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UK Government suffers Lords defeat on key proposals in Overseas Operations Bill

The UK government was defeated yesterday (13 April, 2021) in the House of Lords, as peers backed a Labour-led move to block the introduction of a presumption against prosecution for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

The Overseas Operations Bill is a controversial piece of legislation brought to parliament by the government that has faced cross-party resistance – despite being passed by MPs in 2020. The Bill proposes a ‘presumption against prosecution’ of service personnel accused of committing a crime overseas, with the exception of sexual offences, if more than five years have passed since the alleged offence took place.

Labour peer George Robertson, yesterday, moved an amendment in the Lords to ensure that the presumption against prosecution does not apply to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide or torture. It was passed by 308 votes to 249.

Lord Robertson said the Bill in its current form was “outrageous” and “apparently legitimising torture”. He told the House of Lords: “For the first time in the history of British law, we would be creating a two-tier justice system where troops acting for us abroad would be treated differently from other civilians in society.”

He added: “By saying there is a presumption against prosecution for the most serious of all crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity and torture – this Bill undermines some of the most basic international legal standards for which this nation was renowned.”

Peers also backed, again by 308 votes to 249, a cross-party amendment put forward by Liberal Democrat Martin Thomas, Labour’s Charlie Falconer, crossbenchers Michael Boyce and Richard Dannatt, a retired senior British Army officer.

The change to the bill sought to ensure investigations are timely and effective, and to stop “delays, shoddy investigations and reinvestigations” from casting “a shadow over serving members of the armed forces and veterans”.