Glasgow, United Kingdom – UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt has said she favours extending her proposed amnesty to cover British troops who served in Northern Ireland.
Mordaunt on Wednesday announced plans to curb the prosecution of soldiers accused of crimes in warzones.
The plans include an exemption for cases in Northern Ireland, but would still constitute a significant legal and practical hurdle for victims of state violence, analysts have noted.
But Mordaunt backtracked on this exemption at the policy’s launch event, saying that she personally favoured an amnesty even in Northern Ireland.
The proposals follow months of public pressure from senior and backbench Conservative politicians and would prevent action against individual soldiers in all but “exceptional circumstances” more than 10 years after the alleged offence or the end of campaign operations.
High-profile cases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland have focused right-wing politicians’ anger in the UK at what is perceived to be unnecessary harassment of troops.
In 2017, the Iraq Historical Investigations Team was shut down, and its functions absorbed by the Service Prosecuting Authority. Some cases brought by one firm had been found to be fabricated, which led to the whole investigation of some 3,400 Iraq cases being sent back to military court on the basis that the IHAT had been misused by “ambulance chasing lawyers”.
IHAT’s work was, however, complicated by sustained attacks on its work by British politicians, as well as attacks on Iraq’s security infrastructure, human rights activists said. In 2011, the year the UK officially ended conflict operations, Human Rights Watch criticised a lack of political will and institutional capacity to investigate or prosecute alleged crimes, of which there were many thousands.
Richard Benyon MP served with the Royal Green Jackets regiment during the Northern Ireland conflict known as “The Troubles”. In November 2017, he proposed a bill that would outlaw any prosecution of military personnel more than 10 years after conflicts anywhere in the world – specifically in cases of alleged murder or attempted murder.
Benyon told Al Jazeera Mordaunt’s plans were welcome as “a start”.
“Northern Irish cases are still a big issue,” he told Al Jazeera.
But the plans are not universally welcomed. Sinn Fein’s Victims and Legacy spokesperson Linda Dillon said amnesty “should not be tolerable anywhere”.
“These measures give an indication of the British government’s attitude towards justice and the criminality and murder carried out by their forces and proxies,” she said in a statement.
There is widespread expectation that there will be a Conservative leadership election in the coming months, and Mordaunt’s amnesty plans were announced less than two weeks into her time as defence secretary.
Her predecessor, Gavin Williamson, wrote last year to Theresa May urging action – but was rebuffed.
Since then, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the Commons that killings committed by British forces in Northern Ireland were “not crimes”.
While she later recanted her statement, the sentiment that former soldiers are being hounded escalated in March with the decision to prosecute one soldier for the killing of two people in Londonderry on January 30, 1972 – a day known as Bloody Sunday, which saw 13 people at a civil rights march shot dead by British troops. A 14th victim later died in hospital. There was insufficient evidence to charge 16 other soldiers among those on the scene that day, prosecutors said.
Independently investigating war crimes anywhere is inherently complicated by the power held by the military and the chaos that accompanies conflict.
In Iraqi cases, for example, the prospect of securing justice is more remote, with investigators struggling to ensure their own safety, let alone conduct investigations into historic allegations involving an occupying military force.
Under Mordaunt’s proposals, such investigations may still be dismissed. Only under “exceptional circumstances”, such as the emergence of new evidence, would prosecutions be sought following allegations of crimes committed more than 10 years earlier. It remains unclear which authority – the Public Prosecution Service, the home secretary, the attorney general, the High Court, or another judicial body – would rule whether any such circumstances had become “exceptional” enough to warrant prosecution.
In Ireland, it took four decades of legal wrangling by victims’ families to see the costliest and longest public inquiry in UK legal history, the 2010 Saville report, find that their relatives – all civilians – were killed without any justification on Bloody Sunday and that soldiers had consistently lied about their actions that day.
“None of the casualties was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury, or indeed was doing anything else that could on any view justify their shooting,” the report stated, 38 years after the killings.
Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s legal programme director, said Mordaunt’s proposals set a “dangerous precedent”.
“British soldiers who break the law must face it, just like everyone else,” she told the Press Association.
“Naturally, individuals should be presumed innocent and only charged with criminal offences in the exceptional circumstance that the thresholds for prosecution are met – that is already the law.
“But trying to go further and exempt a certain group of people from facing justice would be a perversion of that law.”