Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Commons Reasons and Amendments – in the House of Lords at 2:46 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Lord Robertson of Port Ellen:

Moved by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen

Leave out “1A to 1Q in lieu” and insert “1A to 1G, 1J, 1K, 1M and 1N, do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 1Q and do propose Amendment 1R as an amendment thereto, and do disagree with the Commons in their Amendments 1H, 1L and 1P and do propose Amendments 1S to 1U in lieu thereof—

1R: In paragraph 31B(1), leave out from “1957” to end of sub-paragraph (3) and insert “(grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions) is an excluded offence.”

1S: Schedule 1, page 12, line 41, leave out from “crime” to end of line 2 on page 13, and insert “as defined in article 8.2”

1T: Schedule 1, page 13, line 15, leave out from “crime” to end of line 18 and insert “as defined in article 8.2”

1U: Schedule 1, page 14, line 9, leave out from “crime” to end of line 12 and insert “as defined in article 8.2””

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s opening statement today. I, and many others, have a genuine sense of relief that the voice of this Chamber last week, so overwhelmingly expressed in the debate that took place, has been listened to with such clarity. There was a feeling then, before the Bill was amended, that it would have produced a situation that is profoundly embarrassing to the nation we live in, is unhelpful to the troops we send abroad and generally does no good for anyone at all.

The Government have now recognised the strength of the argument. By including genocide, torture and crimes against humanity in the excluded areas of the presumption against prosecution, they have rescued their own reputation. Of course, until today, they had excluded war crimes from those exclusions; at that point, we faced the ludicrous contradiction that meant that we would have seen a presumption against prosecution for some of the most heinous crimes that come under the definition of war crimes yet no limitation for torture or genocide—in contradiction, therefore, to international humanitarian law, which recognises no form of limitation of time or jurisdiction on such crimes. This is why I tabled the amendment that would include war crimes in those exclusions: so that there would not be a presumption against prosecution for some of the most terrible crimes that still could be committed—though they are unlikely to be—by British troops.

The Government listened to the chorus of criticism that took place. Why was it so widespread and deep? Why did so many of the military veterans of senior rank in this House vote for the amendment last week? It was principally because they believed that the reputation of our Armed Forces would be damaged by singling them out for what the Law Society called a “quasi-statute of limitations”. Importantly, it was also because, had we passed the Bill unamended, our troops would have been subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

At the weekend, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, wrote to the right honourable David Davis on this very subject. She repeated what she had said previously:

“If the effect of applying a statutory presumption was to impede further investigations and prosecution of the Rome statute crimes allegedly committed by British service members in Iraq—because such allegations would not overcome the statutory presumption—the result would be to render such cases admissible before the ICC.”

She made it clear that, even if there were to be any finessing of the definitions in Article 8.2 of the Rome statute,

any gap between the scope of coverage in the excludable offences under the proposed legislation and conduct which might otherwise constitute a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court would risk the persistence of the prospect I articulated earlier, that of rendering relevant cases concerning such conduct admissible before the ICC.”

I therefore genuinely welcome the Minister, who has listened at all times to reasoned arguments, telling the House that the Government would accept Amendment 1 and the thrust of it when it comes to tidying up in the other place because she accepts the validity of the argument. She made the argument strongly that our troops would not, in normal circumstances, ever come near the International Criminal Court.

When I was Defence Secretary in 1997, Robin Cook and I had some lengthy discussions on whether this country should sign up to the International Criminal Court. At that time, we had no doubts because the ICC was set up to deal with some of the most grievous breaches of the laws of war in the world today. However, because of the integrity of the UK’s robust legal system, we felt that there was no possibility whatever that any case or allegation made against British troops would end up in the International Criminal Court. I have held that view right up to today, and I am therefore glad that we are now ensuring that that is unlikely to be the prospect.

