31 July 2008 Edition

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United Nations slams Britain's human rights record - again

UN report highlights inquiries concerns in the Six Counties


UNACCOUNTABLE soldiers, illegal detention, torture of detainees, shoot-to-kill cover-up, delayed inquiries and executive interference. For almost 20 years I have been writing about Britain’s failure to adhere to recognised international human rights and legal standards – and it’s the same old story.
Report after report – from the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights, Amnesty International and a plethora of other NGOs and watchdogs – has expressed the same concerns about the practices of the British Government and the actions of the British forces.
At the height of the conflict in the North of Ireland almost all of those concerns related to the British occupation here.
But while the Peace Process and subsequent negotiations have transformed Britain’s role in Ireland, the latest report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee makes clear that Britain’s response to other conflict situations remains much the same.
Instead of addressing the causes, the British Government remains intent on suppressing and silencing opposition. Instead of negotiation and accommodation, the British state is still intent upon repression. And the tools of repression remain very much the same.
In other words, the British state may have been forced to transform the way in which it deals with Ireland but it has yet to learn from its Irish experience.

In relation to Ireland, the most significant concern highlighted in the latest United Nations report (published on 21 July), is the continued delay in holding inquires in relation to a number of controversial killings, the lack of prosecutions and interference in the independence of inquires.
“The committee remains concerned that, a considerable time after murders (including of human rights defenders) in Northern Ireland have occurred, and that those responsible for these deaths have not yet been prosecuted.
The United Nations report says:
“Even where inquiries have been established, the committee is concerned that, instead of being under the control of an independent judge, several of these inquiries are conducted under the Inquiries Act 2005 which allows the government minister who established an inquiry to control important aspects of that inquiry.
“The state party should conduct, as a matter of particular urgency given the passage of time, independent and impartial inquiries in order to ensure a full, transparent and credible account of the circumstances surrounding violations of the right to life in Northern Ireland.”
Commenting on the latest UN report, Robert McClenaghan, from the Belfast-based campaign group, An Fhirinne, said once again the British Government has failed to act on its obligations under the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Now the UN has published yet another damning report, surely the time has come to stand down the Historical Enquiries Team, investigations of the Ombudsman and the Eames/Bradley consultations and focus instead on an international, independent truth commission under the auspices of a neutral body like the UN Human Rights Committee.”
The report questions the continued deployment of plastic bullets, in particularly the use of the latest ‘Attenuating Energy Projectile’ (AEP), heralded before its introduction in June 2005 as a safer alternative to its lethal predecessor.
The report cites “emerging medical evidence that they may cause serious injuries” and calls on the British Government to consider banning their use.
The UN committee points out that Britain remains the only European state that continues to opt out of key aspects of human rights legislation.
The committee expresses particular concern of the “broad scope” of Britain’s “general reservation to exempt review of service discipline for members of the armed forces”.

The report also criticises the British Government for “the slowness of the proceedings designed to establish responsibility for the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and at the circumstances under which he was shot by police at Stockwell underground railway station”.
De Menezes was a Brazilian-born electrician shot dead in a shoot-to-kill operation by London’s Metropolitan Police force after he was incorrectly identified as a potential suicide bomber. According to eyewitnesses, there was no attempt to arrest Menezes and no warning given before he was repeatedly shot by an undercover unit.
The committee called on the British Government to “ensure that the findings of the coronial inquest, due to begin in September 2008, are followed up vigorously, including on the question of individual responsibility and on the question of intelligence failures and police training”.
But if the case in Ireland of Pearse Jordan is anything to go by, the Menezes family will have a long fight for justice. IRA Volunteer Pearse Jordan was unarmed when the car he was driving was rammed by an undercover unit of the RUC. As he stumbled out of the vehicle, he was shot dead.
No attempt was made to arrest Jordan and no warnings were issued before the unit opened fire. Pearse Jordan was shot dead in November 1992 and the inquest into the killing has yet to take place.

The report also highlights the British Government’s continued deportation of foreign nationals at risk of torture or cruel and degrading treatment if they are returned to their country of origin.
The use of British-held territory for rendition flights and cites “at least two occasions for rendition flights of persons to countries where they risk being subjected to torture or ill treatment”.
Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment also figured large in Britain’s strategy in Ireland and became the mainstay of its justice system in which conviction in non-jury Diplock courts became the corollary of torture in interrogation centres like Castlereagh.
The committee raised concerns about the retention of Diplock non-jury courts in the North of Ireland despite the Peace Process and the fact that there is no right of appeal against a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions to impose a non-jury trial.
Rendition renders the use of torture against defenceless detainees to be more remote control. This week, London’s High Court heard the case of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born cleaner in Kensington.
The court heard that British Military Intelligence was “mixed up in wrong-doing” in co-operating with the US in “the unlawful treatment of a UK resident”.
Binyam Mohamed was detained in Pakistan where British officials not only failed to intervene to stop his mistreatment but also allowed rendition by the US military. The detainee was flown to Morocco and Afghanistan before being taken to Guantanamo Bay.
According to the human rights group, Reprieve, Mohamed was threatened by MI5 before being flown to a torture centre in Morocco. “All the confessions came out of torture” the court was told.
The US did not tell British officials, Mohamed was secretly rendered to Morocco and conveniently the British didn’t ask. In return, “the US supplied Britain with the ‘fruits’ of that interrogation”.

In the report, the UN expresses concerns at the “negative public attitudes towards Muslim members of society” and calls on Britain to “ensure that the fight against terrorism does not lead to raising suspicion against all Muslims”.
Perhaps the UN committee remembered the treatment of the Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and Birmingham Six, all of which were targeted simply because they were Irish and convenient scapegoats for a state incensed by rebellion in the North of Ireland.
The committee raised concerns about the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the use of curfews and control orders, restricted access to lawyers and the extension of the time a detainee can be held without charge.
All of this will be very familiar to people in Ireland, who became the focus of British aggression over 30 years ago when they dared to demand independence, equality and human rights.

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