UN torture rapporteur slams British bill on immunity for soldiers

A member of the British Parachute Regiment clashes with a civilian in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972 on what became known as Bloody Sunday. British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civil rights demonstrators, killing 13 of them. On September 29, 2020, the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service announced it would stick to its original decision to bring charges against no more than one British soldier. Keystone

The Swiss UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has criticised a proposed British law that would guarantee immunity to British soldiers for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nils Melzer on Monday called for the British parliament to reject it.

This content was published on October 5, 2020 - 12:21

The Overseas Operations Bill violates international humanitarian law, human rights and criminal law, said Melzer and a dozen of his fellow independent UN experts in Geneva. “There can be no excuse for illegal executions or torture,” they added.

The UN experts said the British government can neither grant immunity nor refuse to investigate and prosecute acts that are banned.

The bill is currently being debated in the British parliament. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has condemned what it calls unprincipled “lawfare” or the judicialisation of war, in which “opportunistic” lawyers launch post-conflict litigation on behalf of individuals affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland.

Enforced disappearances

The independent experts deplore the fact that the British government did not take into account concerns expressed by Melzer as early as June. London responded only that the law would not prevent future prosecutions – a statement which the experts doubt. In their view, the possibilities will be very limited.

In particular, the UN experts are very concerned following a parliamentary report two years ago which referred to evidence that British military personnel were linked to enforced disappearances or torture. The document added that the military limited investigations into complaints of torture related to the overseas deployments of its soldiers.

The new legislation is “of extreme concern”, the experts concluded.

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