What is justice anyway?

What is justice? The answer might be obvious, but in past Forward Together podcast interviews it has been noticeable that the responses to that question have been inconsistent. While parts of political unionism seem focused on the judicial process for acts going back to the Troubles, the response by some in republicanism has been that the core of justice is about creating a fair society today.

Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, tells the latest Holywell Trust Forward Together podcast that it is important to use the objective and settled international definitions of justice and human rights, applying these on a consistent and fair basis.

Objectivity is essential, argues Daniel. “That’s the whole point of human rights law. It isn’t designed for here, obviously, it is designed for everywhere. To have an objective framework, that everyone is equal before the law. National or regional governments have to reach certain standards so that they are actually objective and fair. This isn’t a question of different identities having different interpretations. It is a question of abuse of power in the past, with laws that weren’t fair and weren’t applied equally.”

He adds: “Human rights are things that are agreed in international treaties at the level of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. They are matters of international law. We’re talking about things like civil and political rights, freedom against torture, right to a fair trial. You’re talking about socio-economic rights, like rights to health and housing and work. That is the framework within which we operate, because we think it broadly provides solutions and a decision-making framework.”

Daniel continues: “You can’t make human rights up…. When the smoking ban came in way back, people were sort of going, well, what about my right to smoke? You don’t actually have a right to smoke! You’ve just made that up.”

The question then is how to apply those principles in the context of the legacy of the Troubles. “There are dozens of international human rights standards that set out to develop a body of law,” Daniel points out. These provide a framework for dealing with legacy alongside truth, “but also very importantly, guarantees of non-recurrence.” He suggests we “would be better-off calling ourselves a society emerging from conflict”, rather than a “post-conflict society”.

Daniel asserts that the Troubles were “a conflict…. fuelled by patterns of human rights violations. We are in a position to develop structures to stop them recurring and stop ourselves being trapped in a cycle of conflict.”

The most recent work of significance by the CAJ was a report, co-authored by Daniel, which examines the actions of the British government, which seems to be leading to the avoidance of prosecutions of soldiers. Daniel argues that this is a breach of the Stormont House Agreement. He believes that the UK government has committed a u-turn, not just on that, but also on what was in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which set out the principle of an independent investigations unit to examine offences committed during the Troubles.

Daniel suggests that the terminology used by the British government is itself a breach of the principles of the separation of powers, between the executive and judiciary. “I mean, [it is] a preposterous suggestion… [of] vexatious prosecutions…. [It] is the executive branch of government, really, undermining its own criminal justice system by suggesting that somehow its own Director of Public Prosecutions is engaged in a sort of false or mischievous prosecutions of members of the military”.

The CAJ was established during the Troubles as a human rights body, but its role was pushed in a different direction as a result of Brexit and how it affects the rights of people in Northern Ireland. “Brexit was something that happened and caused us to start to re-orientate work considerably on the back of the referendum,” says Daniel. It was particularly concerned about protecting the rights of migrant workers living in Northern Ireland. But it also acted with regard to differences between the rights of people in Northern Ireland who had either British or Irish citizenship.

This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme


Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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