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Military personnel must be held accountable for crimes committed overseas, warns human rights body

Equality and Human Rights Commission

3 min read Partner content

The Government should withdraw plans that could make it more difficult to hold UK military personnel to account for crimes, including torture and ill-treatment, committed overseas, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said.

In a follow up report to the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT), the EHRC has expressed significant concerns that the Overseas Operations Bill, introduced by the Government in March 2020, would create a time limit for claims of torture or ill-treatment, which is widely recognised as being incompatible with international human rights standards.

The EHRC has pressed for the Government to withdraw proposals that would prevent a criminal case being brought against members of the UK forces after five years, without special consent from the Attorney General. It has also highlighted that in June 2019, CAT specifically recommended that the UK should not introduce legislation which would grant amnesty or pardon for UK personnel where torture is concerned.

Caroline Waters, Interim Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

“A crime is a crime. Torture and ill-treatment is deplorable. Individuals guilty of such acts should not be able to escape justice purely because they are in the military.

“This Bill would make it more difficult to hold UK military personnel to account and would stop victims from seeking redress.

“There would never be a time limit set to bring cases for such serious crimes if they were committed outside of the armed forces.

“This is an opportunity for the Government to show global leadership on human rights, especially as it re-applies to sit on the Human Rights Council.”  

The EHRC submission specifically focuses on the accountability for any torture and ill-treatment committed by UK personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2009.

It also includes recommendations that, if implemented, would see the UK strengthen its commitment to the international human rights framework and the Convention against Torture. It recommends that the UK Government:

  • Incorporate international human rights treaties into domestic law, so that individuals can effectively challenge alleged breaches of their human rights in domestic courts. (UK and Welsh Government only)
  • Reconsider its decision not to set up full, independent judge-led inquiries into allegations of torture committed by British military personnel in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, and into allegations of British involvement, including by means of complicity, in the mistreatment of detainees held by other governments. Any inquiries should be able to secure relevant evidence to hold alleged perpetrators to account, and they should examine systemic issues so that lessons learned can inform future practice.
  • The UK’s guidance for British intelligence officers and service personnel should be amended to stop any engagement with detainees in the custody of foreign intelligence services wherever there is a risk of the person being tortured or ill-treated.
  • The Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office’s draft proposed principles, commissioned by then Prime Minister Theresa May and consulted on in 2018, should be published to show which recommendations the Government accepted.
  • Establish a National Mechanism for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up (NMIRF). Such a body would ensure a co-ordinated, effective approach to reporting to, and engaging with, human rights reviews and make sure that the UK’s human rights obligations are carried out.

The full report and list of recommendations is available on our website, and has been submitted to CAT as part of the sixth periodic report of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.


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