The UK government’s proposed legislation to restrict the ability to hold British soldiers accountable for crimes committed overseas – the Overseas Operations Bill - passed its second reading in Parliament yesterday. The law will provide a “presumption against prosecution” after five yearsfor British soldiers and veterans. The legislation forms part of the Conservative party election manifesto pledge to protect British armed forces from ‘vexatious’ claims.
The bill also intends to introduce time limits on submitting civil claims in relation to overseas operations, which could see the government considering moving away from the European Convention of Human Rights with regards to overseas military operations.
The bill has been criticised by opposition MPs and rights groups, as well as by some Conservative MPs. Senior Conservative MP David Davis, a former cabinet minister, said he was "deeply troubled" by government plans to "decriminalise torture by British personnel if it took place more than five years ago" (Sky News).
“The Overseas Operations Bill – the legislation that, if enacted, would effectively grant veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns immunity from prosecution – will have damaging consequences. Ultimately, this Bill is harmful both to Britain’s standing in the world and to the reputation of our Armed Forces,” wrote Labour MP and former army major Dan Jarvis.
“The overwhelming majority of members of our Armed Forces follow the rules. But no one is above the law. That principle remains true whether or not someone wears a uniform. One of the best ways to protect our troops is to ensure we apply the rule of law in every instance.”
Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy who voted against the bill, defying the party’s whip to abstain, wrote that the bill “effectively decriminalises torture, violates essential rule of law principles such as judicial and prosecutorial independence, and defies international human rights law” and that it would have “obvious and disastrous implications for upholding justice for the victims of war crimes”.
Another Labour MP, Apsana Begum, who voted against the bill wrote “it is not clear why Britain’s Armed Forces personnel should be above the law, or why they should be able to contravene our international legal obligations related to war crimes and crimes against humanity. In fact, it is especially important that time limits are not too restrictive in this regard. It takes time to gather evidence, to fully trace the harm done, and to work with lawyers across borders. This is not vexatious or targeting Armed Forces members. It’s only fair, and it applies to everyone.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the bill “would make it nearly impossible to prosecute genuine cases” and “would send a clear message that the government’s aim is to prevent justice for the most serious crimes committed by British nationals against foreigners.”
Highlighting Britain’s “long and shameful history of failing to prosecute its nationals responsible for major crimes overseas” HRW said:
“More recently, the evidence is overwhelming that some British forces in Iraq committed serious abuses, often amounting to war crimes. Public inquiries and court rulings have found that British forces abused detainees, sometimes causing their deaths. Commanders and government ministers should have known about and prevented such abuse. Such failure to prevent war crimes is itself a criminal offense.
Despite this evidence, virtually no British soldier has been prosecuted, let alone convicted for war crimes. A public inquiry found that Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, was beaten to death in British custody in 2003, but only one British soldier, a corporal, was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. British governments have directly interfered to prevent UK nationals being prosecuted, shutting down investigations into alleged crimes committed by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan before they had completed their work.”