The Northern Ireland Legacy Bill will silence torture survivors like me
I grew up in a place without justice, where the most heinous crimes go unpunished. In my home country, war criminals and torturers walk the streets freely and some have even been appointed to the highest positions in government.
After fleeing torture and persecution in central Africa in 2005, I rebuilt my life in the United Kingdom, a country where human rights are supposed to be respected and abusers face justice. But now the UK government is trying to pass a law that would silence torture survivors like me.
The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is back in Parliament. In the face of universal opposition from victims’ organisations and every major Northern Irish political party as well as international condemnation, the government is pushing it through regardless.
It shows that countries can ignore justice if it is deemed not to be 'convenient'
Despite protestations to the contrary by ministers, the bill grants effective amnesty to killers and torturers, ignoring the voices of victims and survivors and denying them justice for crimes committed during the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland. Investigations into all Troubles incidents up until April 1988, including crimes committed both by paramilitary groups and British soldiers, will be closed and replaced with ‘reviews’ into a restricted number of cases by a new commission operating under considerable ministerial control.
Families will also face extreme difficulties in seeking ‘reviews’ into torture cases, with only the most ‘serious’ cases being eligible unless ministers agree the case should be opened. Cases that meet this definition are extremely narrow: only crimes that caused extreme physical injury, such as quadriplegia or severe brain damage, or caused “severe psychiatric damage” will be considered.
But perpetrators of ‘serious’ crimes could still avoid prosecution and any meaningful investigation by instead seeking an amnesty from the commission set up to ‘review’ these cases. Despite being excluded from the amnesty, the ban on investigations provides a de facto amnesty for even sexual crimes. This is particularly troubling to me as a survivor champion of the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI). Given all the important work that this Initiative conducts around the world, it is deeply upsetting that this bill could undermine the UK’s global leadership on combatting sexual violence in conflict.
The government understands this bill violates international law. United Nations human rights experts have urged the UK not to proceed with the legislation. The Council of Europe has called on the UK authorities to reconsider the proposed amnesty scheme and the shutting down of legacy inquests. Ministers know that the bill is in trouble and have brought forward several amendments. But these changes do not change the overall logic of the bill; blocking accountability for crimes committed during the 30-year Northern Ireland conflict.
This bill will have an impact far beyond the shores of this nation. It shows that countries can ignore justice if it is deemed not to be “convenient”. That message – coming from a powerful country like the UK that is considered to be a champion of the rule of law – sets a dangerous precedent and gives a green light to governments in countries, like the one that I fled, to legislate for impunity.
As well as risking permanent damage to the UK’s reputation as a state that respects the rule of law, this bill will impact many victims of abuses during the Troubles who are still waiting for justice.
As any torture survivor will tell you, justice is an essential part of the healing process, allowing you to move on from your trauma and regain the humanity it strips away. This bill not only tells torture survivors that the UK government does not care about their pain but will send a clear message to abusive states that they too can get away with torture.
I have always been proud of the UK. Not just because I was given protection and a chance to rebuild my life after being tortured, but because we are a global leader when it comes to upholding human rights and the absolute ban on torture. It is the most horrific of crimes and no piece of legislation should provide any doubt of this country’s complete commitment to its eradication.
Kolbassia Haoussou, director of Survivor Empowerment at Freedom from Torture
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