Progress in 2021: The Successful Campaign that Fought Amnesties for Torture in the UK
This article is part of a series of ‘In Focus’ pieces looking at some of our key achievements over the past year.
In it, REDRESS Legal Advisor Chris Esdaile examines REDRESS’s role in pushing for the modification of the Overseas Operations Bill, which in its initially-proposed form would have created an effective amnesty for UK service personnel who committed torture abroad.
By Chris Esdaile, Legal Advisor
When the Overseas Operations Bill was initially proposed in 2020, its stated purpose was to protect UK service personnel from vexatious claims against them. However, it quickly became clear that the bill would breach international legal standards and violate international law.
The proposal was 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 genocide.
International law requires that all states must prosecute such offences, no matter where they occur. In its original state, the Bill would have instead created an effective amnesty for such crimes, preventing survivors of torture and ill-treatment by UK service personnel abroad from obtaining justice for the crimes committed against them.
Similarly, the Bill proposed removing the UK Courts’ discretion to extend time limits to bring civil claims for reparations. There are various good reasons why survivors may not be able to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) within these time limits, not least if the conflict is ongoing or if the UK forces remain in occupation.
REDRESS shared two detailed briefing notes with UK parliamentarians which laid out how the Bill could breach international standards that had become part of British law. We also joined a concerted campaign by a coalition of human rights organisations and civil society, which in April 2021 led to the House of Lords inflicting a defeat on the government when peers expressed concern that the original Bill would undermine the UK’s global leadership on human rights. As a result, the government accepted some amendments to the Bill, and excluded any international crimes from its provisions relating to prosecutions.
Other human rights organisations who were part of the campaign included Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International, Liberty, Human Rights Watch, and Reprieve.
As a human rights organisation which brings legal claims around the world on behalf of British citizens who have been tortured and ill-treated abroad, REDRESS is pleased that the British government eventually upheld the absolute prohibition of torture.
Unfortunately, the new law does restrict the ability of survivors of torture and ill-treatment to bring civil claims for damages in the UK against the MOD in relation to acts that have taken place abroad. These new restrictions could well impact on the ability of survivors to obtain reparations in the future.
The government has also recently announced that it will seek to introduce a similar amnesty for serious crimes committed in relation to Northern Ireland and REDRESS will continue to challenge amnesties for torture and ill-treatment. They pose unacceptable obstacles to victims in their efforts to obtain redress and contribute to a climate of impunity.