Human Rights and the Victims of the Troubles
Transcript of Professor O’Flaherty’s contributions to the Annual Lecture at the WAVE Trauma Centre Day of Reflection
It is really a great pleasure to be here and join in the day of reflection. I sincerely appreciate being invited.
Today is ultimately not about talking and listening; it is about reflecting’ remembering’ honouring and cherishing. What I say tonight’ I want to say in that spirit.
I was at an event over the past few days that brought together victims of human rights abuse from all around the world. At the event’ I pulled aside some people from various countries who had all been jailed’ tortured and abused. Some of the women had been sexually assaulted. I asked them what they thought that I should say to you this evening and they were unequivocal and very clear about what I should say: ‘Never stop making the world remember. Never allow society to make you invisible.’
They reminded me of the way in which societies everywhere want to brush the painful past beneath the carpet and if that means not giving the victim and survivor a voice in the centre of the story’ then that’s just what happens. It is not always malign or malicious; it is not always about wanting to suppress voices. It is often about wanting to build some new story for the world and society. So’ their message to me was that I should convey to you tonight to never be quiet. Never just disappear into the shadows’ but insist on your proper place at the heart of the debate about Northern Ireland.
Tonight I want to address those largely overlooked types of victims. For example’ there are all those who are wounded. Time and time again’ I hear from people that ‘we’ the wounded’ are somehow overlooked. Our most loved ones weren’t killed’ so we aren’t survivors in that sense’ but something profoundly physically traumatic has happened to me and I don’t feel that I am honoured and respected and treated as a true victim.’
Another category of people that are overlooked are those who have not experienced critical injury’ but who are nevertheless deeply hurt by the experience of what Northern Ireland went through over all those decades. How many thousands upon thousands of these people are there? I was in Derry/ Londonderry very early in my job when there was a bomb attack at the City of Culture Offices. I spoke to some people who weren’t hurt’ but that had heard the noise. They said that they did not sleep for a week after the noise of the explosion because it had reopened wounds that they had thought maybe had been healed. They recalled to me the extent to which we pay no attention to the trauma of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland.
Another group that we must acknowledge on days like this are all those carers who have suffered terribly through the Troubles. These are people who completely abandon career paths in order to support someone they love very deeply who is no longer able to care and support for themselves. Again’ I suggest that carers are often overlooked when we think of victims and survivors.
One final group of people who I would like to mention is a category that we care about very passionately in the Human Rights Commission across all of our work. We speak consistently about those who are the most marginalised and are the most vulnerable. They have been our primary target and our primary partners in what we do. I would suggest that even in the community of victims and survivors’ you too must question who among yourselves are the most vulnerable and marginalised’ because they are the people most in need of the support’ the care’ the acknowledgment and the empowerment that you can give.
Let me just make some suggestions as to who those people might be. They are the people who are too frightened to come into a group like this with a crowd of this size. They are the many who cannot face their neighbours’ do not go to shops and do not leave the house’ purely because of clinical depression’ which we know is a serious problem in Northern Ireland. They are the people who have some addiction that is blighting their lives. I believe this group is a very large crowd’ many of whom are not here’ and there are many others perhaps of which we are not aware.
Another final group that we need to remember – which I know is sometimes considered controversial’ but that in no way removes the need to remember them as part of the community of victims and survivors – are those who are in exile. There are those who are in England or in the Republic of Ireland who are afraid to come back because of what they perceive will happen to them or their family if they do. They too are part of the community of victims and survivors.
So’ how can the community of victims and survivors effectively help one another? There are several additional things that you can do as a community of people to be loud’ visible and a vocal part of society. Firstly’ I think that it is very important that we hear the voices of the victims and survivors with regard to welfare reform and the budget cuts. We now know that welfare reform and the budget cuts are impacting’ particularly strongly’ the community of victims and survivors. There are patterns of poverty that have been triggered by the Troubles which are being made far worse due to the recent cycles of withdrawals of public money. The voice of victims and survivors has yet to be adequately heard; I have yet to hear sufficiently loud in a public place the extent to which victims and survivors are being exceptionally hit and inordinately damaged by the recession and the responses to it.
