CAJ in collaboration with the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) of the University of Ulster and the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s University Belfast organised the ‘Mapping the Rollback?’ conference, which marked the 15th Anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The conference took place in the Great Hall, Queens University Belfast on the 26 April 2013 and was attended by a full capacity audience of around 150 delegates from across civil society. The objective of the conference, and this report, was precisely to ‘map the rollback’ from the human rights commitments made as part of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent implementation Agreements (Weston Park Agreement 2001, Joint Declaration 2003, St Andrews Agreement 2006, Hillsborough 2010) and the various reviews and commissions (e.g. the Independent [Patten] Commission on Policing) which emerged as part of the process. Whilst not taking a position on the 1998 Agreement per se (given as it dealt with the constitutional status of Northern Ireland on which we have no view)
CAJ, along with others, did make substantial efforts to ensure human rights were mainstreamed into the peace settlement and Agreement itself. There was considerable success. A cursory search of the text of the Agreement showing that the words ‘right’ or ‘rights’ appears 61 times and the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson noted “…the Good Friday Agreement is conspicuous by the centrality it gives to equality and human rights concerns.” The range of subsequent international Agreements between the two sovereign governments to implement and take forward the settlement also contained a number of human rights commitments (although unfortunately no dispute resolution mechanism to assist implementation).
CAJ has long pressed for enforcement to ensure that the elements of the peace settlement which do protect human rights are, and continue to be, implemented. It is important to stress that these provisions were not mere manifesto commitments by governments now out of office but rather provisions which were enshrined into bilateral (UK-Ireland) treaties and international agreements between them which are binding in international law. At the time of the conference a significant part of official discourse on the peace settlement had veered towards an ‘end of history’ narrative which sought to project the idea that, following the devolution of justice and the Assembly completing a full term, the final blocks of the peace settlement had been solidly put into place and were indeed a model for the world. This official narrative was by then already being checked in the context of the flags protests, and has been further dented since by instability in power sharing and the unresolved crisis issues in the political process which have led to the current ‘Panel of Parties’ talks chaired by Richard Haass. Two central issues to the Haass talks, the first parading and the second flags and emblems, were ironically two issues for which a framework was to have been provided by the unimplemented Bill of Rights committed to in the 1998 Agreement.