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Truth versus justice

I have previously suggested that the most effective way for a post-conflict society to move towards long-term peace, stability and reconciliation is to confront and interrogate the past and maximise the scope for justice. Yet what if the twin objectives of truth and justice are in conflict?

What if a human rights abuser refuses to admit the truth of past deeds for fear of prosecution, so perpetuating the misery of a victim's family left in the dark about the fate of their loved one?

How will a victim's family feel if they know the human rights abuser has bought immunity from prosecution be agreeing to admit those past deeds?

These are questions which have taxed some of the world's finest brains. Now a few of them are coming to Northern Ireland.

Queen’s University Belfast has announced it is to host a major international conference on amnesties and truth recovery later this month.

The event will bring together academics and experts from around the world to talk about truth processes and post-conflict transition from countries as diverse as Uruguay, Uganda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, South Africa and Argentina. Oh, and Northern Ireland, of course.

The conference (snappy title: ‘Amnesties, Immunities and Prosecutions: International Perspectives on Incentivising Truth Recovery’) will cover a range of issues such as trials, truth commissions, reparations, community-based justice and memorialisation.

The organisers – Dr Kieran McEvoy and Dr Louise Mallinder from the School of Law – hope the event will assist in ongoing discussions on the implementation of the recommendations from the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland.

The Group’s report received a stormy reception in some quarters upon publication. Most of the controversy centred on the recommendation that Government should make a ‘recognition payment’ to the next of kin of all those who died in the NI conflict. Some victims and politicians viewed this as an unwelcome equalisation of treatment of ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ victims and the UK government quickly distanced itself.

The controversy damaged the report as a whole and distracted attention from the many other thoughtful recommendations on how Northern Ireland should deal with the legacy of the recent conflict.

Amnesty International has its own concerns, of course, particularly if immunity from prosecution were to be offered as an incentive to participate in a truth recovery process. Last year, during the Group’s consultation process, we made our concerns known to Jeremy Hill, legal advisor to the Group, who will be one of the conference speakers addressing the Northern Ireland context.

This conference should be welcomed as an opportunity for a more cool-headed assessment of the issues than has been possible hitherto in Northern Ireland (although, some other quiet efforts have been taking place to advance discussion of the report).

We hope that due consideration will be given to a key finding from Amnesty’s own international comparative research, that immunity and impunity can leave a bitter legacy of injustice, which can persist long after a supposed reconciliation process…

The conference takes place at the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast on 22 June 2009. More details from the Law School: (+44) (0)28 90971348.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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