‘It is bad for the rule of law, bad for the victims of crime and bad for our armed forces’.

Mayer Wakefield


The Overseas Operations Bill appears to be losing friends rapidly and considering its content it is no surprise. By limiting historical claims of torture and abuse to five years, the Bill essentially permits British soldiers to commit war crimes – a prospect which is finally starting to awaken consciences across the political spectrum. As it returns to the Commons even some Tory MPs are revolting at the idea of passing a Bill which would break international law and ‘put the UK at odds with the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court (ICC)’.

Disappointingly, the news that the Joint Committee on Human Rights had savaged the legislation was buried beneath headlines that one of parliament’s leading human rights advocates had been suspended from the Labour Party. But that doesn’t make its findings any less damning.

Committee chair Harriet Harman MP stated that the Bill ‘will allow those in our armed forces who perpetrate serious crimes to escape justice and prevent victims with justified claims bringing wrongdoing before the courts. It is bad for the rule of law, bad for the victims of crime and bad for our armed forces’.

She went on to add that ‘investigations into incidents arising from the UK’s involvement in conflicts have exposed extremely serious wrongdoing, and it is therefore vital that future action to investigate and prosecute such crimes can continue unimpeded’. Just search the name ‘Baha Mousa’ for one stark example of such wrongdoing.

The case of Mousa is a prime example of why this bill cannot be allowed to pass through parliament. In September 2003 Mousa, a hotel receptionist, sustained 93 separate injuries whilst being beaten to death in the custody of British soldiers in Basra.

Corporal Donald Payne became Britain’s first convicted war criminal after pleading guilty to ‘inhumanely treating civilian detainees’. In the public enquiry that followed, Payne described his commanding officer as ‘trigger happy’ and claimed that he witnessed another superior rank soldier pretending to set one of the prisoners on fire. No further action was taken against either, despite the resulting Gage report describing the techniques used as ‘prohibited and unlawful in warfare by reason of the Geneva convention’ when it was published in 2011.

The fact that only one soldier was sentenced to a solitary year in prison for such actions shows how difficult it is under current legislation for soldiers to be served with adequate justice. Yet the current government feels the need to go further by creating a ‘triple lock’ of barriers to avert prosecutions. Under the proposals any prosecutions that may have been deemed necessary following the Gage report would have long passed the proposed five-year threshold and any new evidence coming to light would be totally redundant.

It appears Keir Starmer’s Labour will now be voting against the Bill, making the party’s abstention at the first reading look like a cynical trap into which three of its junior shadow ministers fell. The picking off of anti-war voices in opposition continues apace.

As the spotlight has sharpened on it, this Bill has had increasing criticism heaped upon it from all angles. It is a piece of legislation driven more by the tabloid press and its Tory appeasers than by considered law makers.

Nevertheless, Johnny Mercer MP, the Bill’s primary cheerleader claims that ‘the idea that this bill allows torture or places our people above the law is as ridiculous as those who are suggesting it is’. Such a schoolboy statement looks like an admission of guilt and many amendments have been tabled to tone down the ridiculousness of this ill-judged Bill. Considering the breadth of opposition there’s still room for hope that the effective decriminalisation of torture will not become law anytime soon.

02 Nov 2020

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