The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill is what happens when the pub bore takes over British defence policy and there is no one left to prevent his cranky anger being turned into law. A rambling hostility to Johnny foreigner combines with a maudlin concern for the stresses faced by British troops on duty abroad to produce a measure which is almost as embarrassing to good governance as it is to those who care about contemporary British values.
The plan outlined in the bill is to compel prosecutors to let soldiers off the hook for crimes committed overseas as long as five years has elapsed since their alleged occurrence. We still say we have independent prosecutors and the rule of law in this country so a sweeping indemnity bill was out of the question. Instead the circumstances have to be “exceptional” for such proceedings to continue, with “particular weight” being given to factors that “reduce… culpability” such as the “adverse effect (or likely adverse effect)” of a suspect soldier’s “experiences and responsibilities (for example, being exposed to unexpected or continuous threats, being in command of others who were so exposed, or being deployed alongside others who were killed or severely wounded in action).” This “adverse effect” might relate to a soldier’s “mental health” or even “their capacity to make sound judgements or exercise self control.” Just in case your accused soldier is left exposed for his or her crimes while more vulnerable criminal colleagues walk free, the prosecutor is also required (emphasis added) to “have regard to the exceptional demands and stresses to which members of Her Majesty’s forces are likely to be subject while deployed on overseas operations, regardless of their length of service, rank or personal resilience.” (Yes, all these quotations are directly from the bill, not a ministerial speech, or a letter to the Telegraph.) And just in case things go wrong, there is a long-stop guarantee against inappropriate prosecutions in the shape of a requirement for the consent of the attorney general. That office is held at the present time by Suella Braverman.
The protections afforded these criminal suspects among the armed forces are explicitly extended to cover those accused of a range of domestic criminal law as well as the great majority of even the most serious international crimes (genocide; crimes against humanity; war crimes). They do not apply if the victim is a Brit rather than a foreigner. Other provisions aim to curb the capacity of human rights law to reach military actions overseas, and then—revealingly—anticipate departures from human rights law? in relation to future “significant … overseas operations,” retaking Calais perhaps, or laying siege to Brussels. The UK the promoters of this bill have in mind is one that has recovered its imperial greatness and the wonderful impunity that comes with being the international hegemon. Oh happy days!
Why has the government done this? Many senior figures in the armed forces are certain to be unhappy at this unravelling of their brand as modern, rule-based, civilised and so on. The International Criminal Court is bound to see it as a direct challenge to its authority.
The bill is part retaliation, part provocation.
So far as the first of these is concerned, since the invasion of Iraq the courts have been robust in their pursuit of the armed forces in relation to a series of alleged violations abroad of ordinary and international criminal law. In a recent article included on this site (TORTURE THEN AND NOW: THE ROLE OF THE JUDGES) I have detailed the extent to which the judges have had to overcome high levels of hostility, obstruction and deliberate obfuscation from the authorities in cases of this nature. Nor has it only been the judges: on one occasion even the government’s lawyers went so far as to consider sending in the Metropolitan Police to try to find relevant materials within the Ministry of Defence. This is all a far cry from the good old days when, in the analogous context of Northern Ireland, judges like Lord Widgery, Lord Denning and Lord Diplock went out of their way to protect the forces of law and order from close scrutiny. The government has not liked the result, and nor have many parliamentarians. A Defence Select Committee report in 2017 attacked the use of the law in this context and then the exposure of one solicitor’s wrongdoings in the field of evidence-gathering gave the antagonists of what they call “lawfare” their chance. This bill is the result.
Then there is the provocation. The government appears desperate to get the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer off Covid-19 and onto “elite metropolitan issues” like the rule of law, human rights and the prosecution of patriotic soldiers for “doing their job.” It was the same in the mid-1990s when a then-rampant shadow home secretary Tony Blair was constantly being forced to defend his party’s hostility to UK anti-terrorism laws—to his intense embarrassment. Starmer has not yet risen to the bait. So far as this bill is concerned that has been hugely disappointing. It can surely not be doubted that the British public know the difference between doing your duty and murdering and torturing innocent people. This was a conversation Starmer could have afforded to have, and where he might well have been persuasive. Next up will be the Human Rights Act. Labour will have a big decision to make then about whether to defend it or let it go. That will tell us a great deal about how they will govern: compromises of this serious a nature may be made in opposition but their moral contamination is hard afterwards to shake off.
With this bill we have further evidence of what the UK does not stand for: human rights, an ethical military and the rule of law. With Brexit we know it rejects regional co-operation too. What’s left? Trade deals with the Old (aka White) Commonwealth? The display of imperial power? You cannot govern a country on the basis of nostalgia however loud you shout.
I wrote an article in the Guardian on Friday arguing that libertarianism and political liberty needed to be kept separate in our minds, and that civil libertarians should be prepared to engage more in discussion than they do about the relative merits of various suggestions for change that affect the first while being extremely careful about any new laws or practices that threaten the second.
The immediate handle for the piece was Sedley LJ’s suggestion that there be a compulsory DNA database covering not only residents but UK visitors as well. What has been interesting has been the level of vitriol his proposal, and my article, have attracted. There is an extremely strong belief among at least a few people that the government really is motivated by bad faith in seeking to deploy technology so as further to invade basic rights and liberties. There is also an equally deeply-held opinion that we live in a society with a very authoritarian-minded government.
Part of the purpose of my article was also to challenge this idea by putting the Blair/Brown administrations in some kind of historical context. In my new book Civil Liberties I do emphasise the law and practice of political freedom which is what I say my subject is about, ie not invididual liberty as such, other than of course as a building block for freedom. This afternoon I am presenting my ideas to the annual conference of the Society of legal Scholars – the UK’s premier gathering of academic lawyers. I shall be very interested to see what their response is.