Boris Johnson wants to make British Armed Forces untouchable by offering them immunity for war crimes
A controversial bill is passing through the House of Commons which will make it virtually impossible to prosecute soldiers but, at the same time, will strip away their own legal rights and health benefits.
It’s avoided a great deal of attention, mainly due to the EU face-off and, of course, the resumption of Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. Ministers must be praising their luck as the bill is an unthinkable betrayal of what Britain stands for.
The first part insulates soldiers from alleged offences while on duty. It does this via a ‘triple lock’ of a five-year statute of limitations, a presumption against prosecution, and the requirement of explicit consent from the attorney general.
No legal knowledge is required to grasp how much freedom this offers.
The bill also places a duty on the government to consider casting aside the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to overseas military operations. Therefore, if British troops were alleged to be involved in torture or illegal acts, the government could easily swat them aside.
If they did somehow end up in court, the bill states that any decision should take into account the “exceptional demands and stresses” which they faced, but isn’t that why everyone in the armed forces undergoes intensive training? Isn’t the role of commanders to direct and oversee their troops to prevent them being overburdened?
Wrong is wrong, regardless of whether you’re standing in a searing hot desert in a war that you don’t even want to be in. Apathy is no excuse and neither is the pressure of being away from home and family – that’s the tradeoff for enlisting and being paid as a professional.
Ironically, it is famed lawyer Phil Shiner who helped to kickstart the bill. He was Human Rights Lawyer of the Year (2004) and was crowned Solicitor of the Year (2007) by the Law Society.
However, he was disbarred in disgrace and declared bankrupt three years ago. His fall was the culmination of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which cost £34 million ($43.4 million) and investigated allegations of torture and abuse by British forces. It ended in disaster as Shiner was found guilty of dishonesty, a lack of integrity which involved changing evidence, and it was revealed that he had paid a fixer to find clients to join the case.
The defense secretary at the time, Michael Fallon, said: “Phil Shiner made soldiers’ lives a misery by pursuing false claims of torture and murder.”
The betrayal and feelings of mistrust were ramped up by sections of the mainstream media, rendering meaningless the fact that the system had proven robust and justice was ultimately done.
Without due process and an encompassing legal system, the spurious claims may have slipped through the net.
It echoed the famous case which saw Piers Morgan fired as editor of the Daily Mirror tabloid, when he ran front-page pictures of British troops indulging in torture – but they were revealed to have been mocked up.
All this has allowed the initiative to gain momentum for the populist patriotic cry of ‘defend our boys and girls’.
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Even so, you can’t ignore what you don’t want to see.
In 2013, Sergeant Alexander Blackman of the Royal Marines was convicted of murdering an injured Taliban member in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was later reduced to manslaughter but he still served three years in prison.
Last year, accusations abounded around the killing of children in Afghanistan and Iraq by soldiers.
Of course, there are several conflicts from the past that include shameful actions such as the torture of prisoners of war in World War II, plus indiscriminate army killings in Kenya and Malaysia.
This bill tips the balance way too far and will also offer rogue officers impunity to act as they wish, without fear of repercussions – as Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen stated: “It is in no one’s interests for members of the armed forces to be given a free pass over alleged war crimes.”
The sting in the tail is that the bill also goes after soldiers, as its second part creates a six-year limit for veterans in which to seek compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder or hearing loss. The clock doesn’t begin ticking until there is knowledge of the condition. Nevertheless, it immediately creates a culture of soldiers being made to endure things at the behest of their country, and then only having a periodic time frame to flag up any damage they suffer. There can be no justification for the six-year rule, other than to limit what the government has to pay out to claimants.
“Only the MoD stands to gain from the proposed time limit on compensation claims, as it would avoid having to pay court-awarded damages and costs,” said Vice President of the Law Society David Greene.
This pincer movement is utterly ruthless. On one hand, it tells the global community that Britain will judge its own conduct but will maintain a mindset that its troops are perennially upstanding. And on the other, it’s saying to the souls stationed on the frontline that they have a window to mention any injuries and, after that, they are on their own.
Instead of attracting committed and progressive people to enrol, the bill will appeal to trigger-happy adrenaline junkies, the type who go to gun ranges and unload a barrage of bullets from a rifle with glee.
The government knows what it’s doing, this is the first step in refashioning the armed forces into a rabble-rousing pack of jackals with Union Jacks tattooed on their arms. It’s also a free pass to allow Boris and his cabal of advisers to enter into conflicts with limited blowback domestically.
The only salvation may end up being the International Criminal Court, which may one day summon him, along with military figures, to The Hague to face justice, as they did with Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Great Britain will be reduced from the founder of the rule of law, to the status of tinpot dictatorship – and it’s all down to an 80-seat majority Conservative government.
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