State impunity for British security forces was ‘widespread and systematic’

Norwegian human rights organisation says state forces have to be held to a higher standard than paramilitaries

British security forces had effective immunity from prosecution during the Troubles despite being engaged in incidences of killings, torture and ill-treatment, a report has concluded.

Bitter Legacy: State Impunity in the Northern Ireland Conflict was compiled by an international expert panel convened by the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and published on the eve of the coming into force of the UK government’s controversial Legacy Act.

The report authors believe the Legacy Act sets a bad precedent and will allow “repressive regimes around the world to justify and legitimise their own policies of impunity”.

The report deals only with crimes committed by British security forces during the Troubles and not those of republican and loyalist paramilitaries who were responsible for 90 per cent of the deaths during the conflict.


Gisle Kvanvig of the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights said 30,000 republican and loyalist perpetrators went to jail during the Troubles while very few army or police who committed crimes were convicted and that was the source of their report.

He believed higher standards were expected of state actors as the state is supposed to uphold its own laws.

The report authors have called for the Legacy Act to be repealed and for a return to the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 which allowed for the setting up of a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR).

The Legacy Act will shut down all investigations into Troubles-related killings including inquests, court challenges and criminal trials. It will be replaced by an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR) though critics say it is an inadequate way of dealing with crimes of the past.

As of May 1st all 500 outstanding claims against the British military will be ended.

The report identified a “tea and sandwiches” approach to the investigation of state killings. The RUC frequently passed on responsibility to the Royal Military Police (RMP) which made no attempt to investigate these killings.

The notion that those in the security forces who were covering up crimes and colluding with paramilitaries were a few “bad apples” is wrong, the report states. Instead, state impunity was “widespread, systematic and systemic”.

The expert panel carried out in-depth studies into 54 killings where state involvement was confirmed or suspected, led by former Norwegian detective Kjell Erik Eriksen. The panel found that the cases after 1974 and into the 1980s were generally characterised by omission or poor execution of key investigative steps where important lines of inquiry were not followed up.

Some cases in the 1990s were investigated “to a certain extent” but cases between 1970 and 1973 were neither “efficient nor effective” in their investigations, Mr Eriksen said.

Basic steps such as the erection of police cordons, the taking of crime scene photographs and the gathering of witness statements were carried out in a “perfunctory manner”. Suspect interviews were often of poor quality and short.

Argentinian human rights lawyer Maria Jose Guembe said the UK was repeatedly in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which demands that states investigate killings properly.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times