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UK’ S Lords send historic war crimes bill back to commons

As the United Kingdom led a global offensive at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva to prosecute ‘war crimes’ against Sri Lankan soldiers, a Bill put forward by its Government decriminalising torture and war crimes in prosecutions against its own military personnel serving overseas in respect of incidents more than five years old, was restricted in its reach by the House of Lords this Tuesday (April 13th).

The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was amended to take out torture, war crimes and genocide from the list of violations covered. The Bill was approved by the House of Commons in November 2020 conferring an unprecedented statutory ‘presumption against prosecution’ of British troops in regard to ‘historic’ crimes, including war crimes. Strenuously defended as a measure to stop ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of ‘our brave soldiers’ by the UK Government, this came in the wake of claims brought by victims of gross human rights abuses by UK troops particularly in Afghanistan.

This was even as the UK spearheaded Resolution 46/1 against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC last month strengthening the powers of UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to prosecute Sri Lankans for war crimes in relation to the ending of the country’s ethnic conflict in 2009. However, the Sri Lanka Government failed to draw attention to manifest double standards of the Resolution’s key sponsor during the UNHRC sessions either with the UK or the UNHRC itself.

It was only a day before the House of Lords vote on the UK Bill earlier in the week that UNHRC High Commissioner Bachelet warned the Bill risked undermining the UK’s key human rights obligations. Ms. Bachelet had not drawn attention to this fact before or immediately after it was passed by the House of Commons and the resolution against Sri Lanka was being voted at the UNHRC.

Amendments made thereafter by the peers were limited to taking out torture and war crimes from the offences covered, deleting a proposed six-year time limit on civil claims against the Ministry of Defence and refusing to assent to prevention of delayed and repeated investigations against military personnel. All other clauses of the Bill, which will now be sent back to the House of Commons for reconsideration, remain.

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