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Northern Ireland: investigation is still awaited five years after the death of Rosemary Nelson
Women as Human Rights Defenders
Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), Northern Ireland
(Speech at Conference on Women's Rights, Northern Ireland, December 2004)
I am here to give personal testimony about the contribution of a great woman who was killed because of her defence of human rights - Rosemary Nelson.
When my organisation - the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) a group based in Belfast working to advance human rights in Northern Ireland on a cross community basis - heard of this conference being organised, we explicitly requested that some time be given over on one of the panels to outlining the case of Rosemary Nelson.
Rosemary, a member of CAJ's executive committee at the time of her murder, was a woman human rights defender killed for her beliefs on this very island. Sometimes in the absolutely proper concern to learn about problems further afield, and try to contribute usefully to their resolution, there can be some ambiguity about problems nearer to home, so I hope that I can bring some light to bear on the situation of someone killed for their human rights work less than 100 miles from our deliberations here today.
Rosemary Nelson was a small town solicitor, working on all of the kinds of civil and criminal cases that small town solicitors work on. Obviously, as a woman, she was already rather exceptional in that she was the first woman lawyer to set up in sole private practice in her town, but in many other ways she was your 'down to earth' ordinary mother, wife, daughter and sister.
Rosemary was born in 1958, and was only 41 when she was murdered by a loyalist paramilitary group. She had attracted their ire because she had acted as defence lawyer for people that they hated - alleged IRA members, members of an local group unhappy about the nature of Orange marches going through their nationalist area, and the family of a young Catholic man kicked to death by loyalists.
Her crime was that she thought, everyone - whoever they were - deserved due process, a fair trial, and the best possible legal assistance. She had routinely acted for Catholics and Protestants in the town of Lurgan in Northern Ireland, but her work with certain high profile individuals and groups brought her into a spotlight that she certainly had not sought, but which was to lead to her death.
Ironically, like in many countries around the world, many of us knew well in advance that she was at high risk. We had thought that international attention might provide her with some protection: she had testified before the United Nations and the US Congress, and was well known to domestic and international human rights groups. As I said, she served on the executive committee of my own organisation, the CAJ.
But all of these networks did not provide her with the necessary protection. Her death however cannot simply be laid at the door of the people who actually carried out her murder. The car bombing she died from was long in the making - she had been subject to very serious threats delivered directly and indirectly by police officers whose primary duty it is to ensure public safety. She had received death threats from police officers, usually made via her clients, and was subjected to verbal and physical harassment of a sexist and sectarian nature.
To quote Rosemary herself, when testifying to the US Congress: "these difficulties involved RUC (police) officers questioning my professional integrity, making allegations that I am a member of a paramilitary group and, at their most serious, making death threats against me".
Rosemary officially complained about her treatment at the hands of the police, but the investigation of the complaints was later found to be unsatisfactory, and the London police had to be called in to carry out a proper investigation. That investigation had just been completed when Rosemary was murdered.
Those who have followed this case closely, and most particularly her family, want to know exactly how much these attitudes and this behaviour on the part of the police contributed to, or even led directly to, her murder on 15 March 1999.
Some might be tempted to say that this is "the past". Five years is of course nothing to her family, but for the rest of us we have moved on. The peace process, already a full year in the making by then, was nevertheless still relatively fragile, and the political climate has improved greatly since then. So, this case is perhaps a remnant of a past that some would like to leave behind.
But how can it be left behind?
Are the police officers who subjected Rosemary to death threats still serving in the new Police Service of Northern Ireland? Can we be sure that the kind of institutionalised sectarianism (and indeed sexism) apparent in some of the behaviour of the police, before and after her death, has been eradicated? Can we be sure that defence lawyers will never again be placed at risk for defending their clients - however unpopular.
No, we cannot.
There are several reasons which allow me to state most categorically that there is still a long way to go in addressing with regard to addressing sectarianism and sexism within the new policing arrangements.
