Ex-Obama aide critical of British government’s Troubles amnesty

Former US assistant secretary of state warns that move threatens peace and US-UK relations

Britain’s proposed Troubles amnesty is ‘ill-conceived, premature and unwise’, according to former US assistant secretary of state Michael Posner. Photograph: AP

Britain’s proposed Troubles amnesty is ‘ill-conceived, premature and unwise’, according to former US assistant secretary of state Michael Posner. Photograph: AP

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Britain’s proposed Troubles amnesty is “ill-conceived, premature and unwise” and threatens to damage peace in the North as well as relations between London and Washington, a former US assistant secretary of state has warned.

Michael Posner, who served in president Barack Obama’s administration between 2009 and 2013, said a planned ban on conflict-related prosecutions of soldiers, police and paramilitaries is an “effort to push the issue of past human rights abuses under the rug”.

“It goes beyond an amnesty for criminal conduct but says no more coroners’ inquests or civil actions. It is really an effort to push this issue aside and not deal with accountability or getting at the truth. I think it is a mistake,” he told The Irish Times.

Mr Posner’s comments follow an intervention this week by United Nations experts who said the proposals amount to a “de facto amnesty and blanket impunity” for serious human rights violations.

Secretary of State for Northern Brandon Lewis last month told Westminster that legislation could be enacted by the autumn which would end the possibility of future prosecutions for Troubles-era killings and other crimes committed before 1998.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the proposals would “draw a line under the Troubles” and acknowledged they were partly prompted by British political and public opposition to the prosecution of former British soldiers.

Stormont’s political parties and the Government in Dublin are united in their opposition to the plans.

Mr Posner, a human rights lawyer and professor of ethics and finance at New York University, described the proposed statute of limitations as an “effort to derail all of the existing accountability measures and to propose some form of lesser truth gathering”.

If Britain pushed the measures through there would be negative “reaction from Washington and elsewhere”, he said.

“In terms of political and diplomatic and also economic relations, if they take action that undermines the Good Friday agreement and set things backwards in Northern Ireland, that will be noticed in Washington,” he added.

“It will undermine or make more complicated, or difficult, bilateral relations between the US and the UK. It is not advisable to do that and there is no reason to do it.”

Mr Posner said the proposed creation of an independent body that would focus on truth recovery as well as a “major oral history initiative” were “an afterthought” to the wider plan.

He said that in any transitional society there is “a fragility to stable peace”.

“When you pull the rug out on dealing with the past, tensions linger, anger rises to the surface as to why there hasn’t been a full explanation from the government as to what happened, why didn’t anyone ever acknowledge the wrong doing,” he added. “That has the potential to undermine peace and stability.”

Brexit tensions

Mr Posner said the proposals also come at a time when Brexit has ramped up tensions in the North.

“The uncertainty of Northern Ireland’s place in this more complicated world, where the UK is no longer part of the EU, I think it adds another level of insecurity and instability at a time when it is not wise or necessary,” he added.

“It is ill-conceived, premature and unwise.”

Mr Posner further accused the British government of “upending” commitments made as part of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement process.

“In terms of international relationships, the Good Friday agreement and everything that comes with it is very important to the US government, the Biden administration, to other governments,” he said.“This is not a detail, it is an important piece of the relationship.”

SDLP leader and Foyle MP Colum Eastwood said the UN intervention this week demonstrates “growing unrest in the international community” about Britain’s legacy proposals.

“Those who inflicted the most harm have the most to gain from the effective amnesty that Boris Johnson’s government is promising,” he said. “This is another example of this British administration ignoring its responsibilities under international law.”

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