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Amnesty for Northern Ireland’s Troubles promises neither peace nor justice

OPINION: The UK government’s Northern Ireland Troubles bill will sweep historic crimes under the carpet

Sonya Sceats Daniel Holder
9 February 2023, 2.48pm

Republican mural commemorating Bloody Sunday at the height of the Troubles in 1972 , Bogside, Derry, Northern Ireland


Gareth McCormack / Alamy Stock Photo

A bill that would let murderers and torturers off the hook for crimes committed during the Troubles has united Northern Ireland’s political parties in opposition. Now Keir Starmer has increased the pressure on Downing Street by promising that a future Labour government would repeal any such amnesty if it became law.

The UK government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill tears up peace process agreements to investigate historic crimes. It will close down existing justice mechanisms, which are increasingly delivering uncomfortable truths about the past.

Investigations into incidents up until April 1988, encompassing crimes committed by both paramilitary groups and British soldiers, will be debarred and replaced with time-limited desktop “reviews”. A new commission, operating under a considerable degree of ministerial control, would examine a restricted number of cases of such crimes.

Families will also face a high bar when seeking “reviews” of cases, with only the most “serious” deemed eligible, unless ministers themselves agree a case should be opened. Cases that meet this definition are extremely narrow: only crimes that caused extreme physical injury, such as quadriplegia or severe brain damage, or “severe psychiatric damage”, will be considered; and perpetrators could still avoid prosecution and any meaningful investigation by seeking an amnesty from the commission set up to review them. The ban on investigations provides a de facto amnesty for sexual crimes too, even though they are supposedly excluded from the remit of the amnesty itself.

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UN experts caution that the draft legislation would thwart victims’ rights and breach international human rights law and the Good Friday Agreement. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner considers the bill so deeply flawed that she called for it to be withdrawn. Although British soldiers accused of crimes during the Troubles would benefit from the proposed legislation, even veterans’ representatives have mixed views about it.

Ministers know the bill is in trouble and offered amendments when it returned to the House of Lords in late January. But these changes are window dressing. They preserve the overall logic of the bill and block accountability for crimes committed during the 30-year Northern Ireland conflict.

If passed, this law would send shockwaves far beyond Northern Ireland. A recent study found that the blanket amnesty originally proposed in the official Command Paper on which the bill is based would be among the most expansive post-conflict impunity laws in the world, going further even than the 1978 amnesty law enacted by Chilean dictator Pinochet.

The bill itself introduces only a cosmetic change to the original proposal, now providing a broad “conditional immunity” scheme with a conspicuously low threshold that will have much the same effect.

The Troubles bill risks peace and stability in Northern Ireland, undermines the global torture ban, and threatens the UK’s global reputation

Attempts to redefine torture and put perpetrators above the law are reminiscent of the notorious Bush-era “torture memos”, which the US government used to justify waterboarding and other methods inflicted on prisoners, 34 of whom still remain incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. The reputation of the United States has never fully recovered.

The UK was shamefully complicit in this work by the CIA – but our status as a champion of the global torture ban had already been damaged by British torture during the Troubles. The so-called Five Techniques of torture authorised by the very highest levels of the British government against UK citizens in Northern Ireland in the 1970s manifest themselves decades later in British torture of Iraqi citizens.

Political gain, not the rule of law

The UK government has increasingly ignored international obligations and the rule of law. Its willingness to violate treaties for narrow political gain is alarming. These include the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit deal, which creates a trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Equally shocking is the UK government’s willingness to undermine global human rights norms for narrow political gain via the Nationality and Borders Act.

Some of the worst attempts have been averted. Determined resistance forced the government to remove clauses in the Overseas Operations Act granting immunity to British soldiers for torture and war crimes overseas.

But the Troubles bill continues what is otherwise a worrying trend. It risks peace and stability in Northern Ireland, undermines the global torture ban, and threatens the UK’s global reputation.

The issue of legacy in Northern Ireland is complicated and there are multiple legal mechanisms that must be considered when deciding how to investigate outstanding cases. What is clear is that survivors’ and victims’ voices should be at the heart of any mechanism to address the past. Historic crimes cannot simply be swept under the carpet. We owe it to everyone whose lives were impacted by the conflict to see that justice is done.

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