Sunday, July 21, 2024

As a contribution to the debate about the Government's Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, it is impossible to ignore the following letter, given its source:

I am proud to have served my country around the world, in frontline conflicts and in defence of civilians. My military experience taught me the horror of torture. It is evil and must be punished wherever perpetrators can be identified. Every good soldier knows that to be true.

I am dismayed that the government is proposing to enact legislation that, as currently framed, lets torturers off the hook.

The government says it wants the new Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to prevent vexatious prosecutions. But we already have processes in place that should ensure vexatious prosecutions are not permitted to move forward. This new legislation, which applies to alleged crimes committed outside the UK, does something else. It provides room for a de facto decriminalisation of torture.

The Criminal Justice Act 1988 explicitly designated torture as an offence, wherever it is committed. The new bill, however, talks of a “presumption against prosecution” after just five years — a blink of the eye in many contexts.

We rightly expect that if a Briton is tortured abroad, the perpetrator should be punished, even after time has elapsed. The new legislation blocks the same process if a Briton stands accused of torturing others. This would be a stain on Britain’s standing in the world.

When Donald Trump sought to pardon three US soldiers who stood accused of war crimes, Pentagon leaders rightly made clear their disquiet. Our government should show more humanity and common sense than the current occupant of the White House.

These proposals appear to have been dreamt up by those who have seen too little of the world to understand why the rules of war matter. If we start down the slippery slope of arguing that rules apply to others, but not to ourselves, it is we who will suffer in the end.

Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001

The above letter appeared in The Sunday Times on 7 June 2020. Sunday Times web source (paywall). At the summit of a distinguished military career which included special forces, Lord Guthrie was the professional head of the British armed forces during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, about which prosecutions reportedly could still be brought against local fighters.

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