Council of Europe criticises UK amnesty bill for N.Ireland unrest

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Europe's leading human rights watchdog on Thursday criticised proposed UK legislation giving immunity to combatants involved in decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as "the Troubles".

Delivering an interim resolution, the Council of Europe said it had "serious concern" about the UK's failure to resolve differences over the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill introduced in the parliament in London a year ago.

The body noted an "absence of tangible progress" to address worries over the bill's compatability with the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR), of the which the UK is a signatory.

It called on the UK to reconsider its proposed immunity scheme for individuals involved in the historic unrest, highlighting "the importance of gaining the confidence of victims, families and potential witnesses".

The bill, introduced in May last year, proposes the creation of a truth and recovery commission offering amnesty to British security personnel and paramilitaries if they cooperate with its enquiries.

More than 3,500 people were killed during three decades of sectarian conflict that began in the 1960s over British rule in Northern Ireland.

Around 1,200 deaths remain under investigation by police in the province, according to the UK government.

A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office told AFP that the UK government was "determined to deliver better outcomes for those most affected by the Troubles, while helping society to look forward".

The proposed commission would have "necessary powers to conduct criminal investigations... ensuring compliance with the government's international obligations under the ECHR", he added.

The bill has drawn ire from the families of victims, both sides of Northern Ireland's political divide and leaders in the Republic of Ireland.

"It is a matter of regret to my government that the Legacy Bill continues its legislative progress without the support of political parties in Northern Ireland," Ireland's foreign minister Micheal Martin said.

"I believe that, by providing for amnesties for crimes amounting to gross human rights violations, the Bill, if enacted, would undermine rather than assist reconciliation," he said.

The British legislation, currently being debated in the upper-chamber House of Lords, has been welcomed by veterans groups, which say former soldiers have been unfairly targeted in prosecutions.

In November 2022, former British serviceman David Holden became the first soldier convicted of a killing committed during the Troubles following the signing of 1998 peace accords.

He later received a three-year suspended sentence for manslaughter for shooting 23-year-old Aidan McAnespie.