Prime Minister Boris Johnson will make an election pledge to amend the Human Rights Act in an effort to stop military veterans being prosecuted over killings that took place during The Troubles. The pledge comes as six former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are facing prosecution. However, legal experts suggest that such a pledge would result in conflict with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Amnesty International said: “All victims have the right to an independent investigation – that is a cornerstone of the rule of law throughout the world.”
As both main parties marked Armistice Day with a raft of pledges, the Tories promised to “protect former soldiers from vexatious claims” if elected with a majority. Mr Johnson vowed guaranteed job interviews for veterans who apply for public sector jobs as well as a one-year National Insurance break for firms that take on former soldiers. Veterans will also be entitled to extra support with childcare if the Conservatives win the election, the party said.
The Prime Minister said in a statement: “If I’m elected on December 12, I want the message from my government to our Armed Forces to be louder and clearer than ever: we salute you and we will always support you.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn meanwhile promised that his party’s own manifesto would include five pledges to support the Armed Forces and their families, including ditching the public sector pay cap to boost their salaries; ensuring “decent housing”; setting up a Police Federation-style professional body for troops; a “root and branch review of outsourcing”; and better access to schools for forces children.
Mr Corbyn said: “Our forces should not have to put up with pay cuts, sub-standard housing, difficulties accessing school for their children, or face the uncertainty of relying on outsourced providers. After a decade of government cuts and outsourcing, Labour offers our armed forces real change with the pay, conditions and respect they deserve.”
The Telegraph reports that the Tory manifesto will also vow to “consider legislation that draws a clear line under the past, bringing to an end all ongoing investigations, inquests and prosecutions from the Northern Ireland Troubles”. The pledge to end “ongoing” prosecutions is likely to be controversial, however, as ministers traditionally do not intervene in live criminal proceedings.
Conservative MP and veterans minister Johnny Mercer told The Sun: “Boris Johnson is committed to tackling the repeated and vexatious legal claims that have recently so undermined our Armed Services and hindered our ability to fight wars. […] A majority Conservative Government will bring forward legislation to correct this clear injustice.”
Successive Prime Ministers have faced calls to scrap the Historical Investigations Unit, which was a key part of the 2014 Stormont House agreement between the British and Irish governments. The Unit is investigating allegations of misconduct by service personnel as well as unsolved criminal cases. More than 200 ex-soldiers are understood to be under current criminal investigation for deaths during the Troubles.
A Conservative source told Politics Home: “We have been clear that we need to end the unfair trials of people who served their country when no new evidence has been produced and when the accusations have already been exhaustively questioned in court.”
It would involve amending the Human Rights Act – the key legal route for families seeking to prove British state involvement in killings – to exclude any death in Northern Ireland before the legislation came into force in October 2000. But Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, now running as an independent, attacked a confusing announcement that he suggested was simply “electioneering”.
“I am very sensitive to soldiers not being harassed about events that happened a long time ago, but the rule of law has to be upheld as well,” he told The Independent.
But, under Article 2 of the ECHR, nations are obliged to carry out an effective official investigation into deaths where lethal force has been used against individuals by agents of the state.
Mr Grieve added: “If we seek to stop inquests, we may fall foul of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. And if we seek to interfere with prosecutions, well, I’m staggered that any government would consider it.”
He warned it could lead to leaving the ECHR altogether, adding: “That would be a very bad destination indeed, because we are one of the leading countries seeking to apply it to improve standards, not just in Europe, but around the world.”
Mark Stephens, a solicitor specialising in human rights, said: “The UK has been a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights since 1958 and if we want to remain part of that convention any amendment of domestic legislation will have to be compliant with it.”