Liberty responds to plans to limit Armed Forces accountability: No deadline on justice

Posted on 18 Mar 2020

The Bill is a distraction from the long-term failures of the Ministry of Defence that will put soldiers and civilians at risk.

Liberty has criticised the Government’s move to block the prosecution of soldiers accused of serious human rights violations as a distraction from the long-term failures of the Ministry of Defence that will put soldiers and civilians at risk.

In legislation due to be tabled in parliament today, the Government has pledged to prevent the prosecution of soldiers if their alleged crimes took place more than five years ago – no matter how serious the accusation.

The legislation does not cover allegations of human rights abuses committed during the conflict in Northern Ireland. However, Ministers are planning to set out plans today for veterans accused of committing human rights violations during the Troubles to be similarly shielded from prosecution.

Liberty warned that such measures threaten the peace secured under the Good Friday Agreement and would betray those still seeking justice decades on from suffering human rights abuses during the conflict.

Grey Collier, Advocacy Director at Liberty, said: “A war crime does not stop being a war crime after five years.

“This Bill is not a win for either civilians or soldiers. It’s a distraction to hide the fact the MoD has failed, and continues to fail, to provide effective investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.

“Trauma from torture and sexual violence doesn’t have a time limit and Liberty strongly rejects any attempt to put a deadline on justice. It sets a dangerous precedent.

“Blocking accountability in Northern Ireland will threaten the Good Friday Agreement and betray those still seeking justice for human rights violations during the conflict.

“Whether it’s soldiers, the MoD, or the Government itself, everyone must be accountable for their actions, and avoiding such accountability undermines justice and the rule of law for all of us.”

The legislation presented today restricts prosecutions for offences committed by British soldiers in conflicts overseas. In announcing the legislation, the Government said it would compel future governments to consider exempting soldiers from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Ministers have frequently said soldiers are unfairly burdened by the risk of “vexatious” legal claims arising from their battlefield conduct, often citing claims arising from the conduct of British soldiers in Iraq. This is not backed up by the reality of the claims faced by the MoD (see notes to editors).

The courts can and do strike out vexatious claims – but the Government has hijacked this term and are using it as blanket term to dismiss all calls for justice.

The Government says veterans who served in Northern Ireland have been the subject of a “witch-hunt”. According to recent reports, between 2011 and 2017, the Public Prosecutorial Service for Northern Ireland brought forward 19 prosecutions arising from the Troubles, just three of which were against armed forces veterans.

Notes to editors:

  • Only a tiny proportion of claims against the MoD have come from the conflict in Iraq. According to MoD figures, between 2014 and 2019, the MoD faced 23,585 claims –  just 203 (or 0.86%) came from Iraq. The total number of claims arising from the Iraq conflict since it began is around 950.
  • MoD policy is to fight any claim they think they aren’t liable for, but they have settled hundreds, accepting responsibility. A number of the cases that went to trial revealed serious abuses committed by UK forces in Iraq.
    • Baha Mousa died in British armed forces custody after suffering what an inquiry found to be an “appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” in a “very serious breach of discipline” by UK soldiers. In another incident, a judge found in 2017 that four Iraqi claimants had been unlawfully detained and then abused by British forces.
  • Nearly half, and by far the largest proportion, of the claims against the MoD between 2014 and 2019 were brought by service personnel themselves, against the MoD as an employer. These included personnel seeking compensation for injuries such as hearing loss, cold injuries or asbestos poisoning.

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