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Helsinki Commission Chairman Decries Lack of Northern Ireland Police Reforms

WASHINGTON – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) said today the British Government will determine whether police reform becomes a “linchpin or Achilles heel in the Good Friday Agreement,” underscoring just how much rides on policing reform for a just and lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

In his sixth hearing examining the ongoing human rights efforts in Northern Ireland, Chairman Smith stressed the importance of the British Government’s pending decision either to enact the entire Patten Report in a definitive move towards policing reform, or continue standing idly by as police injustice continues. “Tremendous strides have been made toward peace in Northern Ireland in the past few years, and in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed and strongly endorsed by public referendums in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” said Smith. “The parties to the Agreement recognized it as a blueprint for the future and specifically recognized the promise it offered to craft ‘a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland.’”

On September 9, 1999, the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland issued its report which contained 175 recommendations for change and reform and stated that “policing was at the heart of many of the problems politicians have been unable to resolve in Northern Ireland,” added Smith. “Regrettably, the Police Bill scheduled for the House of Lords in early October does not fully reflect these and many other recommendations.”

“The Patten report provides a framework on which a police service built on a foundation of human rights can be achieved,” said Gerald Lynch, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the former Patten Commission.

“The recommendations of the Patten Commission were unanimous. It is crucial that the recommendations not be cherry picked but be implemented in a cohesive and constructive manner,” added Lynch.

“I believe that the Patten Report is not only what [Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter] Mandelson should fully implement under the Agreement as proof of rigorous impartiality in his administration, but also what he should implement even if there were to be no Agreement,” said Brendan O’Leary, Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. O’Leary called the pending Policing Bill a “poorly disguised facade” that does not implement the Patten report. Smith noted that the Patten Commission recognized that one of the RUC’s most striking problems is its lack of accountability.

Smith noted that of 16,375 complaints received by the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC) prior to 1994, not one single case resulted in any disciplinary sanction against an RUC officer. In 1996, 2,540 complaints were submitted to the ICPC, only one RUC officer was found guilty of abuse. In 1997, one person was dismissed from the RUC-one person out of 5,500 complaints that year.

“To address the problems of accountability, the Patten Commission offered many recommendations such as replacing the Independent Commission for Police Complaints with a Police Ombudsman’s office that would have its own staff and investigative powers. The Commission also recommended a new Policing Board and an International Oversight Commissioner with the authority to help shape a new police force that would have the confidence of the community it serves,” said Smith. “Yet the legislation limits instead of extends the powers of these institutions. Incredibly, the Police Bill gives the Northern Ireland Secretary of State a veto authority to prevent a Policing Board inquiry if the inquiry would ‘serve no useful purpose;’ it restricts the Ombudsman’s ability to investigate police policies and practices, completely prohibits the Policing Board from looking into any acts that occurred before the bill is enacted, and restricts the Oversight Commissioner to overseeing only those changes in policing that the government approves.”

“The Police Bill also rejects the Patten Commission’s recommendation that all police officers in Northern Ireland take an oath expressing an explicit commitment to upholding human rights. This recommendation should have been the absolute floor for the new police service,” said Smith. “Despite the fact that the first draft of the Police Bill incorporated less than two-thirds of the Patten recommendations, Mr. Mandelson continues to argue that this bill is the implementation of Patten.”

Elisa Massimino, Washington Office Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, noted that the British Government’s lack of pursuit in installing human rights measures raises a number of concerns. “Although the British Government has repeatedly asserted that it ‘recognizes the importance of human rights,’ its ongoing resistance to inserting reference to international human rights standards into the language of the Police Bill raises serious questions,” said Massimino.

Martin O’Brien of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a non-sectarian human rights group in Belfast which has been working for the implementation of the Patten Report, said, “Implementation is everything, and in that context, CAJ must report to Congress our profound disappointment at developments since the publication of the Patten report.”

“The Good Friday Agreement offers the best chance for peace that Northern Ireland has had in the past thirty years,” said Smith. “I hope and pray that the British Government will seize the promise of the Good Friday Agreement to create a police service that, in the words of that Agreement, is ‘professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control; accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and co-operative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms.’ These standards are consistent with the UK’s commitments as a participating State of the OSCE and they are what the people of Northern Ireland deserve.”

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