A week ago, the government showed contempt for international standards in its attempt to violate international law in relation to the EU withdrawal agreement.
In many ways, it should be no surprise that it now wishes to ignore the UN convention against torture and the European Convention on Human Rights.
But I have to admit I am still shocked, nevertheless. Because the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – or the ‘Torture Bill’, as some call it – could result in torture and other serious crimes being protected from prosecution if they took place more than five years ago.
It is not clear why Britain’s Armed Forces personnel should be above the law, or why they should be able to contravene our international legal obligations related to war crimes and crimes against humanity. In fact, it is especially important that time limits are not too restrictive in this regard. It takes time to gather evidence, to fully trace the harm done, and to work with lawyers across borders. This is not vexatious or targeting Armed Forces members. It’s only fair, and it applies to everyone.
This year, the Black Lives Matter movement rightly demanded that we look at the continuing and harmful legacy of imperialism and reflect on Britain’s role worldwide. It is crystal clear to many across the country that Britain must never again embark on an imperialist war and that it is a basic human right that all people have a right to justice.
This means that we in Britain must act in accordance with British law – both military and civilian, international humanitarian law (also known as the Laws of Armed Conflict) and international human rights law. These standards are not negotiable or relative. Why should others be subject to them if they are not applicable to everyone?
Human rights legislation applies to all branches of government and bodies serving a public function; that should include Armed Forces. As Grey Collier, Advocacy Director at Liberty, said, “a war crime doesn’t stop being a war crime after five years.” They are absolutely right to call this legislation a “distraction” to cover up the fact the Ministry of Defence has “failed, and continues to fail, to provide effective investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.”
Actually, public transparency and political accountability for potential crimes in military interventions are the best way to respect the hundreds of British servicemen, women and civilian personnel who have lost their lives in conflict, during the invasion of Iraq particularly, and the thousands of others who still live with the mental and physical injuries incurred while serving in our Armed Forces.
We must never forget the innocent civilians who have died during recent conflicts that Britain has been involved with – and who have died as a result of the sectarian violence and terrorist outrages that followed as a result. There is no getting away from it: in this century, our country has engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that saw untold brutality, detention, torture, and yes – serious abuses of human rights.
This was done against the will of the millions of people who protested and demonstrated for a more progressive international approach base on human rights and internationalism. To progress as a society, we need to reckon with this – not to push it away and claim that every challenge is vexatious.
That’s how we improve public confidence in the Armed Forces – by being transparent and upholding the very highest of standards not artificially limiting rules to evade responsibility and accountability. This must be uppermost in our minds when we talk about learning from past mistakes and ensuring that future governments do not let down the people of this country by repeating those mistakes.
Never again, and not in my name.