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The Government Is Making it Easier to Get Away with War Crimes

The Overseas Operations Bill which goes before parliament today would make prosecutions for war crimes, including murder and torture, far more difficult. Its aim is clear: to place British soldiers above the law.

Radhi Nama was an Iraqi taxi driver who died in the custody of British armed forces in 2003. In a BBC documentary from last year, his daughter, Afaf, describes the last time she saw him: ‘They kicked the door in. The soldiers tied his hands and put him on the ground. One of them put his foot on my father. I saw them put him in their vehicle. He didn’t move. He had a hood over his head.’

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), a UK government body established in 2010, found that Nama died within two hours of his arrival at a British military base where violence was said to be ‘endemic.’ IHAT recommended charges, but none were pressed. 

IHAT was shut down in 2017. Speculation circulated that the reasons were political: a large number of the claims it investigated were brought by solicitor Phil Shiner, before he was struck off for dishonesty. Shiner was taken as an example of widespread problems with ‘activist lawyers harassing the bravest of the brave’, and has been used to discredit IHAT’s work since.  

Against this backdrop, Parliament will hear the second reading of the Overseas Operations Bill today. Among other provisions, the bill seeks protection for veterans against ‘vexatious’ allegations by means of a ‘triple lock’:

  1. A presumption against prosecution for incidents that took place more than five years ago (although not in ‘exceptional’ cases);
  2. A requirement for prosecutors to give weight to the effects of pressure and trauma in those cases;
  3. A requirement for the consent of the Attorney General – an inherently political post – before those prosecutions can go ahead.

Sexual violence is exempt from the bill – although other war crimes like torture and murder aren’t – and it only applies to events overseas, in which it also compels the government to consider derogating from the Human Rights Act. 

Campaign groups like Liberty, the Peace Pledge Union and Freedom From Torture have all raised questions about the implications of placing British troops ‘above the law.’ Symon Hill, Campaigns Manager for the PPU, pointed out that separate police forces and criminal courts already make the armed forces one of the country’s most unaccountable institutions.

‘A war crime doesn’t stop being a war crime after five years,’ Grey Collier, Advocacy Director at Liberty, said. ‘This bill is a distraction to hide the fact the Ministry of Defence has failed, and continues to fail, to provide effective investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.’

Campaigners have good reason to believe the MoD doesn’t hold itself to account. Of the 3,400 claims investigated by IHAT during its brief tenure, 70% were thrown out for lack of evidence. Only seven of those remaining were taken up by the Service Prosecuting Authority – and none of them went to trial.

But the Ministry also paid a sum said to be in excess of £100 million to claimants (money it maintains isn’t proof of culpability), and the International Criminal Court – whose jurisdiction is triggered when domestic governments fail to prosecute war crimes – continues to investigate infractions by British personnel in Iraq.

Closed-rank culture hasn’t stopped military figures from voicing apprehension, too. Last week, the ex-Chief of Defence Staff and ex-Commander in Chief of Land Forces both signed a letter to Downing Street stating that the impunity for crimes created by the bill ‘would be a damaging signal for Britain to send to the world.’ In June, the former also wrote to the Times denouncing what he called the ‘de facto decriminalisation of torture’.

These officers reflect a concern that the bill could be as detrimental to troops as civilians. Nicholas Mercer, previously a senior military legal adviser, wrote this weekend that the bill protects the government against allegations of unlawful interrogation while abandoning individual soldiers to the ICC. The PPU has also observed that the bill makes it harder for personnel to take legal action against mistreatment by their superiors.

Unsurprisingly, none of this has swayed the Conservatives. Campaigners have looked to other parties for meaningful opposition: the SNP confirmed on Tuesday that they’d vote against the bill, and prominent Lib Dems have condemned it. Labour, though, have hesitated. 

The problem for Labour is that this legislation is ripe for false dichotomisation. In August, the party’s call for a ‘pause’ on the bill’s passage elicited a predictable backlash from the tabloids accusing them of failing to ‘support our boys,’ and in a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday, Johnny Mercer – the Minister for Veterans, who proposed the bill – claimed that there’s ‘no way’ MPs ‘can say they support the military’ if they stand against it. 

Statements from prominent servicemen make it clear these equivalences aren’t true, but that doesn’t stop those in power ploughing ahead with the narrative. Supporting the troops has long been code for the patriotism Starmer has now shown himself keen to perform: whether Labour should allow the model of the patriotic ideal to be dictated to them, though, is a question that needs to be asked.

‘Support for the troops is seen as shorthand for patriotism, but it’s actually a substitute,’ Symon Hill added. ‘If patriotism means anything, it means wanting what’s best for the British people. When politicians talk about protecting veterans, you rarely hear them mention the 13,000 who are homeless in Britain.’

There are many civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who have stories like Afaf’s: stories which represent an aspect of Britain many feel we cannot and should not love. Doing so blindly is a gift to corrupt leadership – military and political – and nothing else, and prioritises fighting a culture war over fighting legislation with the potential for drastic long-term consequences.