Northern Ireland court rules amnesty legislation breaches UK human rights obligations News
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Northern Ireland court rules amnesty legislation breaches UK human rights obligations

The Northern Irish High Court ruled Wednesday that legislation imposing immunity for crimes committed during “The Troubles” is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 sought to end prosecution for crimes committed during the 30-year period of violence in Northern Ireland. Family members of victims who were killed or severely wounded by soldiers or paramilitary groups brought the claim against the government.

Justice Colton found that the provisions introducing a broad amnesty for all criminal offences related to the conflict was in breach of Articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR, which provide an absolute protection to the right to life and the prohibition of torture, respectively. In a thorough 200-page judgment, the court reviewed previous cases regarding criminal amnesties and found that 10 different sections of the act “clearly undermined” the relevant human rights. As such, the court issued a declaration of incompatibility under section four of the Human Rights Act, which although does not impact the validity of the act, sends a strong message to the government about the extent of existing human rights violations.

The Troubles is the name given to a 30-year period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998. The violence was both political and religious, with harsh divisions between Protestant unionism and Catholic nationalism. The British Army was deployed as a peacekeeping measure in response to increased violence from the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

The decision was critical to the UK government’s argument that the amnesty would facilitate reconciliation within Northern Ireland’s divided society. The court went so far as to say there was “no evidence” of contribution to reconciliation. In fact, it said, “the evidence is to the contrary.” The decision aligns with the concerns raised in the legislative process of the act. In October 2022, the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights condemned the act as a risk to human rights law, urging the government to reconsider its approach.

The timing of the decision is particularly relevant after the Irish government lodged a new application directly with the European Court of Human Rights in January concerning the UK legislation. This separate case is ongoing but it claims that the act breaches up to five human rights protected under the ECHR.

The response to the decision has been divided. Colum Eastwood, a local MP and leader of the Social, Democratic and Labour Party, stated it was a “very welcome initial ruling” on the “immoral, iniquitous and deeply flawed approach to the past.” Amnesty International, who joined the proceedings, has called for the “deeply damaging” act to be scrapped. However, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris stated in the UK Parliament later on Wednesday that his office would consider the court’s findings very carefully but that he remains “committed” to implementing the act.