Northern Ireland: The British Government is attempting to cover up its crimes with Pinochet-like impunity legislation

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Charles McQuillan / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE / Getty Images via AFP

Belfast, Paris, 10 April 2023. 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the mechanisms dealing with crimes committed during the 30 years Northern Ireland conflict face a shutdown. The British Government has been relentless with its obstruction and the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill is in its final strides before adoption. Should this amnesty policy be enacted, the UK would be guilty of State orchestrated impunity.

The peace treaty that put an end to the Northern Ireland conflict turns 25 today. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was a bilateral (UK and Ireland) UN-deposited peace treaty which officially ended 30 years of open conflict. The UK’s international image and British diplomacy benefited immensely from the joint initiative. The legacy of the international involvement the peace process garnered, is visible to this day: US President Joe Biden is expected to take part in the commemorations, as are the Clintons, and surviving figures from the British and Irish governments, as well as local players from the time. But like many “end of an era” treaties from the 1990s, history did not turn out to be so simple. Through cold and calculated manoeuvers, the British Government has worked to undermine the application of the GFA, and subsequent peace process agreements.

An historic peace agreement broken by a ‘fatally flawed’ and ‘unlawful’ amnesty bill

Amid years of destabilisation driven by the UK’s ‘Brexit’ from the EU, the British Government is now pushing in its final stages in the UK Parliament, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. In order to introduce the Bill in 2020 Boris Johnson’s government tore up another bilateral peace process agreement, Stormont House Agreement of 2014, which included a treaty and would have provided for new transitional justice mechanisms. Instead Boris Johnson’s government worked up proposals for a blanket amnesty that was broader in scope than that introduced by General Pinochet in Chile. Domestic opposition across Ireland north and south strongly criticised these proposals as did UN experts who contended the policy would place the UK ‘in flagrant violation of its international obligations’. This only led to cosmetic changes with the final piece of legislation presented in May 2022. The blanket amnesty was replaced by a ‘conditional immunities scheme’ with a conspicuously low and subjective threshold. Should it be adopted, it would prevent accountability for human rights violations and shut the door for further investigations. The official GFA-established Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission called out the bill as ‘fatally flawed’ and unlawful. For Daniel Holder, Director of the Northern Ireland Committee on the administration of Justice (CAJ) “This is simply not a place we should be in 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement.”

“Rishi Sunak’s Government’s attempt to exempt those responsible for torture, and other human rights violations and abuses in Northern Ireland is an unacceptable attempt to mask history. If the UK truly wishes to separate itself from its colonial past, it must undertake sincere introspection and finally allow acknowledgement of truth and reparation for the victims. This is the only way to avoid repetition of these crimes.” declared Alice Mogwe, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The decision to ditch a peace process treaty for an amnesty bill is coming when victims are finally granted outcomes after years of obstruction by the UK to prevent investigations into state killings or paramilitary collusion. Sections of the right-wing press and Conservative party campaigned against what they called a ‘witch hunt’ against military veterans, despite only one single soldier conviction since the GFA. A further driver behind the legislation however is also the extent to which the current information recovery success is exposing patterns of human rights violations.

The UK military has a concerning past track record for systematic torture and killings

Over 3,700 people were killed during the conflict, mostly by (Irish) republican armed groups and (British) loyalist paramilitaries but also by the British security forces. The patterns of state human rights violations that fuelled the conflict encompass impunity in relation to direct military killings; but also security force collusion with paramilitary groups as well as the use of torture. Such patterns are by no means unique to Northern Ireland. The ‘gangs and counter-gangs’ counterinsurgency strategies of the UK military were deployed in numerous colonial wars. The ‘five techniques’ and other forms of torture including ‘waterboarding’ practiced in Northern Ireland resurfaced in Iraq and elsewhere. The need for accountability to prevent history repeating itself could not be clearer.

The legislation is not a done deal. It will face multiple domestic legal challenges from victims and human rights bodies. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović called on the UK to withdraw the bill. UN special procedures experts also continued to warn the legislation failed to comply with duties to investigate serious human rights violations and would deny truth and remedy for victims, undermine the rule of law and breach international obligations. Into 2023 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk also intervened in similar terms. The Irish Government also has taking the British government directly to the European Court on Human Rights through an interstate case under active consideration. Should the legislation prevail it will not only end meaningful investigations in Northern Ireland, but will set a dangerous precedent of State orchestrated impunity for elsewhere.

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