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Helsinki Commissioners Call on United Kingdom to Promote Rule of Law through Independent Judicial Inquiries into Murders of Human Rights Defenders in Northern Ireland

WASHINGTON – The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe today examined allegations of security forces’ involvement in the ongoing intimidation and harassment of human rights advocates in Northern Ireland.

The hearing focused on the still-unsolved murders of two Belfast defense attorneys, human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson who was killed on March 15, 1999 by a car bomb outside her home in Belfast, Northern Ireland following her harassment and intimidation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)—the Northern Ireland police force, and defense attorney Patrick Finucane who was murdered in his home under circumstances suggesting the involvement of police and other government agents ten years earlier.

“Ensuring a defendant’s right to unfettered access to counsel is crucial if Northern Ireland is to achieve a lasting peace.,” said Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “Defense attorneys are the ‘Helsinki Monitors’ of Northern Ireland. The OSCE can be a valuable forum in which to provide cover for these human rights advocates. The United States and United Kingdom are quick to criticize emerging democracies that fail to abide by the rule of law and due process. The best way to lead in these matters is by example.”

Commissioner Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, expressed the State Department’s concern with the protection of lawyers, the rule of law, and human rights in Northern Ireland. House International Relations Committee Chairman, Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY), called for police reform in Northern Ireland and a police force that “reflects the population of Northern Ireland.” Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) called “upon the British Government to create a new police force more reflective of the people and their needs than the current RUC.”

Geraldine Finucane, whose husband Patrick was gunned down in 1989 by a loyalist paramilitary group, testified: “It is clear that the British Government is responsible for the deaths of my husband and Rosemary Nelson. This is not just because they failed to protect them. Pat and Rosemary were the victims of British Government policy—that of selective targeting and directed assassinations.” Finucane continued, “Rosemary Nelson testified [before the U.S. Congress in 1998] about threats that she had received time and again as she carried out her work as a defense lawyer. One year ago, Rosemary was murdered. Those who said it could not happen again were wrong.”

Eunan Magee, the brother of slain defense attorney Rosemary Nelson, testified: “My sister was a good lawyer. She represented her clients, from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, to the best of her ability. That is why she was subject to harassment and threats made by police officers and others. That is also why she was killed.…That is why our family is supporting the call for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the murder of Rosemary.”

Jane Winter, Director of British Irish Rights Watch, which, in 1999 provided the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom with a confidential report on security forces collusion in the murders of Patrick Finucane and others, commented, “when we presented our report to the British Government, we were promised a swift response. Thirteen months later we are still waiting.” Winter continued, “British Irish Rights Watch has made serious allegations of security force collusion in a large number of deaths and other illegal acts, of which the murder of Patrick Finucane is but the tip of the iceberg.…There is only one honorable response to the allegations we have made, and substantiated to the best of our ability. The government, which already has under its control all the answers to the questions we have raised, must establish an independent judicial inquiry without further prevarication.”

According to Paul Mageean, a legal officer at the Committee for the Administration of Justice, a non-sectarian human rights organization in Northern Ireland, “The [ongoing] criminal investigation even if successfully concluded will not result in a full examination of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Rosemary Nelson.” Mageean stated, “For these reasons we are committed to a full public inquiry into the murder along with a number of other domestic and international NGOs.”

Michael Posner, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which recently completed a fact finding mission to Northern Ireland, stated “the threats against defense attorneys in Northern Ireland continue to go on today.…The situation in Northern Ireland is very isolated—the attention given to it by Congress, the OSCE and the UN, are much needed to address this isolation.”

In response to the testimony, Chairman Smith suggested that the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest this summer should advance a resolution calling on the British Government to establish an independent judicial inquiry into the murders of Finucane and Nelson. “The central responsibility for assuring the right to counsel and maintaining the rule of law belongs to the government, in this case the British Government. By supporting continued restrictions on due process rights—the so-called Emergency Provisions—and by refusing to take decisive action to protect defense attorneys, the government has failed miserably in this regard,” he concluded.

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