Overseas Operations (service personnel and veterans) Bill

By Lawrence Wilde

Easily one of the most controversial pieces of legislation is to be introduced this year, the Overseas Operations Bill, (currently in the House of Lords) threatens to create inconsistencies in civil, criminal and human rights law.

At the heart of the bill is a presumption against the prosecution when it comes to crimes committed overseas by British personnel more than five years ago. Crimes that would be covered by this presumption include torture and other war crimes; which risks the International Criminal Court putting these soldiers on trial because the UK system won’t.

The government has already rightly stated that crimes of sexual violence are not covered by this presumption and will be readily prosecuted but it to me, it seems inconceivable that war crimes such as torture should not also be given the same treatment. The prohibition against torture in International Law is absolute, but this bill risks leaving victims of these crimes without remedy in the UK justice system.

The second, damaging aspect of the bill is the protections that are to be inserted into UK law for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in civil cases brought against them by British service personnel. The bill introduces a so-called ‘longstop’ that prevents civil and human rights claims being brought after 6 years. This creates arbitrary distinctions in UK law and risks leaving many service personnel without the rights that would be afforded to them in any other profession. Conditions such as PTSD or hearing loss can take years to develop and so putting an arbitrary block on claims after 6 years leaves this personnel without remedy and instead protects the MOD from fulfilling their duties under employment law.

This bill is damaging to the UK in a number of ways. Firstly, the reputation the UK would gain from provisions in this bill would risk us being seen to be trying to side-step our obligations in International law around areas such as torture. If the UK is to be recognised as a nation that upholds human rights then this presumption against the prosecution needs to be removed or at the very least war crimes such as torture need to be given the same treatment as crimes of sexual violence and made exempt from this presumption. Secondly, despite what the government continuously say, this bill seems more concerned with protecting the MOD than British service personnel. The ‘longstop’ preventing civil and human rights claims after 6 years will leave many valid claimants without remedy, not least those service personnel who may develop PTSD, hearing loss or other conditions more than 6 years after deployment.

The Overseas Operations Bill far from being a bill to protect service personnel seems to be a bill that allows governments to side-step international obligations and their civil duties to the serious detriment of victims of crimes committed by the UK abroad as well as exempting the MOD from its civil obligations.


Lawrence Wilde