The Council of Europe has called on Britain to reconsider the controversial Troubles legacy Bill and speed up open inquests into deaths during the Troubles before the new law forces all such proceedings to terminate next spring.
The Strasbourg human rights body, made up of 46 European member states, expressed deep concerns that the Bill breaches human rights law.
It “strongly urged” the British government to consider repealing the part of the law that offers immunity from prosecution to members of the security forces or former paramilitaries who co-operate with a new commission that is to be set up to investigate Troubles-era deaths.
Despite the strong opposition of victims’ groups as well as all political parties in Northern Ireland, the so-called Troubles legacy Bill passed its final stages in parliament and became law earlier this week.
A number of victims’ families have announced legal action in a bid to stop the Bill, and the Irish government has said it is taking advice on whether to take a court case against Britain.
The Bill ends all ongoing inquests or criminal investigations into Troubles-era deaths from May next year, replacing all such procedures with a new body set up by the British government to take over investigations, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).
In a decision published on Friday, the Council of Europe said it “deeply regretted” that the Bill will terminate all pending inquests and called on British authorities “to take all measures to expedite proceedings so that they can be concluded before May 1st 2024 when they will have to be terminated”.
The Bill’s immunity scheme for those who co-operate with the commission “risks breaching obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention to prosecute and punish serious grave breaches of human rights”, it said.
The decision noted that confidence of victims, their families, and potential witnesses was essential for the success of any new investigative body, and described support for the ICRIR as “minimal”.
The British government has said the commission will offer closure to victims’ families and aims to achieve truth and reconciliation. The Bill was introduced after the Conservative party leadership vowed to protect British soldiers from investigations and prosecution.
The Council of Europe’s role is to monitor how member countries comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty drawn up after the Nuremberg trials with the aim of preventing a repeat of the abuses of the second World War.
Its Committee of Ministers, made up of representatives of member states, met this week to consider whether Britain had made progress in addressing breaches in human rights law that were previously identified by the European Court of Human Rights.
These rulings relate to the so-called McKerr group of cases, in which the court found there were “shortcomings in the investigations” into the deaths of several people in the 1980s and 1990s in Northern Ireland, who were killed “either during security force operations or in circumstances giving rise to suspicion of collusion in their deaths by security force personnel”.
In its decision the Council of Europe expressed “profound concern” that there had not yet been an inquiry into the death of solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989 and “exhorted” British authorities to take action as soon as possible.
It also expressed “profound regret” that inquests into other deaths had not yet been completed or listed for hearing, and urged authorities to take all measures to speed up proceedings so they can conclude before they are terminated due to the Troubles legacy Bill.