There was a chorus of this view and that, at the end of the day, the Government have accepted that argument. As I have said, I believe it will protect the good name of British forces serving overseas and the reputation of this country and our legal system. I am, therefore, delighted that the Government will not oppose this amendment at the end of this debate. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:00 pm, 26th April 2021

My Lords, the following Members in the Chamber have indicated that they wish to speak: the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, Lord Anderson of Ipswich and Lord Lansley. I call the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen on leading the opposition to the original proposals contained in the Bill. He did so with great skill and persuasion. At the same time, I thank the Minister, who clearly listened avidly throughout the proceedings in connection with these matters. I think it is fair to say that she did not always give the impression of being enthusiastically in favour of the provisions of the Bill. The noble Baroness was brought up in the Roman law traditions of Scots law. In those circumstances, the expression “pacta sunt servanda”—promises have to be kept—will come as no surprise. I suggest that this remark should be reproduced above the desk of every policymaker in government. I am at some pains to understand who in the Government endorses proposals which are, prima facie, contrary to law. I say that not only in relation to the topics the House is discussing today but also drawing your Lordships’ attention to Part 5 of the internal market Bill in which this House and the other place were encouraged by the Government to create circumstances in which the Government could break the law without any adverse reaction. It seems to me that there is a unit of opinion—or, perhaps, some powerful policymaker—somewhere in the Government which does not appear to have sufficient understanding of the important fact that, for a country which argues as frequently as it can for the rules-based system, our ability to do so is substantially undermined if we are not shown to be adhering to that very system. If you want to preserve your reputation, you cannot play ducks and drakes with the law.

The Government may have been saved the consequences of the original provisions, but it is important to remember that, as the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, made clear, they had excited the concerned interest of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The UK is a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations. How embarrassing would it be if it was thought that this country had departed from the provisions of the United Nations charter and conventions made under and in respect of it? As the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, pointed out, there was a discussion about whether the United Kingdom should join the International Criminal Court—I remember it. The balance of opinion was that it should and, if my recollection is correct, the United Kingdom was a founder member. How equally embarrassing it would be if, as a former original member of the International Criminal Court, the United Kingdom had to be brought before it.

There is a benevolent outcome in this matter, but it will take some time. We may have saved the Government from the consequences of the original provisions, but we will not save ourselves from damage to the reputation of this country. We should be very sure that, from now on, we will do everything in our power to make certain that that reputation is justified and, in particular, that our legitimate claim that we embrace the rules-based system on all occasions can be shown to be endorsed, not just in principle, but in practice as well.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who speaks with such great authority in this area. I spoke about war crimes at Second Reading and again in Committee, and supported, though did not sign, the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that was carried on Report. I came in today because I thought it was important to emphasise that the omission of war crimes from the list of exclusions, which I understand to have been the Government’s position until just now, was not some minor footnote to the noble Lord’s amendment. It tore the heart out of it because it destroyed its objective of protecting our troops from prosecution in the ICC. For that reason, I was delighted to hear just a few minutes ago that the Government have finally agreed not to oppose Motion A1.

It was of course right in principle to exclude genocide and crimes against humanity from the presumption against prosecution, but the practical implications of doing that were, frankly, negligible. After all, the crime of genocide requires,

“intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Crimes against humanity qualify as such only when they are

“part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”.

Not even in the extravagant imagination of Mr Phil Shiner could British forces be accused of these most serious of crimes. Of course, the original concession also extended to torture. That could have practical effects because British servicemen are, unfortunately, sometimes accused of that crime. It is right that the presumption against prosecution should not apply after five years to that very serious crime.

However, torture is only one war crime among the dozens listed in Article 8(2) of the Rome statute. Let me remind noble Lords of just some of the others: wilful killing; inhuman treatment; causing great suffering; the destruction and taking of property; unlawful confinement; attacking civilians; excessive incidental death, injury or damage; attacking undefended places; killing or wounding a person hors de combat; and outrages upon personal dignity.

In contrast to genocide and crimes against humanity, it is, I am afraid, quite possible to imagine such crimes being alleged—perhaps credibly—against British service personnel. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, mentioned the letter sent last Friday from the ICC chief prosecutor to David Davis MP, in which she said:

“Some of the most serious cases pending before the competent investigating and prosecuting authorities in the UK, including those examining pattern evidence and command responsibility, concern such alleged crimes.”

If this Bill were to result in a decision not to prosecute after five years had passed, this latest letter puts it beyond doubt that such cases would be considered admissible before the ICC on the basis that the UK was unable or unwilling to prosecute. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that prosecutors could well take on cases of this kind that were deemed sufficiently strong, not least because the prosecution of British service personnel would be a firm warning to other states within the jurisdiction of the ICC that might be toying with the idea of following the dismal international lead set by the original version of this Bill.

