Ending Troubles prosecutions in Northern Ireland ‘could breach international law’, Council of Europe warns

‘None of those involved in any serious violations will be held to account, leading to impunity’, ministers told

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 23 September 2021 11:42
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Northern Ireland: UK plans to end prosecutions for historical 'Troubles' crimes

The UK may be about to breach international law with its controversial plan to end all Troubles-era prosecutions in Northern Ireland, the Council of Europe is warning

The controversial plans – which would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions from the conflict – appears to be an unconditional amnesty, its human rights commissioner says.

In a letter, Dunja Mijatović tells ministers they “might bring the United Kingdom into conflict with its international obligations, notably the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)”.

“The blanket, unconditional nature of the amnesty in your proposal effectively means that none of those involved in any serious violations will be held to account, leading to impunity,” says the letter, seen by The Guardian.

“Beyond the impact on justice for victims and their families … this is also deeply problematic from the perspective of access to justice and the rule of law.”

In July, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis announced an end to all prosecutions for Troubles incidents up to April 1998, involving both military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries.

Boris Johnson hailed an opportunity to “draw a line under the Troubles” and the plans were welcomed by Conservative MPs for ensuring British soldiers will not face possible prosecution.

But the Irish government, all main parties in Northern Ireland, Labour and victims’ groups condemned them, several branding them a “de facto amnesty for killers”.

Legal experts in Belfast concluded the proposed amnesty would be wider than the one Augusto Pinochet introduced to shield human rights violators in Chile.

The level of impunity would be more sweeping than almost 300 other post-conflict amnesties introduced around the world, their report said.

More than 3,500 people died during the Troubles, which began in the early 1970s and only ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

In a reply to Ms Mijatović, Mr Lewis appears to indicate that the government has not yet decided on the extent of a possible statute of limitations.

“In publishing our proposals for addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past in the command paper of 14 July, we were clear that these were intended not to represent a final position but rather to inform a process of engagement,” he wrote.

“This engagement – which involves meeting with political representatives, representatives from the victims’ sector and victims and survivors directly – is ongoing.”

The plans have also triggered opposition in the US Congress, where 36 members wrote to Mr Johnson warning they would put a severe strain on the British-Irish relationship.

The proposed legacy laws would also “cement widespread feelings” that justice is being denied, they said.

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