British Government Proposes Amnesty for Killings That’s Worse Than Pinochet’s
In a startling move, in July 2021, the British government announced a proposal to end all Troubles-era prosecutions, granting amnesty to its soldiers for any crimes they committed during this time. While the proposal has yet to be introduced as a bill, its mere introduction has already received a strong reaction.
Last week, I visited Belfast and Derry where I met with human rights NGOs and families of those killed during the Troubles. Human Rights First has been active on these issues for decades, with a focus on past abuses and on supporting the human rights lawyers helping families bring prosecutions against those who committed them.
This recently introduced proposal is a significant setback to the families whose loved ones were killed by British forces during those years. Many of which have spent decades looking for the truth about what happened to those who were killed. During my time with them, some of the family members said that this proposal, which would eliminate any potential for accountability, has left them exasperated and angry.
Some of the killings from this period, like those on Bloody Sunday in Derry or Ballymurphy in Belfast, are well known and have received international attention. Others, such as the Springhill-Westrock shootings and many others, have had less attention. Overall, during the Troubles (1969-1998), 3,350 people were killed, including 1,840 civilians, and 47,500 were injured.
In many cases of killings, there was no real investigation done at the time. Local human rights NGO, the Pat Finucane Centre, has recently published declassified documents showing how some soldiers evaded prosecutions. The new proposal would remove any possibility of the families having any possibility for legal recourse or bringing the killers to justice.
The wide scope of the UK government’s proposed amnesty is breathtaking.
Human Rights First has for many years worked with Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ). This week, with a team of experts from Queen University, Belfast, the CAJ produced an analysis of the proposed amnesty laws, measuring the British government’s proposals “against binding international and domestic human rights law, the Good Friday Agreement and other international experiences of amnesties to deal with past human rights violations.”
This study found that the proposal would create an amnesty more sweeping than that of General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who introduced a policy to shield human rights violators from prosecution, which is often regarded as the worst. However, unlike the UK proposal, which excludes no crimes and has no temporal limits, Pinochet’s amnesty excluded certain crimes, such as sexual violence, and applied only to the first five years of the 17-year dictatorship. Additionally, Pinochet’s amnesty excluded criminal cases already before the courts and applied only to criminal prosecutions. The UK proposal on the other hand would close cases already in the system and apply to both civil and criminal cases.
Professor Louise Mallinder, one of the experts on the report and a world-renowned scholar of transitional justice who has examined roughly 300 amnesties relating to various conflicts around the world from 1990 until 2016, says the UK’s proposed amnesty “would offer the broadest form of impunity of all the amnesties surveyed.”
Yes, the British government’s standard for addressing past human rights violations by its soldiers, including murders, appears to be lower than that of General Pinochet’s.
The plan is so bad that all major political parties in Ireland, north and south, have united in rejecting it. Members of the U.S. Congress are reportedly signing a letter objecting to it.
The British government got many things wrong over the course of The Troubles. This proposed amnesty for its former soldiers is another huge mistake and should be rejected immediately.
Instead, a real process of justice should be followed, along the lines of that outlined in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. Dealing with The Troubles’ past is difficult but not impossible. The families of those killed – and of victims of human rights violations in other post-conflict situations that a new UK precedent might influence – deserve much better than what the British government has proposed.