During its Human Rights meeting of 19-21 September, the Committee of Ministers examined the execution of the McKerr group concerning various shortcomings in investigations into the deaths of the applicants’ next-of-kin in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Committee recalled its concerns previously expressed about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill’s compatibility with the European Convention and its repeated calls upon the United Kingdom authorities to amend the Bill.
Whilst noting with interest the amendments to the Bill tabled by the government since its last examination of the group in June, the Committee noted that a number of issues relating to independence, disclosure and the initiation of reviews remained uncertain. It therefore urged the United Kingdom authorities to provide additional information on the planned measures to ensure that those issues were fully addressed.
The Committee furthermore deeply regretted that the proposal to terminate pending inquests remained in the Bill (even if the cut-off date has been extended) and urged the United Kingdom authorities to consider taking additional practical measures to ensure that as many inquests as possible can conclude before 1 May 2024 and that all of the preparatory work done on these pending cases is not lost in any transfer to the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (the ICRIR).
Underlining the importance for the success of any new investigative body, particularly if aimed at achieving truth and reconciliation, of gaining the confidence of victims, families of victims and potential witnesses, the Committee noted with deep regret that support for the ICRIR remains minimal. It therefore strongly encouraged the United Kingdom authorities to take all necessary additional measures to garner public trust and the confidence of all stakeholders.
The Committee also reiterated its serious concern about the proposed conditional immunity scheme which risks breaching obligations under Article 2 of the Convention to prosecute and punish serious grave breaches of human rights and seriously undermining the ICRIR’s capacity to carry out effective investigations. It strongly urged the United Kingdom authorities to consider repealing those immunity provisions.
Finally, it invited its Chair, currently the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, to send a letter to his counterpart in the United Kingdom to raise the concerns. This is a relatively rare step taken by the Committee of Ministers in only a handful of cases to date.