The Irish Famine Tribunal is being held this weekend at Fordham University School of Law, in New York City. It is a bit of a cross between a Russell Tribunal and a student law moot. The Tribunal is considering whether the responsibility of the United Kingdom – acknowledged by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 (‘Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy’) – can be examined using modern-day definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity.
|From left, Adam Assahli, Elaine Marum, Justice Hardiman, Judge Ingram, myself and Conor Campbell.|
The case was presented as a simulated application by Ireland against the United Kingdom before the International Court of Justice. The three-judge panel consisted of Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court of Ireland, Judge John G. Ingram of the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn, and myself. Written submissions are to follow and a decision will be issued in the future (don’t worry, we won’t take as long as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda or the Special Court for Sierra Leone).
The issues raised are quite fascinating, and are not without relevance to the attribution of international criminal responsibility in other situations of famine, such as the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and the massive deaths from disease and starvation under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The discussions also looked at the responsibility of a government to assist its own people when circumstances that are not of its making bring terrible hardship. In 1846, the prevailing Whig policy applied by the United Kingdom Parliament seemed rooted in the view that it was not the government’s responsibility to care for its people, and that if they wanted to survive the crisis they would have to give up their possessions and work for their food. Yesterday’s discussion was reminiscent of some of the Tory drivel we hear today about welfare reform.
Another fascinating issue concerns the application of the international criminal law framework to the 1840s. The United Kingdom government today takes the view that the notion of genocide cannot be applied to events prior to 1948, when the Convention was adopted, but its cynical justification is driven by a fear of angering Turkey were it to label the 1915 attacks on the Armenians with the ‘g-word’. Yet in 1915, when it was at war with Turkey and not concerned about irritating a NATO ally, the United Kingdom condemned ‘these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilisation’. If the United Kingdom recognised the concept of crimes against humanity in 1915, why not in 1846?
Even if the crimes themselves can be deemed applicable to events 170 years ago, that still leaves the question of whether the United Kingdom’s neglect of the Irish people during the famine was actually intentional conduct intended to destroy the Irish people, in whole or in part, and therefore genocide according to the modern definition, or whether it constituted a ‘widespread or systematic attack’ on the Irish people, and therefore crimes against humanity. I expect these issues to be addressed in the final judgment.
An interesting discussion of the historiography of the Irish famine was published by last week in the Dublin Review of Books.