Parliamentary briefing: Overseas Operations Bill – House of Commons consideration of Lords amendments
This briefing outlines our views in relation to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill ahead of the amendments made by the House of Lords being debated in the Commons.
The bill, which received its third reading in the Lords on 19 April, has a stated aim of addressing vexatious claims and the prosecution of historical events that occurred in armed conflict overseas.
It introduces a statutory presumption against prosecution for certain cases, and time limits for civil and human rights claims.
While the government’s stated objective of reducing spurious claims against service personnel and veterans is a valid aim, we believe that this bill goes far beyond this purpose and would bar legitimate allegations of serious criminal offences.
The introduction of a presumption against prosecution in the bill creates a special category of criminal case, hitherto unrecognised in UK law.
It amounts to a quasi-statute of limitations and would likely, in practice, prevent some legitimate prosecutions from proceeding or not being brought.
The UK is legally obliged to investigate and, where the evidence supports it, prosecute alleged offences such as torture and unlawful killing.
The bill may engender a breach of the UK’s international obligations in respect of this, under article 7 of the UN Convention Against Torture, and articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
We do not consider that the circumstances in which the government intends to derogate from ECHR obligations would meet the necessary legal requirements. In any case, the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment cannot be derogated from.
To derogate ahead of armed conflicts would undermine our own international standing and ability to hold other states to account for abuses in war. It may also place our own armed forces personnel at increased risk of being subjected to abusive treatment if captured.
We do not consider that a limitation period for civil and human rights claims is necessary.
We have seen no evidence to suggest the courts are unable or unwilling to use their discretion to sift out unmeritorious claims. They can and do reject claims with little chance of success, where:
- the passage of time has affected the evidence, or
- the public interest outweighs the claim
We support the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report on the bill.