Overseas Operations Bill: Support Our Armed Forces

April 21, 2021 2:00 PM
By Liberal Democrats
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Today the Government is seeking to reverse Lords amendments to the Overseas Operations Bill that add important provisions to properly support our Armed Forces.

This comes hot on the heels of their long-overdue concession that ensures torture, crimes against humanity and genocide remain open to prosecution, which is the right thing to do. This is a victory for the Liberal Democrats and others who have consistently called out the Bill's moral failure. Further provision is urgently needed from the Government to ensure all war crimes remain open to prosecution. The Government must ensure cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, as well as all other war crimes prosecutable by the International Criminal Court remain open to prosecution.

Liberal Democrats have had serious concerns about the Overseas Operations Bill and its implications for human rights, the rule of law and the UK's position as a leading voice for these values internationally. We have been clear that any watering down of human rights commitments is unacceptable.

Throughout the Bill's stages, my party has tabled and supported amendments to stop the Government allowing derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). When the Bill was passing through the Lords, the Government finally agreed to remove this problematic provision from the Bill. This is a Liberal Democrat win.

Speaking on Monday in the Bill's Lords Third Reading, my colleague Liberal Democrat Lords Defence Spokesperson Baroness Julie Smith pressed the Lords Minister "to persuade the Government not to force the Commons to vote against" Lords Amendment 3 which made once more the critically important provisions to ensure torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide remain open to prosecution.

We oppose the Government's attempts to make our armed forces and veterans more vulnerable

This amendment had garnered near-unanimous support in the Lords bringing together Liberal Democrats, Labour, Crossbenchers, some Conservatives including the former Director General of MI5, both former Independent Reviewers of Terrorism Legislation, six Chiefs of the Defence Staff, one Chief of the General Staff and several former senior civil service heads. Given this, it is appropriate that - as a bare minimum - the Conservative Government has listened. The Government now say they want to "send a powerful message to the international community". However, it must be said that their message would have been much more credible had the Overseas Operations Bill not included provisions to decriminalise torture and other crimes in the first place.

Moreover, such barriers to prosecution of these crimes would have been totally unworkable. The Government said such measures would protect our Armed Forces but that logic has been exposed as inconsistent with reality. As the ICC's Chief Prosecutor warned, these barriers would have likely seen UK troops brought before the ICC for actions overseas.

We continue to oppose the Government's further attempts to make our armed forces and veterans more vulnerable.

During the Bill's passage through the Lords, Liberal Democrats voted to ensure essential improvements were made to the Bill. Changes were made to:

  1. Require investigations to be timely and comprehensive to avoid repeated investigations against service personnel without compelling new evidence or information. This amendment was led by Lib Dem peer Lord Thomas of Gresford. The Government has argued the Bill stops repeated investigations of service personnel, but the Bill in its original form doesn't actually do anything about the investigations process.
  2. Allow service personnel to continue to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence beyond the Government's 6-year longstop in the Bill which was in breach of the Armed Forces Covenant.
  3. Introduce a new duty of care standards obligation for service personnel subject to investigations/prosecution

Despite the Conservative Government's claims, this Bill in its original form would do nothing to help UK forces. Liberal Democrats continue to call them out on this inconsistency. Throughout the Bill's stages, we have tabled and supported amendments to ensure service personnel can continue to bring civil claims forward against the Ministry of Defence and to establish a new duty of care for those service personnel subject to investigations and prosecution.

As stated in the Liberal Democrat Constitution, "Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries". Today, we continue our work to ensure the Overseas Operations Bill reflects this principle.