I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address this important committee. At a time when the Good Friday Agreement is potentially under threat from, among other things, the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, the committee's deliberations are particularly important. CAJ is a human rights organisation. The first duty of a human rights organisation in a post-conflict society is to try to protect the peace. We believe that the legacy issue has direct relevance to the peace settlement and that it involves many threatening problems that remain unresolved. In one sense, it is misleading to think of these matters as relating to the past. The deaths and injuries during the conflict occurred in the past but the failure to properly deal with the issues arising is very much a matter of the present. In our view, from a human rights perspective, the issue is about the deplorable maintenance of impunity for past crimes.
"Impunity" is the term used for a systemic failure to hold people, especially state agents, accountable for human rights violations. It is hugely destructive of the rule of law and erodes faith in the justice system and state institutions in general. The longer it goes on, the more it poisons contemporary society, even when it relates to crimes of the past. A failure to hold a state to account for patterns of past human rights violations fuels the risk that they will be repeated at home and abroad when similar circumstances arise. This is why impunity is a prime target of human rights activists throughout the world. The failure on the part of the UK Government to properly investigate many of the deaths and maimings that occurred during the conflict, in our view, amounts to a maintenance of impunity. Nineteen years after the Good Friday Agreement and 16 years after the landmark rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Northern Ireland cases on the obligation to investigate deaths, there is no proper system to deal with these matters.
We had hoped that, by now, such a comprehensive system, based on the proposals in the Stormont House Agreement, would have been at least established in law. Unfortunately, the UK Government continues to evade its responsibilities, frequently hiding behind the fact that policing and justice are matters devolved to the Northern Ireland Administration. We need to stress that the international duty to eradicate impunity and the obligation to properly investigate the past rest with the UK Government. A state cannot avoid its responsibilities because of its internal devolution arrangements. For the time being, what we have called the "apparatus of impunity" remains in existence.
The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 lays out the basis for a mechanism to deal with continuing impunity and to help resolve many of the continuing problems arising out of the past. As members will know, the agreement provides for a set of new institutions to deal with the past in Northern Ireland. These are the historical investigations unit, an independent commission on information retrieval, an oral history archive, and an implementation and reconciliation group. It also provides recommendations for services for victims and survivors, including a mental trauma service. The implementation of these institutions, however, requires detailed legislation. Such legislation was scheduled to be introduced in Westminster in October 2015. This did not happen but, in the meantime, CAJ, together with academics from Queen's University and individual experts produced a model Bill that demonstrated how the agreement could be brought into operation in a human rights compliant manner. Copies of the model Bill and explanatory notes have been given to the committee secretariat.
After the negotiations on implementation broke down in late 2015, primarily as a result of the UK Government’s insistence on a national security veto on information disclosed to families, we prepared a model mechanism for information redaction. This proposed a judge-based appeal mechanism and detailed criteria for the disclosure of information. These documents are also with the committee's secretariat. They were passed to the two Governments in May 2016 and we published them earlier this year but there is still no indication of what the UK Government's position will be on its demand for a national security veto.
The current situation is that consultation on draft legislation has repeatedly been promised by the UK Government but has so far failed to materialise. This September, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, reflecting on the 16 years since the European Court of Human Rights gave judgment in the McKerr group of cases, which are the leading cases on this matter, noted with deep concern that the historical investigations unit and the other institutions had not been set up. The committee stated that it is "imperative" that the British Government bring forward these proposals as soon as possible. Yesterday, I heard that, in the absence of a deal between the two main parties at Stormont, the UK Government will bring forward some form of consultation before Christmas. Having said that, we have heard it before and we do not know if it will materialise.
The Committee of Ministers also criticised the UK Government for not giving the Lord Chief Justice the resources to put forward his plan in terms of legacy inquests. That proposal for funding was blocked personally by the then First Minister, Arlene Foster, but the UK Government has failed to bypass that blockage and the responsibility in this regard remains with it.
As we do every six months, we gave a report to the committee of Ministers which detailed progress in the last period, or lack of it. It also set out an account of some of the relevant court proceedings continuing at the present time. That report is with the committee secretariat. Just at the end of last week, the courts announced that judicial reviews and other proceedings with a legacy element will be fast-tracked in order to minimise delays for victims. This is to be welcomed and demonstrates that the Judiciary is prepared to do its duty. This is in stark contrast to the executive branch of government. In passing, I note that judgment in the "hooded men" case - another legacy case - will be handed down tomorrow at 11 a.m. in Belfast. We do not know what that will be but it is an important case concerning people who were injured - or tortured in this case - during the conflict. It is not only about deaths.
The current position is that the UK Government remains in violation of its duty under Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights to properly investigate deaths and serious injuries. Impunity for state actors is maintained, the victims remain deprived of justice and faith in the rule of law and in the peace process continues to be undermined. I hope the joint committee can bring its influence to bear and encourage the UK Government to implement the solutions to this deplorable situation.