Troubles law ‘poses questions about UK’s credibility’, human rights experts warn

Families of victims of the Troubles protesting against the British government's legacy legislation in Belfast last week. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

Families of victims of the Troubles protesting against the British government's legacy legislation in Belfast last week. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

CONTROVERSIAL Troubles legislation has left the UK internationally isolated, human rights experts have warned.

A bill which will offer a conditional amnesty to those accused of killings during the Troubles became law earlier this week.

The legislation will also stop any court cases and inquests related to the conflict.

Gisle Kvanvig, from the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, said the law has affected the UK’s credibility on the world stage, which was previously hit by Brexit.

“Brexit was one issue, but also the lead up to Brexit, and then the years following… the current government and the different policies, the way that it looks from the outside, it looks, somehow chaotic but it's also posing questions about credibility internationally,” he said.

He warned that the legislation could encourage other governments, particularly authoritarian states like Russia and China, to suppress the investigation of atrocities.

"Any sort of authoritarian state that wants to deal with a sort of similar issue, where atrocity is basically committed by the government, they can use this as inspiration," he said.

Mr Kvanvig was part of the International Expert Panel on Impunity, convened by the Norwegian Center for Human Rights at the request of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and the Pat Finucane Centre, which visited Northern Ireland last week.

The independent panel, which includes experts from Norway, Argentina, South Africa and the Republic, is due to publish a report before Christmas on impunity around human rights violations during the Troubles.

The United Nations and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe - which monitors member states' adherence to human rights laws - have raised serious concerns about the legislation.

In a statement released last week, the United Nations’ Human Rights office reiterated that the legacy legislation breaches the UK’s international human rights obligations.

“We urge its reconsideration and call for victims’ rights to be central in addressing the Troubles’ legacy,” the statement read.

Daniel Holder, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said the Troubles legislation had effectively ripped up the Stormont House Agreement - a 2014 accord which partly attempted to address the legacy of the Troubles.

He said the UK was “very isolated” in Europe over its decision to ignore the key agreement and now has “no leverage or moral authority against big totalitarian states”.

“They can easily point to this as an example of why the UK isn’t investigating human rights violations,” he said.

Mr Holder said the British government’s intention was to stop former members of the security forces for being prosecuted for Troubles-era killings.

But he said the legislation "actually closes down everyone’s investigations", including victims killed by paramilitaries.

“Why the UN have been so active in this is that it sets a precedent internationally," he said.

"The UK is still a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council so for it to be passing essentially impunity legislation is a matter of international concern.”

Victims' campaigners protesting in Belfast last week. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

Victims' campaigners protesting in Belfast last week. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

'Golden thread' of impunity

A member of the independent panel, Dr Aoife Duffy, from the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre, said there was a “golden threat” of impunity during the conflict.

She pointed to the use of five army interrogation techniques in Northern Ireland - the stress position, putting hoods over people’s heads, white noise, deprivation of sleep and little food and drink - which were later replicated by British and US interrogators in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

In a case taken by the Irish government, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1978 that the British army’s treatment of 14 people, known as the ‘hooded men’, was inhuman and degrading but not torture.

In 2021, the UK's Supreme Court found the men’s ordeal was torture, by contemporary standards.

Dr Duffy said even though “there was an adverse judgment against the UK in ‘78, there was never any individual accountability for the orders, for the authorization to use torture and the systematic use of the five techniques”.

Legal challenges

The new law is facing a series of legal challenges from Troubles victims’ families at Belfast High Court this month.

However, these challenges could take several years to complete.

Alan Brecknell, from the Pat Finucane Centre, said the Irish government must take its own case, like it did in 1978, in an attempt to stall the legislation from being enacted.

“I do think that pressure will come to bear on the Irish government,” he said.

Mr Brecknell said the legislation will pass on the legacy of the Troubles “to another generation and that’s what we should be trying not to do”.

“We should be trying to finish it in this generation,” he said.

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