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UK Bill a License for Military Crimes?

Law Would Stymie Prosecution of Armed Forces for Abuses

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, March 18, 2020. © 2020 Press Association via AP Images

Given the distractions of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely the proposed new law from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government on overseas military operations will get far less attention than it deserves. If passed, the bill would greatly increase the risk that British soldiers who commit serious crimes will avoid justice.

The proposed law, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, would create a “presumption against prosecution” for members of the United Kingdom armed forces accused of crimes, including torture, committed overseas more than five years earlier. The government asserts this will protect UK forces from “vexatious” prosecutions – a dubious claim, given there have been hardly any such criminal trials. Even though British civil courts and public inquiries having found extensive evidence of torture by UK forces in Iraq after 2003. In addition, the UK government has paid out millions of pounds to Iraqis who alleged abuse by UK forces.

The government has expressed concerns about the conduct of some litigation over military abuses, but these can and have been dealt with through the legal profession’s disciplinary bodies and other sanctions.

The UK does indeed have a problem with justice for crimes committed by military personnel and civilian officials overseas – but the problem is that hardly anyone gets prosecuted, let alone convicted. This dates back many years – after the Amritsar Massacre in India in 1919, a public inquiry found UK forces had committed crimes, but no one was ever prosecuted. As a major media investigation has confirmed, there has been repeated political interference by UK ministers to stop accountability, such as shutting down the UK criminal investigation into alleged crimes in Iraq before it had completed its work.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor recently determined there is a basis to allegations that UK armed forces committed war crimes against detainees in Iraq. The ICC can only step in when national authorities do not genuinely investigate, so the prosecutor should take a very close look at the government’s bill in deciding whether or not to open its own probe.

The presumptive time-limit of five years comes close to a “statute of limitations” for grave international crimes. It will encourage a culture of delay and cover-up of criminal investigations. On Iraq, UK courts have found it was the Ministry of Defence that caused delay in investigations, creating unfairness to all involved.

The UK government’s proposals are a sad reflection of its record of political interference to prevent justice and accountability. If this law is passed, it would set a terrible precedent for the “rules-based international order” it claims to uphold.

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