By Jack Holland
The human rights group Amnesty International has expressed its dismay that an upcoming visit to Northern Ireland has become "politicized" because of claims made by First Minister David Trimble. Trimble has said that Amnesty’s purpose in visiting Northern Ireland is to investigate paramilitary "punishment" attacks and that its visit comes as a result of his invitation to look into the matter.
The group is expecting to visit Northern Ireland sometime in the spring. But a spokeswoman said that the trip had been planned as long ago as last fall and that its aim was to carry out a wide-ranging review of human-rights issues.
"Amnesty is concerned that its mission has been politicized," said a spokeswoman in Belfast. "We have to make certain that our work is seen as fair and thorough and impartial."
When it first announced the visit the group notified Trimble, among others, of its plans. Amnesty says Trimble did not respond. Then on Feb. 2, the first minister sent a letter asking the group to visit Northern Ireland to look at attacks carried out by paramilitary punishment squads, which he alleged were violating the Good Friday peace agreement. At the same time, he made the letter to Amnesty available to the press. Amnesty responded to Trimble with its own press release confirming that it was still planning a visit. Trimble then issued a public statement welcoming the upcoming Amnesty visit as a response to his request.
The situation was further muddied by a story in the London Observer newspaper claiming that Trimble’s request to Amnesty was a direct result of an editorial it published on a recent IRA kidnapping.
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A spokesman for Trimble has said that the first minister wrote to Amnesty on "that specific issue" because the "forces of law and the judiciary seemed helpless to stop" the beatings and shootings. He called it a "serious human rights issue" and that Amnesty has the mandate to look at it. "We can’t hold them to a specific remit," he added. The spokesman claimed that since the beginning of the year there has been more than one punishment attack per day. He said that the First Minister was genuine in his concern that this issue should be dealt with.
In recent weeks, Trimble and others, including Families Against Intimidation and Terror, have been criticizing the political representatives of paramilitary organization and Sinn Fein in particular for a rise in punishment beatings and shootings, many of them attributed to the IRA.
According to FAIT, there were 213 such shootings and beatings in 1998. As of the end of January this year, there have been 10 shootings, four by the IRA and six by loyalists, and 27 beatings, 12 by the IRA and 15 by loyalists. Sixty-two people have been forced into exile because of paramilitary threats. As well, republican elements are believed to have been responsible for the murder of author and former IRA member Eamon Collins on Jan. 27.
The controversy over punishment attacks has become part of the debate over decommissioning. Trimble and other Unionists have threatened that unless the IRA decommissions some of its hardware, they will block Sinn Fein from taking seats in the new Northern Ireland executive when it is established. The punishment attacks have been used as proof that decommissioning is necessary and that paramilitaries are in violation of the agreement and, therefore, not entitled to reap any of the benefits that stem from it.
Amnesty International is worried that because of recent claims that it was going to investigate punishment attacks that it would become entangled in the issue.
The Amnesty spokeswoman reiterated that the visit is not a response to a request from Trimble and that it is not being undertaken to carry out an investigation of punishment attacks. She said that while Amnesty is willing to look at such attacks, it will do so only in the context of the policing issue and the need to establish a balanced police force.
"We are not carrying out an investigation into beatings and shootings but we will be looking at a whole range of human rights issues," she stressed. Another human rights group, Human Rights Watch, has written to the first minister to say that while they would be "happy to discuss . . . the full range of human rights problems," it does not normally send "a special delegation to investigate one single aspect of a complex human rights situation."
Amnesty has published nearly 50 reports on Northern Ireland, beginning in 1972. Its focus has been the security forces’ alleged violations of human rights and Northern Ireland’s repressive legislation.