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UK’s move to limit torture prosecutions must be stopped

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The writer, a former UK defence secretary, was the 10th secretary-general of Nato

The government proclaims its ambition for “global Britain” is to stand tall in the world and “lead by example”. But the Overseas Operations Bill, going through the House of Lords this month, puts Britain’s reputation in a different light. 

Incongruously named, the bill promises to reduce the possibilities of holding British troops to account for torture and other grave crimes by making it harder to prosecute cases committed by soldiers after five years have passed.

As a former UK defence secretary, I have high regard for the armed forces and the civilians who work with them. So I am, in principle, in favour of new legislation that would prevent the vexatious investigations which can make life a misery for those we send into situations of great danger.


But the bill fails in terms of protecting both Britain’s troops and Britain’s good name. It proposes a “presumption against prosecution” of torture and other grave crimes after five years barring exceptional circumstances, thus risking the creation of de facto immunity after that time.

The bill claims to offer support for British troops, but their reputation will be tarnished if they are no longer held to high legal standards. It claims to protect them from vexatious claims, but opens them to prosecution by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which prosecutes when there is not a robust domestic court process.

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Amendments to the bill put forward by myself and other senior peers would exclude the most serious crimes such as torture, war crimes and genocide from the immunity proposals. They have gained wide support across the Lords but the government has shown little sign of conceding on this core point.

Perhaps the government believes it does not matter if we renege on commitments to international legal standards that the UK pioneered and, until now, has upheld. Boris Johnson’s government is meddling with principles that have lasted for centuries. In so doing, he and his colleagues have opened the door to others questioning the integrity of the UK’s legal processes. 

Already we see the copycat effect of these proposals. Sri Lanka, whose own crimes against civilians at the end of the civil war, were described by the UN as “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”, has suggested that it would like to follow the UK. If this bill goes ahead, there will no doubt be other such examples; tyrants and war criminals around the world will be eager to wipe their slates clean after a few years.

The bill includes a sole exclusion from the presumption against prosecution. Rape and sexual violence are not covered by the five-year time limit. That exclusion is to be welcomed, but is dangerously narrow. In international law there is no expiry date for the prosecution of torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

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In its own consultation paper on the bill, the government asked whether torture should be added to the list of crimes without a prosecution time limit. Against virtually all opinion, they said no. Torture survivors and others who have suffered grievously before finding safety in this country feel dismayed at the apparent attempt to downplay such crimes.

The government recently celebrated the appointment of Britain’s nominee as the next chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. If these proposals pass into law, the new appointee could find that his first days in the role could coincide with the UK coming into the sights of the court as never before, since the ICC gets involved when a government fails to meaningfully prosecute. 

The government still has time to see sense when debate on the bill resumes this week. It is not too late to act to protect Britain’s reputation and standing in the world by amending this bill.

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