One of the fundamental components of the Human Rights Act is the freedom from torture. It was abandoned in the seventeenth century in the UK. It is rarely effective since the information derived is likely to be what the questioners want to hear rather than the truth. The UK government has long maintained that it does not use these practices overseas nor uses other countries as proxy torturers on our behalf. This has been shown to be untrue: Guantanamo prisoners have testified to UK personnel being present during torture sessions carried out by the Americans, and after the fall of Ghedaffi in Libya, documents revealing MI6’s involvement in torture were discovered. We were also complicit in the use of UK airfields used by the Americans to fly prisoners to ‘black sites’ in eastern Europe.
The Overseas Operations Bill is important therefore in this context. Yesterday, the House of Lords voted in favour of the amendment supported by several agencies. When it was first introduced last year, the Bill risked effectively decriminalising torture committed by UK personnel. The amendment means prosecution for torture – as well as genocide and other serious international crimes – could go ahead without facing roadblocks originally included in the Bill. It also seeks to apply a 5 year limitation on actions which is contrary to international law. There should be no time limit on actions regarding the use of torture.
The background to the Bill has been a campaign against so-called ‘vexatious’ legal claims against British soldiers overseas. Politicians and some sections of the media have painted a picture of innocent soldiers being pursued through the courts whilst doing their duty for their country and serving in conditions of great danger. If innocent soldiers are being pursued in this way it is very much to be regretted. But there is plentiful evidence of bad behaviour which should be investigated. Eight years ago Lt Col Mercer, who left the Army because of what he witnessed, spoke at an Amnesty service in the Cathedral. His was first hand testimony of the mistreatment and sometimes death suffered by some prisoners at the hands of Army interrogators.
Yesterday, 333 Lords voted in favour of the amendment to the Bill – a majority of 105. The amendment we fought for was tabled by former Defence Secretary and Secretary General to NATO Lord Robertson. This is an important win: the UK helped build the ban on torture in the Geneva Conventions. This amendment ensures it doesn’t roll-back now.
The battle is not over however and we still need to make sure the changes are kept in the final version of the Bill when it goes to the House of Commons and is voted into law.
It is depressing to read of these and other retrograde plans by the government.
Sources: Reprieve; Amnesty International; Independent