Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

  1.  The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) welcomes the inquiry being conducted by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee into the practice of paramilitary organisations intimidating residents into relocating within, or leaving, Northern Ireland.

  2.  Since it was established in March 1999, the NIHRC has not been approached by anyone claiming to be a recent victim of this kind of intimidation. We have, however, been approached by a small number of individuals who have complained to us that they were forced to leave their homes many years ago because of paramilitary threats. They have asked us about the chances of getting enhanced compensation for the disruption and fear they suffered at the time. We have advised them as best we can, although in every instance we have had to conclude that the chances of mounting a successful legal challenge to the amount of compensation paid, given the lapse of time since the incident, are very small.

  3.  The NIHRC wishes to place on record its abhorrence of intimidation. It sees the practice as one which, if unaddressed, can lead to an abuse of the victim's right to life, the right not to be cruelly or inhumanly treated, the right to security of the person, the right to respect for one's private and family life, the right to freedom of association with others and the right not to be discriminated against on grounds such as religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, or association with a national minority. These are all rights which are conferred by the European Convention on Human Rights, which is now part of the law of Northern Ireland as a result of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

  4.  The people who perpetrate intimidation must first and foremost be held responsible for their actions. It is vital to the interests of victims that they are brought before the courts through the proper legal procedures and dealt with in accordance with the rule of law. Society's recognition of this is reflected in the provisions of the criminal and civil law. At the moment, under the legal system of Northern Ireland (as in England and Wales), victims of intimidation cannot take private individuals or purely private organisations to the courts specifically for breaching their human rights: the individuals or organisations can only be prosecuted by the state under the criminal law or sued by the victims for assault and/or battery under the civil law.

  5.  There is a related duty on the State to ensure that its laws do adequately protect people against such intimidation. The NIHRC believes that the provisions of the criminal and civil law are adequate in this regard but appreciates that there are often difficulties in detecting the persons responsible for incidents of intimidation. If it could be shown, for example, that the State's organs had a policy not to investigate reports of intimidation, or not to prosecute persons suspected of the practice, this would be a clear breach, by the state, of its duty to protect the right to life and security etc under the European Convention. Similarly, if the state had a policy not to assist the victims of such intimidation (by, for example, refusing them emergency housing) this too could well be a breach of the State's obligation to protect people against cruel treatment or against interference with their private life.

  6.  The State should also ensure that there are appropriate schemes in place to protect victims who give evidence in criminal trials. Such victims are often in a much more vulnerable position than witnesses in criminal trials. The NIHRC has not yet been able to carry out an assessment of the government's plans to enhance the protection available for victims and witnesses in Northern Ireland, but it is clear that unless good schemes are in place, the chances of securing convictions in many of these cases of intimidation are very slight.

  7.  According to section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, most public authorities in Northern Ireland, including (soon) the police, have a duty to adopt policies which do not impact adversely from an equality of opportunity point of view—unless for objectively justifiable reasons—on any of nine different groups within society, such as gender groups, religious groups, political groups and racial groups. Public authorities also have a duty to promote good relations between different religious, political and racial groups. The NIHRC does not know whether the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland is taking any steps to ensure that in their approach to the problem of paramilitary intimidation, public authorities are adhering to these duties. Nor have we ourselves yet been able to verify that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, for example, is promoting the concept of integrated housing estates in fulfilment of its duty to promote good relations.

  8.  The NIHRC is aware of the fact that intimidation is often also a discrimination issue. In many instances persons who are intimidated constitute a minority in the area where they live, because of their religious belief, their political opinion, the type of work they undertake (eg work related to the security forces) or their sexual orientation. Another form of discrimination takes place when those suspected of, or with prior convictions for, sexual abuse are intimidated: the basic right to equal protection of the law should not be affected by such suspicions or by such a past. The NIHRC also believes it is important for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to consider the possibility that there is a gender dimension to intimidation. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that often single mothers in publicly owned houses are more likely to live in areas where they constitute a political or religious minority, and while they may be perceived as posing no threat at most times, they become particularly vulnerable at times of high political tension. Furthermore, domestic violence is itself a form of intimidation, and often persists even after the woman has left the family home.

  9.  We are aware, that in Great Britain, the Commission for Racial Equality has recently taken steps to investigate whether local authorities are doing all they can to protect people against racial harassment, and there are many similar efforts to improve the measures being taken against domestic violence throughout the United Kingdom. More particularly, we know that the CRE has considered that simply moving the "victim" of intimidation may be to disadvantage even further the victim, and while such a move may provide a short term solution to the issue of physical safety, it does not amount to providing equality for intimidated persons. Moreover, where the victim is a person of different religious or political belief from those in the neighbourhood, moving him or her out of an area could contribute in Northern Ireland to the well-commented increasing segregation of society. A commitment to the duty to promote good relations would again suggest that other options should be fully examined, difficult though the issue is. We have a limited awareness that schemes exist in England and Wales whereby local councils take steps to move not the intimidated persons but the intimidating persons. It may be that lessons can be learned from these schemes for the efforts being made to counter paramilitary intimidation in Northern Ireland.

  10.  The NIHRC has not to date conducted any research into the extent of paramilitary intimidation of the kind being investigated in this inquiry. Nor has it compiled information on the steps being taken by Government and law enforcement agencies to eliminate the activity or the measures adopted by Government and public bodies to assist the victims of such intimidation. We have, however, met twice with representatives of the Maranatha Community to learn more about the problems faced by "exiles" and to inform ourselves about the work being done to help them. It seems that under the powers conferred upon the NIHRC by the Northern Ireland Act, we do not have any authority to grant practical assistance to individual victims of intimidation other than through assisting them with particular court proceedings they may wish to take. To date, no such victim, and no representative of such a victim, has approached the Commission for such assistance.

  11.  The NIHRC is conducting research into the needs of victims of violence in general in Northern Ireland and is giving serious consideration to including provisions on victims' rights in its advice to the Secretary of State on what should be contained in a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. We expect the report on victims' needs to be completed by April 2001 and our draft advice to the Secretary of State to be submitted in May 2001. On 15 January 2001 we published the conclusions of a working group we established on victims' rights as part of our consultation on a Bill of Rights. [1]A person who works for Base 2 in Belfast was invited to be a member of that working group but in the end was unable to attend many of its meetings.

January 2001

1   See the List of Unprinted Papers, p. vi. Back

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