Lords reject Boris Johnson's plans for 'War Crimes Immunity Bill'

The House of Lords has rejected plans to make it even less likely that UK forces personnel will be prosecuted for torture or other war crimes.

Peers voted by 333 to 228 yesterday evening for an amendment to the Overseas Operations Bill, nicknamed the War Crimes Immunity Bill. In response, the Peace Pledge Union – Britain's leading pacifist campaign group – urged the government to recognise the strength and breadth of opposition and drop the bill altogether.

Members and veterans of the British armed forces are almost never prosecuted for war-related crimes. Despite this, the Overseas Operations Bill would introduce a “presumption against prosecution” only five years after the incident in question.

The amendment passed by the Lords would ensure that there is no “presumption against prosecution” when it comes to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture. Sexual offences are already excluded from the “presumption against prosecution” in the original bill.

Proposing the amendment, Labour peer George Robertson – a former secretary-general of NATO – said that the bill as it stood would “single out our armed forces for a privileged protection previously unknown to British law”.

It is as yet unclear whether the government will accept the amendment or continue to push for the original version of the bill.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) welcomed the vote in the Lords. They said that the Lords had improved the bill but that the proposed legislation remains unjust and should be withdrawn.

They added that a “presumption against prosecution” for any crime would put forces personnel on a different level to civilians and break the principle that everyone should be subject to the same law.

The Overseas Operations Bill is one of a string of recent bills rooted in militaristic policies. Others include the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which if it passes will vastly increase the police's powers to close down peaceful demonstrations. 

In addition, Boris Johnson has announced plans in recent months to increase the cap on the UK's nuclear warhead numbers by 44%. He is also raising UK military spending by the highest percentage increase since the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. The PPU is urging strong nonviolent resistance to this wave of militarist policies.

Minister for Veterans Johnny Mercer, the key promoter of the Overseas Operations Bill, claims that it will protect British veterans.

But the PPU, along with other critics of the bill, has pointed out that it will do nothing to protect the estimated 13,000 veterans who are homeless in the UK, and the many veterans suffering from poorly funded social care and cuts to mental health services.

The Overseas Operations Bill has been criticised by groups including the Peace Pledge Union, Forces Watch, the Centre for Military Justice, Reprieve, Freedom From Torture and a number of retired senior armed forces officers. Parts of it have also been criticised by the Royal British Legion.

The Peace Pledge Union is a group of people who have pledged to reject all war and to tackle its causes. Join us today!