Military personnel who commit serious offences will be able to escape justice under legislation which is bad for the rule of law, victims of crime and the Armed Forces, MPs have warned.
In a damning report on the Overseas Operations Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said the legislation breaches the UK’s human rights obligations and creates unjustified barriers to prosecutions.
The Bill seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.
But campaigners and some senior military figures have warned that it will create a presumption against prosecution of torture and other serious crimes, except rape and sexual violence.
The committee said investigations into incidents arising from the UK’s involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts had exposed wrongdoing, but that many had been inadequate – resulting in repeated probes to remedy the flaws of previous ones.
However, they said investigations will still be required despite the legislation, and warned that it does “nothing to address the issue of repeat investigations”, making it “difficult to reconcile the contents of the Bill with its stated objective”.
The MPs said that – at a minimum – the Bill should be amended so that the presumption against prosecution does not apply to torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
Committee chairwoman and senior Labour MP Harriet Harman said: “Without amendment, the Bill as it stands will allow those in our Armed Forces who perpetrate serious crimes to escape justice and prevent victims with justified claims bringing wrongdoing before the courts.
“It is bad for the rule of law, bad for the victims of crime and bad for our Armed Forces.”
The Bill is due to have its report stage and third reading in the Commons on Tuesday.
Ms Harman urged the Government to reflect on her committee’s report and to “ask themselves whether or not they are doing the right thing here”.
“Our appeal is for the Government to really reflect on what they’re doing… it will be very disappointing if they just plough on and then these problems will come to light and there will have to be further changes,” she told a briefing for journalists.
Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer said it was “untrue” to say the Bill will prevent crimes from being prosecuted.
He said: “I came into politics to help ensure our Armed Forces living under the shadow of seemingly endless investigations were given stronger legal protections in the face of vexatious claims.
“It is untrue to suggest this Bill will prevent crimes from being prosecuted or stop the MoD from being held to account for wrongdoing.
“Military operations will continue to be governed by international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, and this vital piece of legislation will help protect military personnel and veterans from vexatious claims and the cycle of re-investigations. Torture is not being decriminalised.
“I thank the Joint Committee on Human Rights for compiling their report. We will consider their findings and respond in due course.”