The Overseas Operations Act, legislation designed to provide stronger legal protections for military personnel and veterans faced with the threat of repeated investigations and potential prosecution, comes into effect today. Its aim is to tackle vexatious claims and prevent a cycle of re-investigations against Armed Forces personnel. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the legislation “recognises the unique burden and pressures placed on our personnel, to whom we owe a vast debt of gratitude”.
“For too long, our service personnel and veterans faced endless legal cycles in connection with historical operations many years after the events in question,” he said.
He added the Overseas Operation Act will “reduce uncertainty” and provide a “legal framework for dealing with allegations or claims from overseas conflicts” – which the Act looks to address in two parts.
Part one of the Act aims to make sure the context of overseas operations is considered when decisions are made on whether to prosecute for alleged historical criminal offences. Part two prevents civil claims from being brought after six years have lapsed from an alleged incident if they relate to overseas operations. The measures are also aimed at reducing criminal investigations and re-investigations from late civil claims.
Leo Docherty, Minister for Defence People and Veterans, said the commencement of the Act is a “landmark moment for defence”. “Our people deserve better, and for far too long they have experienced endless legal cycles, often without cause,” he said. “This legislation will give them the protection they need to serve their country with confidence. “I hope the commencement of this legislation provides those who have served and their families with the reassurance they deserve.”
Criticism and controversy
The act, brought forward as the Overseas Operations Bill, was first introduced in March 2020 and faced criticism in Parliament. In October, the Joint Committee on Human Rights released a damning report concluding that the Overseas Operations Bill does nothing to solve the problems it is aimed at addressing.
A key point of contention had been the Bill’s presumption against prosecution for serious crimes, including genocide, torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In April, former Defence Secretary Lord Robertson said the Overseas Operations Bill “undermines some of the most basic international legal standards for which this nation was renowned”.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights also heard from witnesses with legal and operational expertise who believed the Overseas Operations Bill would be illegal, denying victims justice, and in contravention of international human rights laws. In April, ministers agreed to ensure genocide, crimes against humanity and torture were excluded from future legal safeguards in the Bill. Days later, the Government also agreed to exclude war crimes from the presumption against prosecution, before it was passed into law.