The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged the UK government to “reconsider its approach” to its proposed legislation for dealing with the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Volker Turk also said proposed amendments to the Bill should “adequately ensure respect for the rights of victims, survivors and their families”. He called on London to “engage in further meaningful and inclusive consultations on how best to advance a human rights centred” way forward.
“The draft legislation as it stands appears to be incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations,” he said.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is due to return to the House of Lords next week.
Its proposals include the creation of a new truth recovery body, the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, which will offer immunity from prosecution to perpetrators who co-operate, take over responsibility for all Troubles inquiries and end criminal and civil investigations and inquests.
The plans have been widely condemned, including by the North’s five main political parties, victims and human rights groups, the Irish Government, other parties in Ireland and in Britain and internationally. It is supported by veterans’ groups.
On Thursday the Sinn Féin president, Mary Lou McDonald, wrote to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar and UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, calling on them to convene an “urgent summit” with the North’s political parties to discuss legacy issues.
She also urged the UK government to “stop the passage of its unacceptable legacy legislation” in order to “create space for that dialogue to take place”.
On Tuesday the UK government introduced minor amendments to the Bill, which Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said reflected the “extensive engagement that has taken place, and demonstrates the [UK] government’s commitment to working with all interested parties regarding their concerns”.
These were criticised on Thursday by Daniel Holder of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, who said that “far from the spin from the Northern Ireland Office, the amendments tabled by [the] British government not only go no way to addressing any of the concerns raised by the international community, they actually make the Bill worse”.
“It is clear that the amendments are aimed at incentivising as getting as many people as possible to apply for an amnesty, which would put them out of reach of any investigation with teeth.”
The UN High Commissioner said the publication of the changes only a week before the Bill’s return to the House of Lords left “insufficient time to scrutinise the amendments and participate meaningfully in this hugely significant legislative process”.
He said “respect for rights of victims, survivors and their families to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence is essential for reconciliation” and “their rights must be placed at the heart of all attempts to address the legacy of the Troubles”.
Gráinne Teggart from Amnesty International said it was a “significant, timely and welcome call from the UN Human Rights chief which the UK government must not ignore” and said the Bill must be scrapped.
“The [UK] government must recognise and understand the scale of international concern about this Bill, which betrays victims of the Troubles” and also diminished any claim it “stands for human rights”, she said.
Victims and survivors group Relatives for Justice said “condemnation and criticisms” of the UK government’s Bill were “beyond tipping point” and if it became law the Irish Government “must act in defence of all victims and their rights in this part of our jurisdiction”.