Ireland Takes British Amnesty Law to Court
For only the second time in history, last week the Irish government launched an Inter-State application against the United Kingdom before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
The announcement marks a major development in the Irish Government’s opposition to an unjust and unpopular British law that grants amnesty to former British soldiers and others who committed crimes during the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland.
Enacted in September 2023, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Reconciliation and Legacy) Act 2023 closes virtually all avenues to bringing court cases against former soldiers and others who committed murders and other crimes during the conflict. Inquests that have already begun and are currently hearing evidence will be scrapped unless completed by May 1, 2024.
Interstate cases at the ECtHR are exceptionally rare and are generally lodged as a last resort. The Irish Government filed its case after extensive political and international efforts called on the United Kingdom to pursue alternative options that respect its international human rights obligations.
Daniel Holder, the Director of the Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a long-time ally of Human Rights First, said, “This is a necessary step and hugely significant, it is only the second time the Irish government has taken an interstate case against the UK, the first during the live context of torture practices, in this case the litigation is an important contribution to the global fight against impunity.”
He added “The UK and Ireland worked bilaterally hand in hand throughout the peace process up to and beyond the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). In recent years the British Conservative governments have really pulled back from that, rolled back, and reneged on commitments in the peace agreements. This has been immensely frustrating, including for the Dublin government, yet there was rarely a legal remedy available to stop the slide. This is different, as the legacy act conflicts with the European Convention on Human Rights, and there is a remedy the Irish government could and has thankfully triggered.”
Opposition to the legislation is widespread. Victims groups, human rights organizations, and all major Irish political parties condemn the law. In January 2023, a bipartisan group of 27 Members of the United States Congress publicly criticized the bill.
Sara Duddy is an Advocacy Support Worker at the Derry-based human rights NGO the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), an organization Human Rights First has worked with for many years. Duddy said the interstate case “will finally shine a light on the contempt with which victims and survivors have been treated by the British government. The Legacy Act is solely focused on protecting the perpetrators of violence from prosecution. Since the legacy legislation was announced in July 2021, victims and survivors have been protesting against it, renaming it the ‘Bill of Shame’. It has also been rejected by all political parties on the island of Ireland.”
“Now the British Government’s behaviour will be exposed in the highest human rights court in Europe. The UK government should be embarrassed and ashamed that once again the Irish government has been forced to step in an intervene in this way,” she added.
The Irish Government argues that the legislation is incompatible with the European Convention: the law violates Article 2, the right to life, and Article 3, the right to be free from torture as well as inhuman and degrading treatment. The European Convention demands the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for serious human rights violations.
The 1998 GFA incorporated the European Convention into Northern Ireland law. In 2014, the Stormont House Agreement further established overarching transitional bodies to investigate unresolved crimes from the conflict. It did not include an amnesty provision. The British government has reneged on this agreement, too.
In June 2023, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECtHR, stated, “It is crucial that the [Northern Ireland Troubles Reconciliation and Legacy] legislation, if progressed and ultimately adopted, is in full compliance with the European Convention and will enable effective investigations into all outstanding cases.”
Human Rights First agrees with the Committee. We strongly opposed the passage of the legislation and welcome the Irish Government’s legal case at the ECtHR. Human Rights First has a long history of working in Northern Ireland, and we are part of an international panel of experts soon to publish a report on the issue of state impunity during the conflict.