Over the past year I have continuously voted against the Government’s Overseas Operations Bill, on the grounds that it fails to meet our obligations on human rights abroad and fails to meet our obligations to service personnel when they return home. You can watch my speech during the debate in November here.
After cross-party opposition, Ministers have now conceded there should be no impunity for torture, genocide or crimes against humanity. These concessions are welcome, but they don’t go far enough to ensure that some of the worst crimes a person can commit are excluded.
Article 8.2 of the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court defines the term ‘war crimes’ in two ways – as a ‘grave breach of the Geneva convention’ or as ‘serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict’. Under these two headings it provides examples of 31 different offences. Here are just some:
- Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives;
- Killing or wounding a combatant who, having laid down his arms or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion;
- Subjecting persons who are in the power of an adverse party to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments
- Committing outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.
Under the Government’s concessions these acts will remain as ‘relevant offences’ in the Bill.
I’m incredibly skeptical about there being a presumption against prosecution just because a crime was committed abroad. But It’s unclear to me why anyone would support a time limit or a presumption against prosecution specifically on the charge of attacking defenceless towns, or killing people who have surrendered? Why rule out torture from the Bill’s scope, but not physical mutilation or scientific experiments on enemy combatants?
On the issue that Ministers say the Bill addresses – the wellbeing of veterans – the Bill also falls well short. A presumption against prosecution helps no one; the issue that needs to be dealt with is the investigation and reinvestigation of cases.
The Lords amendments to the Bill provide a mechanism for dealing with those reinvestigations, and yet the Government is opposing them. At the same time, Ministers are also proposing to make it harder for veterans to sue the MoD. And they are opposing any attempt to provide a duty of care to ex-service personnel involved in a legal case.
By all accounts this Bill fails across the board, and the Government’s concessions will do nothing to change that. Instead of playing politics with human rights, the Government should guarantee access to justice for all the victims of war – from the victims and survivors of war crimes to those ex-service personnel failed by the MoD. That’s’ why I voted for the amendments from the Lords today, to ensure survivors of war crimes have access to justice. You can watch my full speech below.