The government of Boris Johnson has been urged to rethink its plans to introduce a bill that critics say would "dicriminalise torture" by British servicemen. The proposed bill would create a statutory presumption against the prosecution of troops and veterans for alleged offences that were committed more than five years ago. The legislation also proposes to introduce time limits on the filing of civil suits in connection with the military’s overseas operations. It would apply to all armed forces personnel, including those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Commenting on the bill, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the following:
"Our Armed Forces risk their lives to protect us and it is vital we continue to progress this legislation, providing certainty for the troops who find themselves on the front line in the future. This government made a promise to the nation to protect service personnel and veterans from vexatious claims and endless investigations. We all remember Phil Shiner, and the scores of allegations that have amounted to nothing over the years."
Human rights groups, MPs from the Labour party and even MPs from the ruling Conservative Party have criticised the government’s proposal. Senior Conservative MP David Davis said he is deeply troubled by the bill, which he says will "decriminalise torture".
Amnesty International UK said the bill would cause "real and lasting damage" to the reputation of the UK armed forces, while the director of the Centre for Military Justice said the government’s proposal will breach Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, supporters of the bill insist that it would not provide immunity to UK servicemen involved in war crimes and torture.
"This legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets," said Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans.
The government’s proposed bill only applies to the missions conducted overseas and does not cover incidents that occur inside the country, for example during the Troubles, a conflict between nationalists and unionists in the Northern Ireland. Almost 1,000 cases dating back to that period, including cases involving the deaths of 1,200 people, have not been resolved. The government previously said it plans to introduce a separate legislation to address incidents that occurred during the Troubles.
War on Terror or War on Justice?
In November 2019, the BBC reported that the country’s armed forces as well as the government were accused of covering-up the killings and torture of civilians by British soldiers during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, also known as the War on Terror.
Phil Shiner, whom the Defence Secretary mentioned, brought abuse claims against UK troops. Shiner was struck off from practising law after it was reported that he paid people to find clients for him in Iraq.
Critics of the government note that Shiner’s dismissal was an excuse to close down the inquiries. None of the cases of torture or war crimes led to the prosecution of British soldiers.