This briefing addresses JUSTICE’s concerns with the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. JUSTICE recognises the unique role and status of the UK’s armed forces, and the difficulties faced by service personnel. However, this Bill is deficient in two important respects, as it both fails to support current and former service personnel whilst also depriving victims of serious crime access to appropriate remedies. In particular, the Bill would:
- damage the standing of the armed forces by acting contrary to established legal norms – both domestic and international. It would do so by introducing a threshold which would be near-impossible to meet where claims for torture and other serious crimes are made after five years. By affording effective impunity for UK overseas military operations, the Bill signals that, rather than adhering to a strict human rights framework in the rules of engagement, the UK is prepared to relax, or worse, disregard, protection from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. The Bill risks contravening the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and other international legal instruments, many of which the UK helped to create; and
- restrict the ability of service people to bring claims for personal injury and death during the course of overseas actions. Rather than protecting and enhancing the rights of service personnel, it would weaken their key avenue for proper compensation. The Bill would serve only to shield the Government.
JUSTICE also notes the context in which this Bill arises. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021, with its creation of a mechanism by which covert operatives, who can be members of the public, seasoned criminals, or even children, will benefit from a broad immunity, signals a worrying disregard for the UK’s commitment to human rights standards. This risk was equally present with respect to the Internal Markets Bill, which would have allowed the Government to derogate from the UK’s obligations under international law. In sum, this Bill actively deepens these anxieties, especially at a time of great political and constitutional uncertainty.
JUSTICE welcomes the House of Lords’ significant amendments to the Bill, such as
- Lords Amendment 1 (exclusion of torture, genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes);
- Lords Amendment 3 (deletion of the duty to consider derogation from the Convention); and
- Lords Amendment 4 (restrictions on time limits for actions brought against the Crown by service personnel).
These changes are necessary to limit the significant damage this Bill could incur to overseas victims of crimes and service personnel alike. Nevertheless, it is clear that the policy, overall, remains inherently problematic for the UK’s adherence to domestic and international human rights norms. As such, we continue to strongly resist the passage of the Bill and urge Parliament to vote against this proposal.