Secondly’ I think Northern Ireland would be a stronger place if we could hear the voices of the victims and survivors with regard to the behaviour of the paramilitaries. The problems are not going away’ and they are deeply destabilizing communities and societies across Northern Ireland. I suggest that you have a powerful and a compelling voice to denounce these practices wherever and whenever they manifest themselves.
The third and the final area where I suggest that we need to hear your voice very strong and very loud has to do with the failure to comprehensively deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. For all that we do in the form of inquiries’ targeted investigation and inquests’ we should acknowledge what has been done but acknowledge that more is needed. We need some comprehensive framework and process to get the truth told about what happened in Northern Ireland during those decades. The truth of what happened must show how you have experienced all of these dreadful calamities’ what they have meant and what they continue to mean to you’ your families and your loved ones. So when we speak of the requirement of a global framework to deal with the past’ it is one that truly looks at the heart of your stories.
As we proceed with all these areas of work’ challenges and endeavours’ what is the role of the Human Rights Commission? Before I can answer that question’ it is particularly useful to recall what the Commission is. We are the body that was established under the Belfast Good Friday agreement to be the champion of human rights for Northern Ireland and to be the champion of the international standards to which the United Kingdom has committed itself in order to ensure that all levels of government honour those commitments. The key here is that those commitments are no more and no less than what British governments over the decades have freely subscribed to and signed onto as a commitment on behalf of its peoples. We have been tasked under statute to remind all those that have power and authority of that requirement.
Additionally’ our work is not only to hold the state to account. A lot of the bad stuff that happens in our lives is not caused by the state and we have a much broader remit to promote a culture of human rights in Northern Ireland’ a set of values which everybody subscribes to’ again which is based on these international treaties to which the state is committed. That is why this Commission’ wherever it sees an abuse’ wherever a bomb gets blown up’ regardless of who actually ignites that bomb; the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will speak up and will condemn it for the act of undermining human rights that it is.
More specifically now’ I turn to you. How can we at the Human Rights Commission provide direct support to the community of victims and survivors? Here’ we must tread very gingerly for two reasons. The first reason is that what victims and survivors are properly claiming is bigger than human rights and the remit of our Commission; we must modestly recognize that. We can only play a part in contributing to what you are doing and what needs to be done. We are acutely aware of the other bodies’ their functions and their roles. The Human Rights Commission has to work in a very complementary and careful way in which we are all mutually supporting and strengthening each other and never competing with each other.
We are hugely helped’ of course’ by having Alan McBride as a Commissioner. Having the voice of the victims’ and survivors’ community strongly present in the heart of our decisions is making a fundamental difference in what we do. It is because of Alan that we are going to have a discussion around how we can support victims during an upcoming Commission meeting to which we are bringing international experts to carve out a solid policy basis where we can make a real contribution. We already’ of course’ made some progress around how we can more generally support a framework of what we call transitional justice to address the breadth of the past and the many different ways in which that has to be engaged’ not just through the legal system of inquiries and inquests.
Nevertheless’ we need to more actively hear from you. Alan has never pretended to be the sole voice of victims into the Commission. He is working with us to travel and listen across Northern Ireland; we have been to twelve cities so far. We always ask the same question to whoever we meet or whatever organization we are speaking with. The question is’ ‘What do you want from us?’ You’d be surprised by the extent to which we are receiving the same messages from group after group in a manner that is genuinely shaping our work programme for the next four years.
As such’ I would remind you that we have a new team of Human Rights Commissioners in Northern Ireland right now. We are building on the legacy of those who went before us’ but nevertheless’ we are new people with new ideas that are always based on the legal standards. I am hopeful that in partnership we can all achieve something very worthwhile.
Finally’ let me say that I came to this building in my first week in the job to see Alan. I think that it was in this room that we met with a group of women’ which had a great impact on me. They said things to me that gave me my first sense of where I should be going and what flavour I should be giving to my work in Northern Ireland. The experience of visiting this house in my first week gave me a roadmap for almost all of what I’ve tried to do since I’ve came here. And tonight’ again I have been given a sense of reality and what it’s all about. I want to thank you all for that very much indeed’ and I wish you all the very best in your continued wonderful work.