The House of Lords has handed the government a major defeat over their bid to limit the prosecution of war crimes and torture by British soldiers serving overseas.
Peers, supported by former military chiefs and led by former Nato secretary general George Robertson today voted 333 to 228 in favour of an amendment to exclude torture and war crimes from a five-year limit on prosecutions in the overseas operations (service personnel and veterans) bill.
The bill has faced heavy criticism from all sides with critics saying it does not go far enough to protect military personnel, and others arguing the bill damages Britain’s international standing for not excluding war crimes, genocide, torture and crimes against humanity, as it did for rape and sexual violence.
Bill fails to protect troops
Former director of special forces Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb warned in January the bill “fails to protect troops” from repeat investigations not excluding war crimes, while the former Nato general secretary said it “undermines some of the most basic legal standards for which this nation was renowned”.
Lord Robertson – who was also defence secretary under Tony Blair – added that excluding torture and war crimes from prosecutions could mean “our troops might, for the first time, have to appear in front of the International Criminal Court.”
The Labour peer called for a “tactical retreat” to avoid “creating a two-tier justice system where troops acting for us abroad would be treated differently from other civilians in society.”
Junior defence minister Baroness Annabel Goldie told peers the bill provided the “appropriate balance” between the rights of victims and “a fair and deserved level of protection” for British service personnel.
Campaign groups have welcomed the Lords’ vote with Liberty tweeting: “The House of Lords has taken a stand against the Gov’s attempts to decriminalise torture!
“Accountability should never have a time limit, and justice shouldn’t be reserved for some but taken away from others.
“Now will the House of Commons listen?”
‘A huge stain on the UK’s international reputation’
The Commons is expected to debate the amendment and the other changes called for by the Lords at the end of this month although the Guardian states: “Ministers have not shown any appetite for conceding on the issue.”
Amnesty International UK’s director Kate Allen said the bill “would be a huge stain on the UK’s international reputation” and urged MPs to “reflect on this defeat and drop the bill altogether when it returns to the Commons.”
She added: “Yet again it has fallen to the Lords to act as the UK’s moral compass.
“Granting troops a licence to torture would be an enduring disgrace for the UK and would set a very dangerous international precedent.”
PM to be pushed on military cuts pledge
The Lords’ vote comes as Labour is preparing to force the government to defend the logic of cuts to British military forces in the face of increasing threats from Russia.
The Telegraph reports that Labour will use an opposition day motion on Wednesday to question how the recent Defence Command Paper – outlining cuts to the navy, army and air force – weighs with Boris Johnson’s 2019 election pledge not to cut the “armed services in any form”.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary said Labour wants “to hold the prime minister to his pledge” and added: “The Government says the threats to the UK are increasing yet they plan fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes over the next few years. Ministers must square this circle and back off yet more cuts to the strength of our Armed Forces.
“Ministers confirm that Russia’s modernised land and sea forces are the number one threat to Britain and our allies. They must ensure we are ready to meet the growing threats now and in the years ahead.”