Northern Ireland updates
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UK government proposals to ban prosecutions for those accused of violent crimes during Northern Ireland’s Troubles represent “significant steps backwards” that would deny victims justice, a top European human rights official has warned.
Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, strongly criticised the UK proposals to introduce a statute of limitations for crimes related to the region’s three-decade conflict in a letter to Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis published on Thursday.
The proposals “might bring the United Kingdom into conflict with its international obligations, notably the European Convention on Human Rights”, Mijatović wrote.
“The blanket, unconditional nature of the amnesty in your proposal effectively means that none of those involved in any serious violation will be held to account, leading to impunity,” she added.
The UK is a member of the 47-nation Council of Europe, which is separate from the EU and oversees implementation of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.
Belfast and Dublin reacted angrily to the UK’s proposals in July to address the legacy of the Troubles, in which more than 3,500 people were killed in three decades of sectarian strife.
The proposed ban on prosecutions would extend to former paramilitaries — both Irish republicans fighting for a united Ireland and loyalists seeking to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the UK — as well as former UK security forces personnel.
The UK advocates a truth and reconciliation-based approach, saying the current system “is not delivering for victims or families”.
Replying to Mijatović’s letter, Lewis said criminal proceedings for crimes predating the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles might not deliver convictions and might hamper efforts to find out the truth.
The UK was committed to supporting information recovery and reconciliation, respecting international human rights obligations, and meeting the needs of victims and survivors, Lewis said.
The Northern Ireland secretary recognised more needed to be done and said the proposals “were not intended to represent a final position”.
But he defended plans for an independent body to oversee information recovery, calling it a “more efficient and focused method than judicial processes” and noting that just nine people had been charged over Troubles deaths in the last seven years.
However, Mijatović said the lack of a victim-centred approach “risks dealing a major blow to already fragile trust in the government’s handling of legacy issues”.
She expressed “sincere doubt that the proposals . . . will provide genuine progress” and foresaw lengthy legal challenges if implemented.
The UK has already courted controversy by floating the prospect of changes to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. The act requires UK courts to take into account human rights rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights, a requirement unaffected by Britain’s exit from the EU.