The passing of the Overseas Operations bill which Labour abstained on is a disservice to victims of torture and undermines international law, argues Lindsey German
Another shameful episode in British policy relating to war took place yesterday when the Overseas Operations Bill passed its second reading in Parliament. The bill is likely to become law and if so will be in contravention of international law and agreements. It will limit historical claims of torture and other abuse to 5 years – not a long period in conditions of war when the complainant may be imprisoned or find it difficult for reasons such as displacement to make their claim within the allotted time. The bill would also limit the time that former soldiers had to make claims for injury.
The bill is a legacy of the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, when there were widespread accusations of torture and other war crimes. The Ministry of Defence argues that there were many vexatious claims made against the army from these times. In reality there is rather a different picture. It is true that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team found 70% of complaints had no case to answer. But this does not necessarily mean they were not true, but that there was not evidence to proceed. Even if these figures are taken on face value, 30% – nearly one third – did have a case to answer.
The Tory government is pushing this bill as a sop to a long running campaign in the right-wing media and sections of the military, including former soldier and now defence minister Johnny Mercer. However it has caused concern and been opposed by a range of figures including Lord Guthrie, former chief of defence staff, who has said it ‘would let torturers off the hook’, former defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind and former attorney general Dominic Grieve.
Many of these people recognise that it is in breach of convention and law, including the UN convention on torture. The former director of service prosecutions, Bruce Houlder, has called it an ‘international embarrassment.’
The politics behind it are equally dubious. While the Tory defence secretary Ben Wallace accused Labour of taking Britain into ‘illegal wars’ he refrained from mentioning that his party had supported every military intervention proposed by Labour and added some of its own in Libya and Syria. Labour’s position – to abstain on the vote rather than vote against it, despite arguing that it potentially breached Geneva Conventions on torture and war crimes – will be a great disappointment to many Labour supporters.
It represents a further retreat from the policies which marked Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It is hard to imagine why a human rights lawyer should abstain on such a scurrilous bill. However, Keir Starmer fears that he will be branded as ‘unpatriotic’ and also sees this as a way to distance himself from Corbyn on foreign policy issues. Either way, Labour’s abstention has done a great disservice to those in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan who seek justice, having been victims of torture and abuse.
All credit to those Labour MPs who voted against the bill, including Jeremy Corbyn who said that the bill ‘defies and undermines international law.’ These include three parliamentary private secretaries who were sacked by Starmer for voting against. They joined the SNP and LibDems to make a grand total of 77 MPs.
We should continue to campaign against this bill as it goes through further readings. Britain already has a terrible record internationally because of its two decades of wars. Labour needs to fight against these policies, and this further undermining of international law.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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