Military chiefs launch bruising broadside on UK's 'indefensible' war crimes immunity bill

WORRYING ‘wrinkles’ in the government’s ‘indefensible’ war crimes immunity bill must be ‘ironed out’ to avoid Britain’s international standings from being ruined, veteran forces leaders have demanded.

Friday, 22nd January 2021, 5:42 pm

Peers in the House of Lords launched a scathing broadside on the piece of controversial legislation, designed to protect military personnel from ‘vexatious’ legal claims.

Named the the Overseas Operations Bill, the law was designed to prevent false allegations of abuse and murder by UK troops during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from being pursued.

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Sand and dust gets thrown up as No 3 Company he First Battalion The Grenadier Guards deploy out of an RAF Chinook helicopter in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan. in July 2007. Picture: Sergeant Will Craig/Crown Copyright

The bill, which passed through the Commons, has been championed by former army officer turned veterans’ affairs minister Johnny Mercer.

But now in its second reading in the House of Lords, peers – including the former head of the Royal Navy and retired generals – have slammed the law, claiming it would stop troops suing the Ministry of Defence and could allow true war crimes to be swept under the carpet.

Among the bill’s provisions would be a ‘presumption against prosecution where five or more years have passed since an alleged offence on an overseas operation’.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomas of Gresford lashed out at the loophole and said: ‘Sexual offences are excluded from the presumption, so if a soldier tortures, rapes and kills a civilian, there is a presumption against prosecuting him for the torture and the murder but not for the rape. This is surely indefensible on any policy or moral basis.’

Admiral Lord Alan West, who used to head the Royal Navy, said the bill decriminalised acts of torture after five years and needed amending.

‘While I salute the Minister’s wish to support those serving in the military and our veterans, who give so much to this nation of ours, the bill as it stands has a number of – to put it mildly – wrinkles that need much fuller explanation; indeed, a number of them must be ironed out,’ he told peers.

‘In its current form, this legislation would seem to decriminalise acts of torture by members of the Armed Forces if they are reported after five years... This cannot be the intention and serves the interests of no one.’

Former head of the army, General Lord Richard Dannatt – who called on more support for veterans during a visit to Portsmouth in 2019 – agreed and said ‘radical amendments’ were needed.

And Liberal Democrat Baroness Northover branded the bill was one of the worst she had seen.

‘We certainly owe those armed forces a huge debt of gratitude. But I do not think I have ever participated in a piece of legislation which is so evidently flawed, except perhaps the Brexit Bill which sought to break international law,’ she said.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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