Lords vote to ensure troops can still be prosecuted for historic torture allegations

13 April 2021, 22:19

The Lords have defeated the Government over its bid to time-limit allegations against forces personnel
The Lords have defeated the Government over its bid to time-limit allegations against forces personnel. Picture: PA

By Will Taylor

A Government bid to limit false and historical allegations against troops on overseas operations has been dealt a blow after the House of Lords voted to ensure charges of genocide and torture are excluded.

The Overseas Operations Bill, which has passed through the Commons, has been criticised for not excluding war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture from the legal safeguards, as it did for rape and sexual violence.

The bill would introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for service personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an alleged incident.

Critics said it risked damaging the UK’s reputation and could lead to troops being sent to the International Criminal Court.

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The Lords voted by 333 to 228 to ensure the most serious offences would not be covered by the legislation.

Former Labour defence secretary Lord Robertson of Port Ellen said: "For the first time in the history of British law, we would be creating a two-tier justice system where troops acting for us abroad would be treated differently from other civilians in society.

"In addition to that, this bill, by saying that there is a presumption against prosecution for the most serious of all crimes, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and torture, it undermines some of the most basic international legal standards for which this nation was renowned."

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The Government wants to time limit historical allegations against military personnel
The Government wants to time limit historical allegations against military personnel. Picture: PA/U-T San Diego/ZUMAPRESS.com

He added: "I believe this bill is bad for our troops, bad for our British legal system and very bad for our national reputation."

Former diplomat and independent crossbencher Lord Hannay of Chiswick said: "Unamended this bill would effectively... open the door to a time limitation on the inquiry into and where justified the prosecution of the most heinous of crimes."

Former chief of the defence staff Lord Stirrup said he did not believe the bill was intended to provide UK forces "with a blank cheque for torture or genocide".

But he added: "I believe the current wording poses risks that far outweigh the potential benefits."

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Defence minister Baroness Goldie said: "The Government's decision to only exclude sexual offences does not mean that we will not continue to view with the utmost gravity other offences such as war crimes and torture."

Opposing the amendment, she said: "We are concerned it would undermine the reassurance we are seeking to give to our service personnel and veterans by excluding a considerable list of offences from the application of the measures in... the bill."

"This bill neither stops such offences from being investigated nor prosecuted."

The Lords also backed a demand by former service chiefs for greater support to be given to military personnel facing allegations linked to overseas operations.