reality that the number of prosecutions surrounding events that are now thirty or forty years old will be very small indeed.

Tempering expectations is one thing, seeking to sweep the past away in criminal justice outcome terms is quite another.

Some families want truth, others want justice, some want reparation, others want all three and of course some want to move on and put the impact of the violence behind them.

These desires can often differ within families never mind between them. None of the differing responses lack legitimacy nonetheless, a human rights based approach requires independent effective investigations.

The recent call from eminent politicians that priority should be given to victim compensation over investigation is predicated on not making any more money available to deal with the past comprehensively. If more money was invested then, such a trade-off would not be required.

One of the realities of the legacy of the past and moving forward the institutions created in the Stormont House Agreement is that they are the only game in town.

There is no plan B and no realistic prospect of any alternative arriving in the foreseeable future.

We are not alone in our views on this issue both the chief constable and Victims and Survivors Commissioner have made similar observations on the need to make progress on dealing with the past effectively.

The Human Rights Commission has to go where the international standards and human rights law signed up to by the UK government take us without fear or favour.

I would encourage readers go to our website www.nihrc.org to read our submission which makes a number of practical suggestions to strengthen human rights compliance in the Bill and to address a number of important omissions to provide for a more victim centred approach.

The commission seeks to promote the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland — I hope fair minded readers of our submission will see that is what we have done in our response.

• Les Allamby is chief commissioner, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

For other essays in the legacy scandal series, click here