WASHINGTON – United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) on Monday won passage of a resolution marking the 25th Anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act during the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. The resolution recalled the importance of the Helsinki process in promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law within the 54 countries that participate in the OSCE.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly was held July 6 – 10, 2000 in Bucharest, Romania and included 249 parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region. The resolution also highlights the critical role of human rights advocates, both historically and today, in pushing governments to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution specifically recognized that some human rights defenders have been the target of retribution for their efforts to expose human rights abuses throughout Europe, while others have died as a result of their efforts to promote human rights.
“It is an honor to recognize the human rights defenders who serve to defend victims of human rights abuses only to become victims themselves, thanks to the willingness of some political leaders to look the other way in the face of blatant injustice,” Smith said. According to Smith, examples can be found in several OSCE countries of human rights advocates and attorneys, who are facing, or have faced, the problems described in the resolution. To illustrate this point, Smith described cases in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan where human rights attorneys or members of non-governmental organizations have faced harassment, intimidation or violence as a result of their human rights activities and related criticism of their respective governments.
Smith cited two cases in Northern Ireland in which prominent defense attorneys were murdered because of their efforts to ensure respect for their clients’ due process rights and other human rights. In one case, Northern Ireland defense attorney Rosemary Nelson – a wife and mother of three young children – was murdered by a loyalist paramilitary group in a car bomb explosion on March 15, 1999. Ten years earlier, defense attorney Patrick Finucane was also murdered in his home by loyalist paramilitaries. Both attorneys were widely known in Belfast due to their legal representation of Catholic clients in politically sensitive cases. Both attorneys reported that members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)-the Northern Ireland police force-made death threats against them while interviewing the attorneys’ clients without their attorneys present. Several human rights groups have alleged, and documented, that the circumstances surrounding the Nelson and Finucane murders strongly suggest collusion between members of the RUC, other British Government agents, and Loyalist paramilitaries in the murders. The British Government’s efforts to investigate the murders and the allegations of collusion have been riddled with problems and questions. To date, no one has been successfully prosecuted for either Finucane or Nelson’s murder.
“Rosemary Nelson’s murder was a cowardly act by those who are the enemies of peace and justice in Northern Ireland,” Smith said. “Her death is a loss felt not just by her family and friends, but by all of us who advocate fundamental human rights.” After a fact-finding mission to Northern Ireland, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers found that “the RUC has engaged in activities which constitute intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” with defense attorneys. The Special Rapporteur described these activities as “consistent and systematic.”
On March 15, 2000, the first anniversary of Rosemary Nelson’s death, Nelson’s family presented to the British Government a petition signed by 100,000 people calling for an independent judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding her death. The British Government has rejected this and numerous other calls – including legislation (H.Res. 128) passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in April, 1999 – for independent inquiries into the circumstances surrounding the murders.
The resolution expresses the Parliamentary Assembly’s concern “that human rights defenders, including human rights attorneys, who are engaged in promoting and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms in the OSCE region today have been the targets of detention, harassment, intimidation, specious legal obstacles and criminal prosecution and, in some instances, violence directed against them, and that human rights attorneys have been stripped of their licenses or threatened with disbarment.” The resolution also suggests that “OSCE participating States must take steps to ensure the safety of human rights defenders and to hold accountable persons who are responsible for threatening, harassing or otherwise harming human rights defenders on account of their efforts to promote and defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.”