The Sun is outraged that army killings in Northern Ireland will be reinvestigated. Soldiers who killed during the ‘Troubles’ will be considered as manslaughter suspects in a new inquiry, report Tom Newton-Dunn and Matt Wilkinson.
The report contrasts the “brave” servicemen with the IRA terrorists who were killed, or in some cases, received a pardon. The newspaper says this is a “witch hunt”.
This re-tread over old ground is down to the trust, or lack of it, that the the people have in the Government. We now know that the police and security services colluded in UVF the murder of Catholics in Ireland as late as 1994. Such actions were in themselves a hideous human rights abuse and a betrayal of a Government’s core duty to protect its citizens. But it also eroded the trust that any Government needs to operate effectively in matters of security.
The reason why organisations like English PEN oppose the new Investigatory Powers Act is that the British security apparatus has demonstrated that regularly abuses the power that parliament has given it. The Sun‘s political editor Tom Newton-Dunn knows this—he was a victim of illegal police spying during the ‘plebgate’ affair.
When a government abuses human rights, everyone is affected. Some people are directly affected: they lose their lives, or they lose loved ones. Others may lose their privacy or family rights. But the government’s own agents and employees are affected too. Ex-servicemen remain under perpetual suspicion and are hauled in front of new inquiries, while others are put directly in harm’s way because communities (whether it’s Catholics in Northern Ireland, or contemporary Muslims) stop co-operating with counter-terrorism police.
Trust is a crucial component to democracy and public safety. Public inquires into historical events are a way of exposing wrong-doing, increasing accountability and giving the public confidence that abuses of power are less likely in future. They restore trust. They’re not an outrage, but a valuable democratic tool.
The coming war on the Human Rights Act
Understanding these principles are particularly important at the moment because the Conservative Government under Teresa May are seeking to weaken our human rights framework, and they’re using the example of British servicemen as a means to do this. During her conference speech in September, Mrs May said:
But we will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces.
The messaging is clever, simple and effective, and will persuade people unless it is properly and vigorous opposed. The Sun has clearly fallen for it, and our elected politicians will too. They need to be reminded that human rights—and human rights lawyers—keep us all safe, including the brave soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.