For Immediate Release: May 24, 2011
Washington, D.C. — The findings of the public inquiry into Northern Ireland lawyer Rosemary Nelson’s murder raise serious questions about the British Government’s failure to protect her. Nelson was murdered in March 1999, six months after testifying in the United States Congress about ongoing threats against her and other human rights lawyers in Northern Ireland. Human Rights First has worked on her case for many years and submitted evidence to the inquiry in 2006. HRF also testified on the Northern Ireland Peace Process before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, and the Subcommittee on Europe and Emerging Threats. Full text of the testimony can be found here.
While the inquiry concluded there was no direct government collusion, it found that British State “omissions” put Rosemary Nelson at greater risk and made her more vulnerable to the loyalist paramilitaries who eventually murdered her, and that some members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary “publicly abused and assaulted Rosemary Nelson… having the effect of legitimizing her as a target.” Unfortunately, the report made no recommendations, despite being specifically tasked to do so.
Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino recalled Nelson’s commitment to the rule of law in the face of intimidation and threats: “Rosemary Nelson was one of a small number of defense lawyers in Northern Ireland who took politically sensitive cases in a climate shaped by thirty years of conflict between a Protestant majority and Catholic minority. Her work made her the target of harassment by the authorities. Rosemary considered what to do in the face of the escalating threats against her: she debated whether she should give up the contentious work altogether, learn to live with the abuse but try to keep a low profile, or tackle the abuse head on by making official complaints and campaigning publicly for her clients’ rights. She concluded that the main purpose of the threats was to dissuade her from representing clients whom the police perceived as the enemy. Her abiding concern, frequently expressed, was that if she did not represent the handful of clients whose cases were contentious, no other lawyer in the area would take them on. It was unthinkable to her that she should abandon her clients. It came as no surprise to anyone who knew Rosemary Nelson that she opted to confront these abuses and to carry on with her work. The State failed its obligation to protect her; instead, it contributed to an environment which facilitated her murder.”
Nelson was not the only lawyer who was killed for simply carrying out professional responsibilities. Human Rights First has long pressed for an independent inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane, a Belfast solicitor, who was murdered in February 1989 at his home by gunmen. He had successfully challenged the British Government in a series of human rights cases during the 1980s.
In 2003, Human Rights First published a report documenting evidence of collusion between British police informants and other security personnel in Finucane’s murder.
“The British government has failed time and again to follow through on its commitments to conduct an independent inquiry into the allegations of official collusion in the murder of Patrick Finucane,” said Massimino. “More than 22 years is a long time to wait for the truth.”