QUAKERS and other peace campaigners have voiced opposition to a government Bill that would introduce a “presumption against prosecution” for alleged offences committed by British military personnel during overseas operations.
The Overseas Operation (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening. It was passed by 377 to 77 votes, and will be debated in more detail by MPs at a later date.
Guidance published by the Ministry of Defence before the second reading says that the Bill “will create a new ‘triple lock’ in order to give service personnel and veterans greater certainty that the unique pressures placed on them during overseas operations will be taken into account when prosecutions decisions are made concerning alleged historical offences”.
This “triple lock” consists of “a presumption against prosecution” regarding alleged offences committed by service personnel during overseas military operations more than five years ago; “a requirement for prosecutors to give particular weight to certain matters in reaching decisions in such cases”; and “a requirement to obtain the consent of the Attorney General or, in the case of Northern Ireland, the Advocate General, before a prosecution can proceed”.
Quakers in Britain said on Tuesday: “The Bill would decriminalise torture and other crimes against humanity by British soldiers if those crimes were committed more than five years previously. It marks an unprecedented departure from the UN Convention Against Torture, European Convention on Human Rights, and Geneva Conventions. . . The Bill increases the likelihood that war crimes will be covered up and structural problems within the armed forces will go unaddressed.”
Quakers in Britain have written to the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, to ask that the Bill is paused “to consult more widely about its impact and consider alternative approaches”, the statement says.
The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) urged MPs to vote against the Bill at second reading. The PPU’s campaigns manager, Symon Hill, said on Tuesday: “This Bill threatens the rights of everyone mistreated by the UK armed forces, whether civilians in war zones or forces personnel abused by their superiors. It undermines a basic principle of British justice: that we are all subject to the same law.”
Suggestions that veterans were being “dragged through the courts” were “pure fantasy”, Mr Hill said. “Almost no British forces personnel and veterans have been prosecuted over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
He continued: “This Bill is not about helping veterans, thousands of whom are facing poverty and homelessness. It is about protecting the armed forces as institutions — and they’re already some of the least accountable institutions in the UK.
“We urge Labour MPs, and all MPs, to have the guts to stand up to the militarist lobby and vote against a Bill that offers to excuse war crimes.”
Writing The Observer on Sunday, the Revd Nick Mercer, Rector of Bolton Abbey and a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army, said that the Bill “undermines international humanitarian law while shielding the Government against what may be wholly deserving claims”.
He continued: “The so-called triple lock will effectively introduce a statute of limitations for the offence of torture. Torture has been absolutely prohibited under international law since 1948 and is enshrined in legal instruments such as the UN convention against torture, and the Geneva conventions of 1949. Despite this prohibition, the Government now seems prepared to try to amend those terms with the overseas operations bill.”
Mr Mercer noted that a former Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, a former Defence Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and a former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, had written to Downing Street to express misgivings about the Bill.
They wrote: “We find it disturbing that the Government’s approach . . . creates a presumption against prosecution of torture and other grave crimes (with only rape and sexual violence excepted) after five years. We believe that the effective application of existing protocols removes the risk of vexatious prosecution. To create de facto impunity for such crimes would be a damaging signal for Britain to send to the world.”
During the second reading debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening, Mr Wallace denied that the Bill would decriminalise torture. He said: “Torture is not an acceptable part of what any soldier or any citizen of this country should take part in. Where former Governments, of all colours, have been found to have not upheld those standards, they have either been prosecuted or faced the consequences. No one is excluding that and no one is decriminalising it.”
Mr Wallace said that one of the purposes of the Bill was to prevent “vexatious investigations” against service personnel and veterans. “The system as it stands provides an all-too-easy route for lawyers to spark repeat investigations and multiple claims, too many chances to earn fees and too many chances to drag yet another soldier through a witness box or an interview,” he said.
The Labour MP Stephen Timms, a former chairman of Christians on the Left, said in the debate that he supported the objective of ending vexatious claims. “But it is to our shame that Governments of which I was a member, in circumstances that we still do not fully understand, participated in rendition leading to torture,” he said. “That should not have happened and it must not be allowed to happen ever again. That is the aim of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition, of which I was recently elected Chair.
“I am afraid that this Bill will not help with that shared objective. I am troubled, for example, that, in the Bill, the presumption against prosecution will extend not just to the battlefield . . . but to peacekeeping operations and to a worryingly undefined category of operations dealing with terrorism. We could so easily slip back to repeating what went so badly wrong before.”
The Labour MP Dan Jarvis, a former British army officer, also expressed misgivings about the Bill. “The reality is that . . . if this Bill is passed in its current form, a decision to allow a prosecution to proceed following an allegation of torture after five years had elapsed would be made virtually impossible due to the threshold imposed by the triple lock,” he said. “This is not the way to rebuild our reputation on the international stage.”