Amnesty International’s Annual Report on Northern Ireland and Ireland was published last week as part of its annual series of country reports. Globally, the report considered the world to be a more dangerous place for refugees and migrants and stated that countries were increasingly using the cover of ‘internal affairs’ to block full consideration of their human rights standards. These reports are part of a broader reporting process by governmental and non-governmental together with global and regional bodies including state-led reports on individual countries’ commitments and abuses of human rights standards. Indeed, previously we have highlighted the US State Department’s Human Rights Reports, the Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council and the UK’s FCO Human Rights’ Report, amongst others. Often, these reports are conscious political campaigns, such as the Regan administration’s initiation of State Department country reports during the Cold War or the Universal Periodic Review as a method of moving beyond past failures in the UN’s human rights’ accountability mechanisms. Amnesty International, as a NGO, perhaps brings a more ‘independent’ overview of state activity, but even here, a country’s co-operation, or otherwise, may be critical in gaining access in order to compile the report. The priorities of a particular NGO may also alter the focus of such reports. Further, the ultimate utility of these kinds of general reports without any form of enforcement mechanism should be questioned, particularly when considerable resources are sunk into their compilation. At the very least, these reports offer an opportunity for countries to assess their human rights standards and in the case of critical reports, attempt, if possible, to save face or explain their poor standards of observation. Amnesty International historical record of accurate and influential reports makes their contribution particularly important.
The Report on Ireland focuses on prison conditions, the right to health, violence against women and girls, police and security forces, and constitutional and legal changes. In particular, the report criticised conditions in young offender institutions, though it did welcome the Government’s plan to end placement in St. Patrick’s for 16 year olds, the fact that 17 year olds would still be held there coupled with inadequate health and education facilities for young offenders, remained extremely problematic. The Report also stated that while the instigation of a process of investigation of serious complaints by prisoners was a step forward, this remained well short of what is required under the UN Torture Convention and mandated by the Torture Committee’s Report on Ireland in 2011. The 2011 Report had also highlighted the need for full investigations into the Magdalene Laundries and Amnesty also questions whether the Government has fully complied with its requirements on this matter. The Report mentions the Right to Health and particularly the death of Savita Halappanavar focusing on the lack of clarity in law on access to abortion, a point that the Oireachtas Committee would be well cautioned to consider. Amnesty also mentioned the Smithwick Tribunal on collusion with the IRA. The Report welcomed Ireland’s signing of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Constitutional Convention and the passage of the Constitutional amendment on Children’s Rights.
The Report on Northern Ireland forms part of the broader report on the UK. Here, Amnesty focused on the continuing activity of paramilitary forces, in particular the shooting dead of prison officer David Black and the intimidation of elected officials and journalists by these groups. The Report also looked at the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s review of the Historical Enquiries Team which re-examines all deaths related to the conflict in Northern Ireland and examines whether those cases involving the army are human rights compliant. The Report also highlighted the ongoing investigations into the death of Pat Finucane and Blood Sunday. In similar terrain to previous reports on Ireland, the Report also looked at the instigation of the inquiry into institutional child abuse in Northern Ireland from 1922-1995. More generally, Amnesty highlighted questions relating to torture and ill-treatment by UK forces with regard to terror suspects, the impact of counter-terrorism measures, gender based violence and the UK’s lead of a new initiative regarding violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict scenarios as well as the UK’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
The issues raised are familiar to anyone interested in human rights standards across Ireland and the UK. Yet, importantly, the report highlights the on-going issues, which have also been the focus of many previous Amnesty Reports and questions the good faith of both the Dublin and London Government as well as the devolved Government in Stormont to actually deal with rights questions, such as those relating to youth offending or women’s rights, that are often sidelined in favour of more publically acceptable human rights issues that are less electorally difficult. Repeated highlighting of these more difficult issues is perhaps the most important contribution that these forms of Reports can make, even if broader questions regarding their multitude and impact can be raised.