The Overseas Operations Bill is damaging to both our troops and our international standing
The British Air Force arrived in Zemunik, working with the French Armed Forces, June 2019 | PA Images
No one deserves to be subject to vexatious allegations, but to renege on our legal obligations would be to fail the brave men and women who serve our country
At first glance, the government’s answer to ending vexatious legal action against our veterans seems compelling. No one – whether they served in the military or otherwise – deserves to be repeatedly investigated without good cause.
As a former soldier, of course I want to halt the endless pursuit of members of our Armed Forces and support those whose lives are being ruined. If we allow this abuse to continue unabated, it means we are failing in our lifelong commitment to those who’ve served our country.
However, the Overseas Operations Bill – the legislation that, if enacted, would effectively grant veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns immunity from prosecution – will have damaging consequences. Ultimately, this Bill is harmful both to Britain’s standing in the world and to the reputation of our Armed Forces.
One of the most concerning elements of the legislation is its definition of a ‘relevant offence’. While it is welcome to see sexual offences are exempt from the Bill, it is deeply troubling that other war crimes and crimes against humanity are not.
Take torture as one example. The prohibition of torture is absolute. There are no exceptions. Its use is illegal under several international treaties to which the UK is a signatory, including the UN Convention against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute.
Despite these protections, the UK has a dark recent past when it comes to torture. Our involvement during the war on terror has been slowly pieced together over the past two decades. In their 2018 report, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee identified hundreds of cases in which we were complicit in mistreatment overseas.
To make matters worse, last year, the government rowed back on a decade-long promise to establish an independent, judge-led inquiry into our involvement in torture and rendition. A decision that prompted the Conservative MP, David Davis, the NGO, Reprieve, and myself to take legal action against the government.
What does it say about the professionalism of members of our Armed Forces if we give them effective legal immunity for no other reason than them being members of our Armed Forces?
In an era when we’re witnessing the erosion of human rights and leaders turning their backs on international institutions, it is now more important than ever that we uphold our values and standards, not undermine them.
Britain cannot afford to become an outlier among our allies by refusing to investigate allegations of some of the gravest crimes imaginable. Moreover, by failing to live up to our international obligations, this Bill could put us at odds with the International Criminal Court, of which we are a long-term champion.
The Bill also makes clear that service personnel should be treated differently in the eyes of the law. Any prosecutorial decision involving them would have to take into account the, “exceptional demands and stresses,” of being deployed. Crucially though, length of service, rank and personal resilience will not play a part.
What the Bill fails to recognise is the level of training our service men and women underwent to prepare themselves for those deployments. The British Army provides the very best training available anywhere in dealing with exceptional demands and stresses. Everything taught is designed with the aim of preparing our soldiers for the most challenging environments imaginable.
The result is that we have one of the most accomplished, competent and adaptable militaries on the planet. What does it say about the professionalism of members of our Armed Forces if we give them effective legal immunity for no other reason than them being members of our Armed Forces? It’s worthwhile remembering that integrity, as the Army puts it, “is a hard-won quality which is easily lost.”
Instinctively, I will always want to support any government effort to help those who put their lives on the line for us. The uncomfortable truth is that a century on from the promise of a country fit for heroes, too many of our veterans are not treated in a manner which befits their sacrifice. The plight of Taitusi Ratucaucau, the Commonwealth-born veteran forced to crowdfund £27,000 for his NHS operation because of his immigration status, is a shameful example.
Through this Bill, the government is seeking to right a wrong but not by addressing the root cause of the issue – and I am not the only one who feels this way. The veterans minister (and author of the Bill), has said publicly we wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for the military’s inability to investigate itself properly. On this we agree, but nowhere in the legislation does it mention the need to review how investigations are conducted.
Historic prosecution of our veterans is an emotionally charged subject and one that demands a solution. On a matter of such significance, we cannot allow ourselves to descend into a divisive debate where the government ‘backs our troops’ while those who raise legitimate questions about the Bill are on the side of ‘tank chasing’ lawyers.
The overwhelming majority of members of our Armed Forces follow the rules. But no one is above the law. That principle remains true whether or not someone wears a uniform. One of the best ways to protect our troops is to ensure we apply the rule of law in every instance.
We owe the brave men and women who serve our country a massive debt. Diminishing their hard-won reputation and reneging on our legal and moral obligations is not the manner in which to repay it.
Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, mayor of the Sheffield City Region and a former British Army Major