The Tories are trying to remove accountability for war crimes. What will Labour do?

The Overseas Operations Bill will make the armed forces even more immune from prosecution - a dangerous move.

Less than a year ago, the Sunday Times and BBC Panorama published fresh evidence of the killing of civilians by British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. They named British officers accused of covering up the evidence.

Less than two months ago, the Guardian published fresh evidence of the massacre of 33 Afghan civilians by the SAS. The “Defence” Secretary Ben Wallace is accused of withholding evidence of the incident.  

UK armed forces personnel are almost never prosecuted for war-related crimes.

In the light of such news, you might expect that MPs would consider changing the law to ensure that war crimes were more likely to be prosecuted. Instead they are doing the opposite.

Today, the House of Commons will vote on the Overseas Operations Bill. It will introduce a “presumption against prosecution” for forces personnel accused of war-related crimes while based outside the UK, if the alleged offence took place more than five years earlier. This includes allegations of torture.

This threatens the rights of victims of the UK armed forces, whether civilians in war zones or forces personnel mistreated by their superiors.

The fact that the bill will make it harder for veterans to bring legal actions against the Ministry of “Defence” is a reminder of whose interests this bill will serve. It will protect the military top brass concerned with pushing a rose-tinted image of the armed forces, and the governments who declare wars while not being keen to talk about the consequences.

Above the law

The armed forces are already the only institutions in the UK allowed to run their own criminal courts, alongside their own police force. They are one of the most unaccountable and undemocratic parts of the British establishment. The Overseas Operations Bill will put them further above the law.

At the Peace Pledge Union, we are sad to see opposition parties dragging their feet about resistance to what has already been nicknamed the War Crimes Immunity Bill.

Labour’s John Healey has thankfully called for the bill to be “paused” but this is not the same as saying that Labour will vote against the bill.

The Tories think that they can attack Labour at a weak point when it comes to support for the armed forces. In an email to Conservative supporters last week, Ben Wallace accused Labour’s support for the forces of being a “political facade”.

He added, “If you’re as disappointed as I am by this please add your name to protect our heroes and urge Labour to vote for this bill”. He then urged people to sign a petition on the Conservative website calling on Labour to back the bill.

Based on fantasy

For years, retired colonels and pro-war columnists have been shouting loudly on the pages of the Sun and the Daily Mail about a supposed “witch-hunt” of British armed forces veterans, who are supposedly being “dragged through the courts” with allegations of war crimes.

This is a complete fantasy.

Even some of the ministers who support this bill must know very well that UK veterans almost never face the courts over charges of war crimes. But with Johnson pledging his support on the issue during his leadership campaign, the militarists are scenting victory. They now have Johnny Mercer – the gung-ho militarist MP who seems utterly obsessed with the issue – as Minister for Veterans.

Never enough

This bill will not be enough for Mercer and his militarist mates. It applies only to actions of troops outside the UK, thus excluding Northern Ireland. It applies only after five years have passed since the alleged incident in question. The appetite grows by what it feeds on, and if this bill passes, the militarists will be back for more. And with Mercer in Whitehall, and with Johnson’s lack of interest in reality, they are likely to get it.

This bill will not help the estimated 13,000 veterans who are homeless in the UK. It will not help veterans struggling with mental ill-health, due not only to war but often also to the abusive process of military training. It will certainly not help people in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering as a result of both the legal and illegal actions of British (and other) armed forces. It will not serve the cause of British justice and democracy.

With even some Tory MP and former army officers expressing doubts about the bill, will Labour and other opposition parties have the guts to stand up to the militarist lobby and take a firm stand against a bill that offers to excuse war crimes?

Symon Hill is Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union and a history tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association.

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