Leading Human Rights Figure Under Attack in Northern Ireland
By Brian Dooley
Back in 2017, Human Rights First issued a report on the vilification of human rights lawyers in Northern Ireland. We noted how the phenomenon hadn’t just started, and had worrying parallels to earlier smear campaigns that preceded the murders of human rights lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.
And unfortunately 2017 wasn’t the end of such campaigns either. Colin Harvey is a prominent human rights academic based in Belfast. He’s Professor of Human Rights Law in the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, a Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies and a former Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
For some time, he has been attacked on traditional and social media for his work on Irish reunification. The vilification dates back several years, in response to his research and views on constitutional change and Brexit. This has resurfaced again when he was interviewed for an Expert Panel to assist a Northern Ireland Assembly Committee’s work on a Bill of Rights, and the suggestion that his appointment was being blocked for political reasons.
But in recent weeks these attacks have intensified sharply. Some of these smears are coded and general, others blatant and specific. Kate Hoey, a British parliamentarian in the House of Lords, wrote of “very justified concerns that many professional vocations have become dominated by those of a nationalist persuasion, and this positioning of activists is then used to exert influence on those in power.”
Then last week another commentator, Ruth Dudley Edwards, wrote in a local paper that she lamented she had forgotten to include Harvey in her end of year list of those she wanted banished to a desert island.
Despite the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, and talk of reconciliation and new beginnings, much of the old bigotry remains, and these pieces fired up predictable responses in a Northern Ireland tense from the fallout of Brexit and renewed talk of hostilities.
Social media slurs and attacks have piled onto Harvey, comparing him to a leading Nazi, and suggesting he’s an active supporter of the paramilitary IRA. One, since deleted, menacingly said Harvey “should be stripped of his position…Colin Harvey is a snake. Get rid.”
Such attacks on a leading academic and human rights figure would be worrying anywhere in the world, but in today’s Northern Ireland they’re alarming. “We know where this can lead,” is a common concern, a reference to the murders of Finucane and Nelson.
Harvey told me that “everyone knows what is being stirred up and how the story can end. Are we going to wait for something awful to happen before there is collective action stop it? Have we not learned the lessons of the past?”
Human Rights First has seen this so many times over several decades, when activists are smeared and attacked and othered on traditional or social media as a prelude to physical attacks. And even if things don’t escalate beyond words, these attacks are still wrong.
What’s especially disappointing, given Northern Ireland’s history on these issues, is the silence of many of those who should be publicly supporting Harvey. You don’t have to like him, or his political or human rights views, to say he has a right to express his views peacefully, and that this incitement is wrong.
Legal academics around the world, practicing lawyers around the world, anyone everywhere around the world who says they support people’s right to freedom of expression ought to be speaking out for Harvey. It’s easy for academic and legal institutions to say they’re for human rights. These are the moments when it’s time for them to stand up and be counted and to show it.
“I’m determined to continue with my work and to call this out for what it is,” Harvey told me. His employers, his union, and others should too.