Overseas Operations Bill: Government Agrees To Exclude War Crimes From Legal Protections

The Government has agreed to exclude war crimes from proposed legislation designed to protect military personnel from vexatious legal claims. Ministers agreed last week to ensure genocide, crimes against humanity and torture were excluded from future legal safeguards in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, but not war crimes. However, the Government moved today to ensure war crimes are also excluded from the presumption against prosecution, after being included in amendments tabled by the House of Lords earlier this month.

Critics had argued that without the changes the bill risked damaging the UK’s international reputation and could lead to service personnel ending up before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Government introduced the Overseas Operations Bill with the aim of limiting false and historical allegations against service personnel and veterans in relation to overseas operations.

While not an absolute ban on historical prosecutions, the Government has wanted the bill to limit vexatious allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted for certain offences five years or more after an alleged incident.

Defence minister Baroness Goldie said the Government had listened to the “very real concerns” of MPs and peers about exclusions from the future legal safeguards and, agreeing to rectify the “clear omission”, would table a further amendment to also exclude war crimes from the proposed legislation. Labour former Defence Secretary Lord Robertson, who had tabled a fresh amendment to the bill, welcomed the Government’s decision to listen to the “chorus of criticism”.

Lord Robertson, who also previously served as Secretary General of NATO, said there was a “genuine sense of relief” that ministers had changed their minds. He said that without the changes the bill would have produced a “profoundly embarrassing” situation for the UK, “unhelpful to the troops we send abroad and generally doing no good for anyone at all”. Lord Robertson added that the concession will “protect the good name of British forces serving overseas, protect the reputation of this country and protect the reputation of our legal system”

Former terror laws watchdog Lord Anderson of Ipswich, a QC, welcomed the further Government concession to exclude war crimes from the presumption against prosecution. Warning of the alternative, he said: “If this bill were to result in a decision not to prosecute after five years have passed, it is simply a fact… that such cases would be considered admissible before the ICC on the basis that the UK was unable or unwilling to prosecute.” He congratulated the Government “for finally agreeing to do the right thing”.

Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Houghton said: “The idea that we might have sent soldiers, sailors and airmen to depart on operations with even the inkling of an idea that they might in certain circumstances have enjoyed some sort of exemption from prosecution for war crimes, frankly, would be so fundamentally the opposite to what makes us what we are and gives us our moral authority as an Armed Forces.”