Peers seek to block limit on UK soldiers’ accountability for war crimes

Ministers say they want to prevent British soldiers who have served from being subject to vexatious prosecution.

Government could suffer high-profile defeat over five-year deadline proposed in overseas operations billPeers behind a cross-party amendment to halt plans to restrict prosecutions of torture and war crimes by British soldiers serving abroad are hopeful of inflicting a high-profile defeat on the government in the Lords on Tuesday.

A group led by former Nato secretary general and Labour defence secretary Lord Robertson want torture and war crimes to be excluded from a five-year limit on prosecutions proposed in the overseas operations bill.

They argue that British soldiers will otherwise be at greater risk of prosecution from the International criminal court, because under international law the prohibition against torture is absolute – and cannot be restricted by a country’s courts.

Lord Falconer, another of the amendment’s sponsors, and Labour’s shadow attorney general, said: “Vexatious claims are a serious problem faced by troops, but the issue has to be solved in a way which respects the UK’s international obligations.”

Ministers say they want to prevent British soldiers who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere from being subject to vexatious prosecution, and the measure is a core part of the bill, which cleared the Commons in November. They argue there is an exception to the five-year limit, in cases where the attorney general gives consent.

But Michelle Bachelet, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights, warned on Monday that the five-year limit “would make it substantially less likely” that British forces serving abroad “would be held accountable for serious human rights violations”.

War crime and torture prosecutions can take years to put together. An Afghan citizen has brought a civil claim in the British courts after his father, two brothers and a cousin were killed during a raid on a compound in southern Afghanistan in 2011.

The case is one of 33 alleged executions undertaken by SAS soldiers from a decade ago for which no criminal prosecution has been brought. But evidence that emerged in the civil action saw one SAS officer describe the episode as “the latest massacre”.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and many crossbench peers are expected to support the amendment at Tuesday’s report stage, meaning that the issue is expected be put back to the Commons towards the end of the month.

Until now, ministers have not shown any appetite for conceding on the issue, but supporters of the amendment hope they have some extra leverage over the government because the parliamentary session is due to end in less than a month.

A bill not passed in a single session normally falls, although ministers have the option of passing a motion to “carry over” a bill to the next session, which is due to start with a Queen’s speech on 11 May.

A separate amendment supported by Lord Stirrup, a former head of the armed forces, would, if passed, ensure there was no time limit on civil claims being brought by current and former service personnel against the Ministry of Defence. Currently, the legislation proposes a separate six-year time limit.

A UK government spokesperson said the overseas operations bill would address “the endless legal cycles and repeated investigations” faced by service personnel in relation to overseas operations.

The spokesperson added: “None of the proposals will erode the rule of law; the MoD and our service personnel can still be held to account for wrongdoing. Military operations will continue to be governed by international humanitarian law, including the Geneva conventions.”

source: Dan Sabbagh

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