The retirement of Jane Winter from British Irish Rights Watch at the end of 2012 was a great loss to many campaigning families in Ireland, Great Britain and beyond.
Jane and the independent organisation she helped found was a bulwark against State intransigence and lies. I personally shall miss her sober and clinical advice usually given via email in the wee hours, minutes after I had asked for it. She is tireless.
The great work she did will now be carried forward by Susan Bryant, a lawyer and human rights activist of international repute. The organisation will have the same vision and drive as before, but what better time for a re-brand and a website overhaul.
On Friday (31st May 2013), guests gathered in Belfast’s Bar Library – ironically, perhaps – for a dual launch: of a new name – Rights Watch UK – and of a new book by noted author, Susan McKay.
Esteemed PanelFollowing wine and nibbles under the watchful gaze of the old British judges hanging on the walls, we listened to a panel discussion, chaired by Geraldine Scullion (trustee and co-founder of the organisation), regarding the limits of using the law to enforce human rights standards and the role non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can play in overcoming them.
The expert panel included Susan Bryant (Rights Watch UK), Brian Gormally (Director of Committee for the Administration of Justice), author Susan McKay, and the inimitable Niall Murphy, Senior Partner at Kevin Winters Solicitors.
Geraldine and Susan immediately set the correct tone for the event with an overview of the great work that British Irish Rights Watch has done and the important work that Rights Watch UK will continue to do.
Indeed, Rights Watch UK is needed now as much as ever. The event took place during a week when British internment and State bias was very much in the news. Marian Price was released after 2 years incarceration and investigators had discovered that Britain was running its own extra-legal mini-Guatanamo Bay in Camp Bastion – a Brit-Gitmo as it was hailed in Helmand, Afghanistan. Just that day in a court nearby, we learned that the Chief Constable of the so-called reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had hand-picked a team made up of former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch to review, redact and manage evidence in some of the most controversial killings by the Security Forces during the conflict. Not only did we have a situation where former members were gate-keeping information given to families involving an organisation they served, but the officers had served with many of the police and Security Force witnesses. In fact, one officer – breathtakingly – knew 52 potential inquest witnesses. He was charged with reading and redacting information to be disclosed to the families of those shot dead (no doubt, in cases, by men with whom he worked)!
Reality CheckNiall gave us a reality check too when he told the audience how disenfranchised our families still feel when dealing with organisations such as the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (OPONI). Nevertheless, with the support of Rights Watch UK and other NGOs, we believed our voices were getting louder. Our families could attest to this as could the Finucane family who were represented at the event by the indomitable Geraldine, wife of Pat, and his son, John.
He reminded us too that Rights Watch UK offers much more than independent advice and support for families and their legal team. The organisation also offers a form of pastoral care together with their acute experience. This was best exemplified when Niall and the family of teenager, Gerard Lawlor, wished to mark the family’s on-going battle with the State and the tenth anniversary of the youth’s murder. With the organisation’s great support, the family launched a community inquiry to hold the authorities to account. I attended the family’s events and thought it poignant to write about their case in New Police Service, Old Story, as I recognised many of their battles as our own.
Rightly, Brian Gormally recalled our minds to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”. CAJ shared a similar evolution to Rights Watch UK, of course. They were defenders during a conflict when the State gave its Security Services huge power. They offered advice during peace talks and fought for the Good Friday Agreement to include content regarding human rights and equality. Now, they are fighting to make a rights-based society a reality and to ensure there is no roll-back by the State from these rights-based commitments.
This is a Morality TaleRenowned author, Susan McKay, then talked about her book, Rights Watch UK: From Belfast to Basra, which is launched to coincide with re-branding of Rights Watch UK. It is dedicated to the late Angela Hickey, a co-founder and avid supporter of British Irish Rights Watch and includes an introduction by Gareth Peirce, internationally renowned human rights activist. It opens with Gareth’s weighty words: “This is a morality tale” and the book is not only a history of the organisation but also a road map for the future for collusion is systemic and never in isolation. We attest to the organisation’s historically significant caseloads and read about Baha Mousa’s murder beside the Ballymurphy Massacre and the State murder of human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane. A chapter on the Good Friday Agreement offers hope of what can be accomplished but we are warned not to be complacent: a chapter on the so-called War on Terror and human rights abuses by the State today treads on its coat-tail. A common thread runs throughout.
Regardless of our background or political opinions, Rights Watch UK exhorts that we should be mindful: there is no such thing as a good or bad victim of human rights abuses… just a victim of human rights abuses.
Many thanks to Susan and Rights Watch UK for organising this event and our invitation to it. We wish the organisation continued success and will look forward to working with you in the future.
If you have not already, readers are encouraged to pick up British Irish Rights Watch’s ground-breaking report, Deadly Intelligence (1999), regarding State involvement in Loyalist murder in Northern Ireland.