The upcoming legislation entitled the Overseas Operation Bill is about to begin its passage through Parliament. I wanted to set out here my thoughts on it for two key reasons:
1. I believe this to be an extremely important bill that has implications for human rights, the rule of law and the treatment of our armed forces.
2. It is possible the Labour party frontbench position may, at the 3rd (and final) reading, be to whip to either abstain or vote for the bill. This is of course subject to any amendments that may yet change the worst aspects of the bill. However, as things stand, the party’s front bench position seems to be that this legislation is a government trap – one we must not walk into by opposing.
Turning now to the bill itself.
Part of the bill relates a new six-year limit for veterans themselves to bring claims for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or hearing loss. The MoD insists the changes will not prevent personnel and veterans from bringing claims. However, the British Legion is concerned this could be in breach of the Armed Forces Covenant and disadvantage military personnel when seeking redress from government.
This part of the bill and it’s stated intention, as per the Ministry of Defence (MoD), is to stop ‘vexatious legal action’ against veterans who have served overseas. In other words – stronger legal protection for service personnel and veterans by restricting investigations against them for historic acts.
It does this by severely restricting the ability to prosecute serious criminal wrongdoing by overseas personnel by installing a presumption against doing so after five years. It also requires the attorney general’s consent. The bill then goes on to interfere with the courts’ discretionary ability to allow civil claims against the Ministry of Defence after six years. This would include claims by veterans hurt by friendly fire during overseas operations, as well as civilian victims of torture, arbitrary detention and unlawful killing.
The bill also requires the secretary of state to consider opt-outs from the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) in respect of any significant overseas operation. In effect this means if we were to sign up to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, the government could decide to withdraw from the most fundamental of international post-war legal norms.
The reality is this bill would, if enacted, effectively grant veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns immunity from prosecution. In other words it would decriminalise torture and murder. Aside from the damaging consequences this will have to Britain’s standing in the world as to the rule of international law, it would also be a breach of our basic obligation to global Human Rights. That’s because this bill will not apply to the British mainland.
That in effect means we would have a two-tier system of human rights justice. Overseas, dealing predominantly in post-colonial countries, we are in effect saying black and brown lives or the victims of torture, matter less. The whole concept of universal human rights is that we are ALL human beings and therefore equal before the law. This legislation fundamentally undermines that principle and, in my opinion, must be opposed.
As the climate crisis deepens, refugee numbers increase, and more states destabilise, how we respond to these crisis’ will be more important than ever. Donald Trump and other authoritarian nationalist leaders want to undermine the post-war human rights-based world order. Whilst it has many faults and inconsistencies, it is a base nonetheless to build on for the future. What Boris Johnson is doing here is to undermine and regress those gains rather than build on them.
It is my belief the Labour Party and all progressives must oppose this attack on a fundamental principle. We must always make the argument for universal human rights – no matter however difficult that is. I understand we need to win over people whose votes we have been losing since the 1990s. But no one, not even those who perhaps support such measures as are in this bill, respect a political party that will not stand fast on its principles.
Therefore, we must stand our ground on this bill and make the case for the kind of world we wish to live in. As such, unless major changes are made, I will be voting against this bill at its final reading irrespective of the party whip.