Shooting of PSNI officer John Caldwell is a human rights violation

The frequency of deadly attacks on civilians by paramilitaries far outweighs unambiguous examples of unlawful killings by state forces

The agonising vigil by a hospital bed continues for the family of Det Chief Insp John Caldwell of the PSNI. An easy target for dissident republicans, he was shot multiple times after a children’s football training session, near Omagh. Should he die from his wounds, he will join the roll call of 303 police officers killed by paramilitaries in the course of the Troubles. Should he live he will join thousands of other officers who were severely injured or traumatised while seeking to preserve order within a deeply divided society.

There has been widespread condemnation of the shooting. But there is a privileged sliver of society in Northern Ireland that might, belatedly, find itself challenged by this outrage. This is the human rights sector in the North. The question some more conservative human rights advocates might consider is this: did the attack on John Caldwell constitute a human rights offence?

Taking a step back in time, in 1991 Amnesty International found it necessary to identify non-state actors as perpetrators of human rights abuses. This was in response to atrocities committed by groups such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and Sendera Luminosa (the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas) in Peru.

A few months later, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty, on a visit to Dublin and in the presence of president Mary Robinson, maintained that secret trials conducted by the IRA were ‘both unjust and dishonourable’ and that Amnesty would in future criticise the activities of “non-governmental entities” such as the Provisional IRA and the loyalist UVF. Even more explicitly, Benenson stated: “Amnesty inevitably deplores the IRA’s policy of killing and maiming those to whom it is opposed and, even more vehemently, innocent civilians.”


We might take an even longer step back in time. The seminal moment in terms of codifying human rights thinking was the adoption by the United Nations of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th, 1948. The declaration did not limit the concept of human rights violations to actions taken by states. Its preamble explained that the United Nations was setting out a list of human rights “to the end that every individual and every organ of society ... shall strive ... to promote respect for these rights ... [and] secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”.

The UN recognised the right to life as fundamental, as does article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This surely includes the right to life of John Caldwell. Or does it?

Despite the UN declaration and the lead shown by Amnesty International more than three decades ago, the big human rights organisations in Northern Ireland have resolutely refused to bring murders, maimings and so-called “punishment” shootings carried out by the IRA, UVF, UDA and other smaller terrorist groups within the purview of human rights violations. But why the silence, at least so far as the public might notice?

It is as if the abuses by non-state actors existed in a parallel universe while those by the state are floodlit in courtrooms in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere

Perhaps it was due to ignorance about developments in human rights thinking over time. If so, this would raise serious doubts about the nature of human rights education and research in the two northern universities. Since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, international human rights law has expanded its reach into non-international armed conflicts. And as we know, non-state actors can now be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court for serious breaches of human rights such as genocide, torture and war crimes.

Or maybe the silence was down to bias, which could raise questions about the impartiality of some organisations. Or it might simply signify some provincial eccentricity, amiable in its own way but hardly in such a serious context.

The dangers of selectivity and silence should be obvious. For one thing, this stance serves to obscure the frequency and severity of human rights violations by non-state armed groups. Yet the frequency of deadly attacks on civilians by paramilitary organisations, not to mention wounding, maiming and bomb injuries, far outweighs unambiguous examples of unlawful killings by state forces.

For whatever reason, the human rights discourse in Northern Ireland has been partial to the point of distortion. It is as if the abuses by non-state actors existed in a parallel universe while those by the state – undoubtedly there are egregious examples, of which Bloody Sunday is the most notorious – are floodlit in courtrooms in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere. More generally, this selectivity tends to skew understandings of the Troubles and of contemporary society, particularly, one might imagine, for the rising generations who have had no direct experience of the conflict.

The failure to adopt a more holistic approach in which violations by state agents and armed groups are integrated within a single human rights discourse is troubling.

Might we speak of trahison des clercs, or the treason of intellectuals and community leaders, among them prominent human rights advocates?

An artificially partitioned human rights agenda is not helpful and may even give succour to “patriots” who feel they have done a great day’s work for Ireland by trying to murder an outstanding police officer near a town that has already borne more than its share of tragedy.

Liam Kennedy is professor of history at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast