British soldiers that are alleged to have committed crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and war crimes will not be granted safeguards against prosecution, the Tory government has conceded, in a major U-turn from provisions within the proposed Overseas Operations Bill.
Number 10 tried to restrict prosecutions for torture and war crimes alleged to have been committed by British soldiers serving abroad. However, last week, an amendment in the House of Lords rejected the government effort to protect British soldiers, including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, from what it calls “vexatious” label claims.
Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic also waded into the row and pleaded for MPs not to allow troops protection against prosecution for these offences. “UK lawmakers in the House of Commons should stand up for human rights and ensure that the provisions of the Overseas Operations Bill fully meet the UK’s obligations to combat impunity for torture and protect victims’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights,” Mijatovic is reported saying.
With a potential rebellion brewing as the bill returns to the House of Commons today, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace agreed to amend the bill to make clear that there would be no time limit on prosecutions for these crimes.
“Whilst we maintain nothing in this bill prevents those accused of breaking the law from being prosecuted, we have listened to concerns and in order to send a powerful message to the international community, amendments will be made to the Overseas Operations Bill,” a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said. “Excluded offences in part one of the Bill will be expanded to include torture, genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Former NATO secretary-general George Robertson, who led the opposition against the unamended bill, welcomed the decision. “While we await the detail, it is certainly welcome that the government appears to have finally listened to the chorus of concern about the impact to the UK’s international reputation if it failed to remove torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from the presumption against prosecution in the Overseas Operations Bill,” Robertson said.
Robertson argued that if the government got its way it would have abandoned the UK’s “leading by example” approach, and would have set a terrible precedent likely to be grabbed on by many of the worst regimes of the world.