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Database launched on amnesties that removed criminal liability for wrongdoing
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams with late former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and late SDLP leader John Hume at Government Building in Dublin after historic meeting regarded as start of the peace process, on 6/4/1994 Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

02 Sep 2020 / justice Print

Database launched on amnesties that removed criminal liability

Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Edinburgh have together launched the first public, open-access database that explores amnesties which were granted during ongoing conflicts, or as part of peace negotiations, or in post-conflict periods. 

Amnesties are measures that seek to remove criminal liability for wrongdoing, and are often used during armed conflicts or as part of negotiated peace settlements. 

New online tool

The work brings together the research of lead-academic, Prof Louise Mallinder from the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, and the technologies of the University of Edinburgh’s Political Settlement Research Programme, to create a new online tool for conflict parties and peacebuilders.  

The project is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. 

The database contains qualitative data on 289 amnesties introduced by states in all world regions from 1990-2016.

Key themes

It provides descriptions of key themes relating to the scope and legal effects of different forms of amnesty, together with information on when and how they are implemented to remove criminal liability for conflict-related offences. 

The key themes include: 

  • The context in which the amnesty was introduced (regime type, or timing in the transition from conflict to peace),
  • The process of introducing the amnesty, and where appropriate, amending or annulling the amnesty,
  • The categories of persons who benefited from the amnesty or were excluded from its terms,
  • The crimes that are included or excluded from the amnesty,
  • The conditions that amnestied persons must comply with to obtain or retain amnesty,
  • The effects of the amnesty on criminal justice, civil remedies, and administrative accountability processes,
  • How the amnesty was implemented, including whether victims had a voice in the process of deciding whether individual amnesty applicants should be granted amnesty.

A summary of the key findings are available in the ‘Amnesties and Inclusive Political Settlements’ report. 

‘Live issue’

Prof Mallinder said: “The use of amnesties is often highly controversial, particularly where amnesties are granted to war criminals or those responsible for serious human-rights violations.

“This is a live issue in many parts of the world today, with amnesties under consideration in the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Thailand, and in Afghanistan, where a peace agreement was reached between the US and the Taliban in February 2020, and direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are due to begin.

“The political negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban demonstrate how amnesty can be a prerequisite for opening peace negotiations or reaching an agreement.

“Furthermore, debates in recent weeks among Afghan actors and representatives of other states over the release of Taliban detainees from prison reveal how actors may both recognise that amnesty is necessary for peace while also seeking to limit the impunity that it creates. 

Legitimacy of amnesty

“These debates indicate that the legitimacy of amnesty may rest on multiple factors, including how amnestied persons are monitored after they receive amnesty; the forms of post-amnesty conditions that can be imposed for them to retain amnesty; and whether the peace process seeks to fulfil victims’ rights. These issues are often omitted from approaches to amnesty that consider only whether the amnesty extends to international crimes and serious human-rights violations.”

Prof Christine Bell, professor of constitutional law at the University of Edinburgh, commented: “The question of amnesty is often one of the big stumbling blocks to a peace agreement. 

“By making amnesty processes fully searchable, and providing strong analysis on how to craft amnesties through Prof Mallinder’s report, we hope that actors in conflict will be better able to find creative solutions for moving the peace process forward, that avoid impunity.” 

Valuable resource

Sanja Badanjak, Chancellor’s Fellow in Global Challenges from the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh, added: “Prof Mallinder’s database is a tremendously valuable resource for research on conflict and peace processes.

“It allows researchers to compare the manner in which amnesties are implemented, as well as providing an insight into the workings of amnesty processes for those who may be considering the use of amnesty in negotiations on ending conflict.

“The ease of access to these data, and the detail that Prof Mallinder provides on each process, will surely encourage and support a wave of new research on the relevance and effect of amnesties in the context of armed conflict.”

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