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Northern Ireland Troubles Bill risks widespread breaches of human rights law 

26 October 2022

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has undertaken legislative scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill and finds that it is unlikely to comply with human rights law. 

Whilst acknowledging that the Bill seeks to address a complex situation with no easy solutions and that there is no doubt about the desirability of the Bill’s aim of reconciliation, the Committee urges the Government to reconsider its approach and to put forward a Convention-compliant solution.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill sets out the future approach for addressing the legacy of the Troubles and dealing with legacy cases. It would establish a new Independent Commission of Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) with responsibility for reviewing all outstanding Troubles-related cases concerning deaths and certain other types of harmful conduct and granting immunity from prosecution for individuals who meet certain conditions. Meanwhile, all Troubles-related criminal investigations, criminal prosecutions, inquests, civil claims, and police complaints will be subject to prohibitions or restrictions. The existing Early Release Scheme will also be expanded to include offences within a wider timeframe, whilst removing the requirement for offenders to serve any minimum term.

In a report published today, the Committee warns that the Bill’s approach risks failing to meet the minimum standards required to ensure effective investigations into Troubles-related cases concerning deaths and serious injury. The right to life and the prohibition of torture under the ECHR require that the State undertake investigations into certain cases concerning deaths and serious harm which are independent, effective, reasonably prompt and expeditious, subject to public scrutiny, and involve the next-of-kin.

The Committee is also concerned that the scope of the reviews is too narrow and risks excluding investigations into cases concerning violations of the prohibition on torture. ICRIR reviews would be limited to cases that resulted in death or one of a list narrowly defined medical conditions deemed to have caused serious physical or mental harm. The Committee see no justifiable reason for implementing such a measure that would only serve to block off avenues to justice while offering no alternatives. This is also likely to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Shutting down all other avenues to pursue truth and justice is a high-risk strategy and places the UK at risk of non-compliance with Article 6 (right of access to a court) and Article 13 (right to an effective remedy). Criminal investigations, prosecutions, and inquests should be permitted to continue, and a more reasonable, longer limitation period should be provided for civil claims.

The Committee also finds that the conditional immunity scheme is in direct conflict with the duty to undertake effective investigations which are capable of identifying and punishing perpetrators. The Bill would establish a low bar for granting immunity from prosecution. Individuals applying to the immunity requests panel would not be required to submit any new information and there is no obligation on the panel to check the truthfulness of the statements. Once granted, immunity cannot be revoked. The Committee warns that amnesties for grave violations of human rights are not permissible under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It calls for the scheme to be removed from the Bill, and if retained a far higher bar must be established for immunity to be granted, including the testing of the accounts submitted to the panel. Revocation should also be made possible in circumstances where a false account has been given.

Under the Bill, the Early Release Scheme would be extended. Those convicted of offences relating to the Troubles who fall within scope would be able to apply for release on licence immediately, removing the requirement to serve a minimum portion of their sentence. The Committee finds that removing the need to serve any prison time for serious criminal conduct could be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and finds that the scheme should not be broadened to the extent that it removes the possibility of punishing perpetrators of serious human rights violations.

Chair's comment

Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry KC MP said:

“Establishing a new framework for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles is a complex and difficult task, but that is why it is all the more important that the Government gets it right. A delicate balance needs to be struck between enabling reconciliation while taking steps to ensure that those still dealing with the devastating consequences of past events can access justice and effective remedies.

We agree with many other stakeholders that this Bill as drafted is unlikely to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While we support the aim of reconciliation, we urge the Government to reconsider its whole approach. It’s crucial that the legislation ensures that:  investigations are independent, effective, timely, involve next of kin, and are subject to public scrutiny. Perpetrators of serious human rights violations should be able to be held to account. All possible avenues for the pursuit of justice and the provision of an effective remedy should be available to victims and their families.

“The Government must revisit this Bill to ensure that it respects the human rights of all those affected and establishes a lasting framework for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.”

Further information

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