The Bar Human Rights Committee hosted an engaging and thought-provoking seminar at this year’s Annual Bar Council Conference on 8th November, entitled ‘Human Rights and Reconciliation: mediation on the world stage’.

Chaired by Kirsty Brimelow QC, the panel of high-level speakers included:

  • Professor Philippe Sands QC of University College London and Matrix Chambers
  • Mark Muller QC Senior Adviser to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Executive Director, Beyond Borders Scotland
  • Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair and Britain’s Special Envoy to Libya

The debate was lively and informal and ranged from Northern Ireland, to Iraq, to the role of non-state mediators.

Philippe Sands discussed the role of the criminal law in post-conflict societies. He drew interesting parallels between the treatment of Sunnis in Iraq in 2003/2004 and their role in ISIS today and also criticised the filming of the hanging of Saddam Hussein- noting this was something sensibly avoided at Nuremburg. He acknowledged that criminal law has a role in ending conflict but said he had gradually become reconciled to the view that on occasion it may be better to put criminal justice to one side. He noted that he was watching the Northern Ireland example carefully as it did seem that the failure to include a process to address historic grievances in the Good Friday Agreement was still a bone of contention for society, despite over 15 years of peace.

Jonathan Powell spoke at length on the importance of “talking to terrorists”, acknowledging the inherent difficulties with the term “terrorist” in any event, and refuting that engaging with groups who engage in terrorism is in any way condoning it. He asked, if parties are unwilling to talk, how else will a way be found to stop conflict? On Northern Ireland, he highlighted that both sides in the peace deal were reluctant to engage in any form of truth and reconciliation process. He acknowledged that grievances fester if not addressed in post-conflict societies.

Mark Muller QC discussed peace talks and the role of mediators including the rise of non-state mediation, the need to talk to all parties and to ensure the voice of women are heard in the mediation process. He criticised the lack of any clear process in either UK or EU law as to how armed groups in peace talks can seek to be removed from proscribed lists and highlighted the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue’s Charter, which he stressed was a good example of ways in which mediators can ensure they set and comply with basic standards in their work.

The seminar concluded with a lively question and answer session with questions from the floor touching on the position of ETA in Spain and the contribution the Bar can make to international mediation.

The BHRC thanks all the speakers and delegates for their participation in this event and continued support.