Overseas Operations Bill Passes, but with Crucial Amendments Thanks to Concerted Campaign
On 29 April 2021 the Overseas Operation Act received Royal Assent, and became law in the United Kingdom. The final law was significantly different to the Bill as originally proposed, particularly with regard to the offence of torture, and other international crimes, although the law as passed still makes it more difficult for civilians to sue the Ministry of Defence compared with members of the armed forces.
The Bill originally proposed that where five years had elapsed, there would be a presumption against the prosecution of UK service personnel where they were alleged to have committed international crimes, including torture, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, Crimes against Humanity, and even Genocide.
The UK government had suggested that the purpose of the Bill was to limit vexatious claims against UK armed forces personnel, but REDRESS and other human rights groups had argued that it breached international legal standards that had become part of British law. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court indicated that were the law to pass, it would make the prosecution of British soldiers at the ICC more likely, given that the UK was unwilling to prosecute them.
The proposals clearly violated international law, which requires that all states must prosecute such offences, no matter where they occur. REDRESS produced a briefing paper that explained how the proposals would have created an effective amnesty for such crimes, and would have prevented survivors of torture and ill-treatment from obtaining justice for what happened to them.
In April, the House of Lords inflicted a defeat on the UK government, with peers expressing concern that the UK government’s initial proposal would have undermined the UK’s global leadership on human rights. Lord George Robertson’s amendment to exclude the most grievous war crimes such as genocide and torture from the five-year statute of limitations won by 333 votes to 228.
As a result, the government accepted amendments to exclude any international crimes from the scope of the Bill. This means that where British personnel commit criminal offences that do not amount to international crimes then there will still essentially be a five year statute of limitations, but such offences are already regulated by the laws and procedures relating to the armed forces.
Part 2 of the Act still enacts a limitation period for bringing civil claims relating to overseas operations of six years, which would make it much more difficult for survivors of torture to bring a legal claim against the British government where there has been torture or ill-treatment, and for some reason a claim is not brought promptly. However, claims brought by members of the armed forces are not subject to the time limit, creating a difference of treatment that will need to be justified if it is not to be considered as discriminatory.
REDRESS brings legal claims around the world on behalf of British citizens who have been tortured and ill-treated abroad, and often needs the support of the British government to obtain justice for those survivors. The UK is respected as a country that adheres to the rule of law, and respects the international legal order. The attempt to undermine the prosecution of international crimes such as torture and ill-treatment risked damaging the credibility of the UK, which would have had a detrimental impact on the survivors of torture. REDRESS is pleased that the British government eventually saw sense, and upheld the absolute prohibition of torture.