Relatives for Justice was founded in the early-1980s by relatives of victims killed by government officials, particularly by the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constable (the police force in Northern Ireland). Because the actions that lead to the deaths of these victims were illegal under international law, if not also domestic law, the police refused to take witness statements and collect other significant evidence that could be used in the future to prosecute these illegal deaths. For centuries, violent crimes were covered-up, citing national security as the reason for non-prosecution.
However, the founding relatives of my host organizations took it upon themselves to collect witness statements and other reports of incidents of state killings. State killings often brazenly took place in public, in front of children, other state officials and countless others, or were committed in the homes of the victims while in the presence of their families.
These relatives maintained the evidence files secretly in their homes. Their safety and that of their families were in enormous jeopardy due to the controversy of collecting all-important evidence on state killings. Soon, Relatives for Justice opened an office on Falls Road in West Belfast, the heart of state killing in Northern Ireland. The building remains secure and the staff and volunteers can openly conduct their work free from fear of public or governmental sanction.
Still, there has been little success in prosecuting these crimes of state murder. The British courts are reluctant to find evidence compelling or even admissible, and international forums are likewise unwilling to involve the all-powerful United Kingdom in highly embarrassing and controversial state murder cases. Even in cases of children, no murder claim has ever been totally successful against the British government.
The United Kingdom has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on countless occasions for the years of state warfare they perpetrated on a marginalized population in Northern Ireland. In 1995, a public and international outcry from family members, Amnesty International and other concerned parties convinced the ECHR to admit an appeal from a UK high court for the state killings of three IRA volunteers killed in Gibraltar seven years prior (the McCann case). There had been no independent police investigation into the killings, standard scene-of-the-crime procedures were not followed, not all eyewitnesses were interviewed, and the jury who found in favor of the British government was permitted to consist of potentially prejudicial crown servants. The judgment before the ECHR has been the only successful prosecution of a Member State for an Article 2 violation to date.
Today, Relatives for Justice focuses on two aspects of the Troubles: therapy for victims and their relatives, and public education and prosecution of state crimes. My fellowship at Relatives for Justice focused on this latter aspect of relief.
One of my accomplishments this summer was to write a report that both narrated instances of state killings and collusion as well as drew together threads of collusion to realize facts and other evidence that can be used before a court of law in the future. Part of my report has already been submitted to the legal counsel working on blocking a state-hired gun, Michael Stone, from receiving profits from his best selling autobiography detailing his numerous sanctioned murders of countless Catholics, both political and civilian alike. My report will also be used in part in going forward for press releases, public statements of the organization, and for other pending and future prosecutions of state killings.
My challenges this summer were working under irregular supervision. At times, I waited for my next assignment, having already completed the first. These times I spent connecting on a personal level with my fellow volunteers, who themselves are relatives of victims of state killings. Those times when they shared their painful stories of parents or spouses being killed were some of the most rewarding experiences I had all summer. These are the people that have had the greatest impact on my experience during my fellowship in Northern Ireland. Fortunately, though, my initial assignment was sufficiently complex and lengthy to keep me occupied during most of these “down times” when my boss was busy wearing every hat in this small NGO.
The internship was certainly different than I expected. I had always thought of nations such as the United Kingdom as having the highest regard for political and personal freedoms. Certainly I never expected all the cases of state killings that I researched to be so blatant and unforgiving. I thought that there would be more gray area to the violence, as people assume with Northern Ireland generally.
My motivation for human rights work has come into a new appreciation. I understand now that there are human rights issues worldwide that do not reach public attention, not due to their magnitude but due to the fact that governments shrewdly mask what they need to hide and publicize only what is in their political favor. The fact that Northern Ireland has fallen off the human rights map (or never made it to the map in the first place) and that the United Kingdom is widely recognized for democracy, freedom and justice is shocking to me now.
I also have a new appreciation for human rights work done in other countries. Before this internship, I generally expected that all human rights violations, especially those of the state, would be widely known and effectively worked on by large international organizations, like Amnesty and the United Nations. I did not realize that atrocious human rights abuses could be so vastly ignored by many, and that governments intimidated organizations from conducting human rights work, even to the point of killing human rights lawyers (which actually has been a problem in Northern Ireland). I am impressed that such monumental human rights work happened in small organizations with staffs of less than ten, often dependant on volunteers and private funding to keep them running.
Relatives for Justice has campaigned for two decades against the use of plastic bullets as a means of crowd control in Northern Ireland. These bullets are the size of toilet paper rolls and made out of solid, hard plastic. When fired upon adults, they tend to wound and blind. When fired upon kids, the plastic bullets tend to kill. Because of the vigorous years of campaigning against their use, Relatives for Justice and families and others have almost brought an end to the use of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland (to be decided at the end of this year). This is the kind of success that can come from a small place with a handful of committed human rights workers, both from human rights organizations and from the community.
Finally, I have a renewed appreciation in American democracy, separation of powers, freedom and justice. Countries, like the United Kingdom, that lack a Constitution are absent some of the fundamental rights that we Americans may not realize. In Northern Ireland, police can enter your home, can search and arrest you without reason or explanation, and political officials can openly belong to paramilitary organizations. Of course, the lack of a Constitution largely doesn’t affect the day-to-day lives of any British resident other than one in Northern Ireland. The British press (i.e., the BBC) is almost entirely owned and run by the British government. British citizens and the rest of the world are not told of the injustice that is going on: the cases of killings of children and civilians that are not allowed before domestic forums. But the people know of these atrocities because of organizations like Relatives for Justice.
It will be difficult to bring my experience back to Minnesota in a truly meaningful way. I have decided that some of the best work I can do is to inform others on what is happening in the world. I plan to write a legal thesis for credit in law school on the topic of state killings, including information that is not widely known but is certainly true. I plan to write to the senators on the US Foreign Relations Committee. I also plan to support small but successful organizations that do hard work for little regard and reward, with my own efforts and time. I plan to appreciate and uphold the values of our Constitution, including freedom of worship, freedom of speech and of the press, and justice available to all.
I think that an experience like mine can’t help but infiltrate every aspect of one’s work and personal relations. We all must deal with other people, even in the most impersonal jobs and independent of existences. Having genuine sympathy for other peoples’ traumas and struggles, even when we can’t comprehend of their situations in our own lives, does a lot to placate their wounds in the absence of true justice.
I am fortunate that these people shared so much of themselves and their lives
and pains with me- the little girls who are now middle aged women who never
got over seeing their fathers shot at the dinner table; the women who were
prescribed drugs to cure the depression and stress of being left single mothers
who are now dependant on these drugs; the every day person who has seen people
being shot and has been shot at themselves; the high rate of suicide, specifically
amongst young Catholics; the fear of a people who knows their government doesn’t
care about them. It makes me sad, and its makes me older. But it is better
to know that these things are happening, and to work towards an end to it.
Moreover, I learned that small efforts by the little people can really make
a difference in people’s lives.
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