In a document from Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary earlier this year, reference was made to the experiences of female officers. Thankfully, women are joining the service in larger numbers than ever but HMIC notes that "With higher levels of female recruitment taking place, evidence is now starting to emerge of isolated sexist attitudes and instances of discrimination". Apart from questioning the assumption that such attitudes are "isolated" in nature, one must ask if female officers are experiencing problems with their colleagues - will not female lawyers, suspects, victims, also worry about how their concerns will be addressed?
The police have never addressed the possibility that it might be institutionally sectarian, so it is assumed that the recruitment of Catholics to the new arrangements will, in and of itself, ensure a police service which effectively polices a highly divided society. The fact that a quota system exists is likely in the short term to fuel the risk of sectarianism, rather than address it.
The new Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland - a woman by the way - is an extremely important and welcome body set up in the wake of the Agreement. The Ombudsman carried out a survey into the harassment of lawyers and issued a report in March 2003. Fifty five members of the legal profession reported that they had experienced some harassment or threats from police officers, either personally or through their clients. So, several years after Rosemary's death, and with the massive changes that we are lead to believe have taken place within policing, lessons about the need to honour and respect such human rights defenders, not revile them, have not been learnt.
But the most important test of all is the extent of the government's commitment to inquiring into Rosemary's death.
I cannot improve on the contribution of US Congressman Chris Smith to a CAJ bulletin devoted to Rosemary -
"The success of the peace process is predicated on the people's ability to believe that injustices such as this will be investigated thoroughly, fairly and transparently. It is absolutely critical that a truly impartial investigation of Rosemary Nelson's murder will be conducted and in the end help further the cause of peace. A champion of due process rights, Rosemary deserves no less".
Yet this "impartial investigation" is still awaited five years after her death. Only as a result of political negotiations at Weston Park was it agreed by the British and Irish governments to request an independent Canadian ex-Supreme Court judge to inquire into the circumstances of the death of Rosemary Nelson and others (most especially another lawyer also killed because of his defence of unpopular clients - Pat Finucane). The judge recommended in October 2003 that a public independent inquiry into Rosemary's death was necessary.
In November 2004 the government announced an inquiry. Does this meet the demands of family and non-governmental groups? Well, we have to wait and see but we are very concerned:
- The chair and panel members have all been chosen by government.
- The terms of reference have been set by government but despite the fact that two serving soldiers might have been involved in her death, the army is not covered by the inquiry's remit.
- At a meeting with government officials in July, the family was promised an opportunity to meet with the appointed chair BEFORE other panel members and terms of reference were agreed. This did not happen.
- The reason given for not allowing the family to intervene in advance of all the parameters of the inquiry being established were that the family might be considered a 'party' to the inquiry, and it would therefore not be appropriate for them to be involved. In contra-distinction, the government is clearly not seen as being a 'party' to the inquiry, though the Canadian judge determined that "I am satisfied that there is evidence of collusion by governmental agencies in the murder of Rosemary Nelson that warrants holding a public inquiry" (para 4.197).
The focus of this panel as I understood it was to give personal testimony. I hope that I have done justice by Rosemary Nelson but I know that she would have been the first to say that she was not alone.
Her commitment to justice will have come from her own life experiences, and from her strong family network. At different times, she will have received support from other human rights defenders - male and female, members of the legal profession, trade unionists, politicians, human rights groups, and community workers.
But at the heart of it all, Rosemary and all other human rights defenders, are trying to give practical expression to the commitment made in the wake of World War II to uphold the "inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family".
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in lighting an eternal flame to human rights defenders in Geneva said "The murder of Rosemary Nelson in Northern Ireland only days ago reminds us of how far we are from achieving the objectives of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders".
The story of Rosemary and that of all the other woman human rights defenders we have heard of today should motivate us to follow in their steps. It is a difficult legacy to live up to, but we have to try.