The Ministry of Defence has agreed to exclude torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from new curbs on prosecutions of British troops serving overseas, after heavy criticism from peers and human rights campaigners.
The U-turn comes a week after the House of Lords inflicted a defeat on the government, with peers expressing concern that the government’s initial proposals, set out in the Overseas Operations Bill, would undermine Britain’s international reputation for upholding the rule of law.
The bill — which seeks to limit vexatious claims against UK armed forces personnel — proposes a new presumption against prosecution five years or more after an incident. Lord George Robertson, a former Nato secretary-general and ex-Labour defence secretary, said during the Lords debate that such a move would “undermine some of the most basic international legal standards for which this nation was renowned”. His amendment to exclude the most grievous war crimes such as genocide and torture from the five year limit won by 333 votes to 228.
Ahead of the bill’s return to the House of Commons on Wednesday, the MoD said it had “listened to concerns” and while nothing in the bill would prevent lawbreakers from being prosecuted, it would make amendments in order to send a “powerful message to the international community”.
Exclusions to the five-year time limit will be expanded beyond sexual offences to include “torture, genocide and crimes against humanity,” a defence department spokesman said.
Responding to the government’s concession, Lord Robertson said he was “relieved that the country’s reputation would be protected”.
“I’m pleased that the government recognises the strength of opinion and the strength of the argument,” he told the Financial Times. “This would have seriously undermined the leading-by-example objective of the government’s global Britain aspirations.”
On Tuesday evening, Johnny Mercer, the MoD’s veterans minister who has been the most prominent advocate of the bill, resigned. A Downing Street spokesperson said: “This evening the prime minister has accepted the resignation of Johnny Mercer as minister for Defence, People and Veterans. He thanks Johnny Mercer for his service as a government minister since 2019.”
The bill had already come under fire from several international legal figures, including Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, who warned that applying a five-year statute of limitations would effectively increase the chances of British military personnel being brought in front of the ICC, on the basis that the UK was unwilling to prosecute its own citizens.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, also urged MPs to overturn the proposed time limit on torture prosecutions, having warned last autumn that this raised “grave concerns” about Britain’s compliance with human rights law.
“UK lawmakers in the House of Commons should stand up for human rights and ensure that the provisions of the Overseas Operations Bill fully meet the UK’s obligations to combat impunity for torture and protect victims’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights,” she tweeted on Tuesday.
Steve Crawshaw, director of policy and advocacy at the Freedom From Torture campaign group, said the MoD’s U-turn was “a moment for real celebration”. “It is extraordinary that the government could ever have believed that paving the way for torture impunity was a good idea,” Crawshaw said. “For torture survivors, for Britain’s reputation and for the world, we must hope that such shameful proposals will never be repeated in the future.”