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Council of Europe urges UK to rethink controversial Troubles legacy legislation

A dark mushroom cloud of smoke drifts across the centre of Belfast, as Firemen hose down the remains of Oxford Street bus station during the Troubles (PA)
A dark mushroom cloud of smoke drifts across the centre of Belfast, as Firemen hose down the remains of Oxford Street bus station during the Troubles (PA)

An international human rights commissioner has urged the Government to consider withdrawing contentious legislation dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said the proposals raised serious issues over compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The convention enshrines the right for effective state investigations into deaths.

The Council’s Committee of Ministers has also voiced concern about the Legacy Bill, which offers conditional immunity from prosecution for perpetrators of Troubles crimes who agree to provide information to a new truth recovery body, and a move to end conflict-related civil cases and inquests.

Omagh bombing
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has responsibility for the legislation (Niall Carson/PA)

The Bill is currently proceeding through its parliamentary stages at Westminster.

While the Government has made some amendments to the legislation, it has not dropped its most controversial aspects around immunity and halting civil and coronial cases.

The Council of Europe is an international body that oversees and monitors compliance with the ECHR. The UK is one of its 46 members and a signatory to the convention.

Commissioner Mijatovic said the UK government should consider withdrawing the Legacy Bill in view of the “widespread opposition” in Northern Ireland and its potential to contravene the convention.

“Any further steps on legacy must place the rights and needs of victims at its heart,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Council’s Committee of Ministers expressed “growing concern” that the Bill has not been formally paused or amended to “sufficiently allay the concerns” that the legislation will be in full compliance with the convention and will enable effective investigations.

Northern Ireland abortion laws
Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International (PA)

Grainne Teggart, deputy director for Northern Ireland at Amnesty International UK, welcomed the stance adopted by the human rights body.

“Once again, the UK government finds itself isolated on the international stage,” she said.

“These are welcome and important calls which the UK government must not ignore. Victims’ rights must be prioritised and the bill scrapped.

“This intervention adds to the cutting critique and overwhelming opposition facing the Troubles bill.

“The UK government’s determination to deprive victims and families of the justice they deserve while shielding the perpetrators who are responsible for murder, torture and other serious crimes makes a mockery of the rule of law and any claims by UK government that they respect human rights.

“Recent changes proposed by government are little more than a thinly veiled attempt to make the bill appear more just.

“We and victims are not buying it. The bill cannot be fixed, the right thing for government to do is scrap it.”

In response, a Northern Ireland Office spokesman said: “The Government is determined to deliver better outcomes for those most impacted by the Troubles while helping society to look forward.

“The legislation will not introduce an amnesty, and will not remove the prospect of criminal prosecutions.

“Conditional immunity will only be granted to individuals who cooperate fully and truthfully with the Commission. Individuals who do not will remain liable to prosecution and will be referred to prosecutors should sufficient evidence exist.

“On November 23, the Government announced a number of proposed changes which seek to address key concerns that have been raised by many stakeholders, including victims and survivors and international partners.

“The Government remains absolutely committed to constructive engagement with all interested parties on their ongoing concerns, and how they might be addressed as the Bill continues its passage through Parliament.

“However, we also recognise that a perfect solution to legacy issues is not attainable, and will continue to work towards the best practical solution.”