For these reasons, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and his supporters on holding their ground, the Minister on her efforts and the Government on finally agreeing to do the right thing.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Campbell of Pittenweem. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, for bringing forward his amendment both on Report and now. I also thank my noble friend for the way in which she has responded. As she will recall, I did not participate on Report but I listened with care; we had subsequent conversations about this. I read with great interest the contributions made by a number of my former colleagues in the other place when our amendments were considered there last week.

First, while I agree with my noble friend and welcome the concessions that the Government have made, it is important for us to understand the nature of this further substantial shift. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who, in quoting part of Article 8(2) of the ICC statute, illustrated the wide range of potential crimes listed there. This gives rise to the concern that the chance of a vexatious allegation in relation to such a wide range of potential crimes is far greater than it is for crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. However, as my right honourable friend Jeremy Wright, the former Attorney-General, helpfully said in the debate last Wednesday in the other place, by virtue of the exclusions that the Government have introduced, there is an increasing inconsistency as to which offences are relevant and which are excluded.

The truth of the matter is this: if we could be certain that the decisions made by prosecuting authorities on a relevant offence would exclude the potential of a further prosecution by the International Criminal Court—and that the decisions made by UK prosecutors would be sufficient for everybody’s acceptance—the UK would be able and willing to undertake a prosecution, even of a relevant offence, and this would be accepted by the ICC; my noble friend the Minister made this point in introducing the debate. The court could then proceed only if we were unable and unwilling, which we evidently would not be. I fear that there is uncertainty about this.

We have to balance, on the one hand, the uncertainty about exposing our potential servicepeople to the International Criminal Court—especially after the five-year period—against, on the other hand, not being able to reassure them that these offences have been brought within the scope of relevant offences for the higher prosecution threshold. The iteration between this House and the other House has helped enormously to understand that there is a balance to be struck.

As Jeremy Wright mentioned in the other place, for reasons not least of consistency, it is important now to bring war crimes within the list of excluded offences to give us that sense of consistency. It is equally important to reassure our service personnel by demonstrating that we are absolutely willing to investigate but will not allow vexatious allegations to proceed. We have attempted to do this in the past, for example where the Iraqi Historic Allegations Team, to which Jeremy Wright referred, was concerned. If we do not give our service personnel that reassurance, they will feel that these exchanges have led to a lesser reassurance on their part than they originally expected when the Bill was introduced.

That said, I very much welcome what my noble friend had to say. I will be glad to support her.

Photo of Lord Houghton of Richmond Lord Houghton of Richmond Crossbench 3:15 pm, 26th April 2021

My Lords, it may be presumptuous of me spontaneously to offer, on behalf of all gallant Lords, a sincere thank you to the Minister for the good news she has brought today. I can probably extend that to all those who are involved on operations, who are in command of those on operations or who train them beforehand. Frankly, the idea that we might have sent soldiers, sailors and airmen to depart on operations with even an inkling that, in certain circumstances, they might have enjoyed some sort of exemption from prosecution for war crimes is fundamentally opposed to what makes us what we are and gives our Armed Forces moral authority. It is absolutely fundamental to our sense of service. The concession in the other place that the Minister has reported is fundamental to our ability to retain the moral authority of that service.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, like noble and gallant and noble and learned Lords, I welcome the Minister’s further concession. One of the most welcome things in the final stages of this Bill is that we are gradually beginning to see its most egregious bits removed. We have lost Clause 12; this was most welcome. A very welcome amendment was tabled in the Commons, although it did not go far enough. However, it began to pave the way for the amendment brought again by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, which the Minister has agreed to accept. This is extremely welcome.

I will not rehearse the arguments made by other noble Lords about the International Criminal Court. I merely want to say that we on these Benches support Amendment A1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. We also look forward to the government amendment in lieu and to seeing that war crimes—as well as genocide, torture and crimes against humanity—are excluded from the presumption against prosecution. This will tidy up the Bill in a most welcome way and, hopefully, will lead us to a piece of legislation that does what we need it to do and what our service personnel and veterans need it to do.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, following the overwhelming defeat in this House a couple of weeks ago, the Government’s decision to accept parts of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, to exclude torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from the presumption against prosecution was a welcome step forward. This was testament to the efforts of the noble Lord and the vast coalition of supporters inside and outside this House. I pay tribute to them all today.

We should not forget that these serious offences are illegal and immoral. Under all circumstances, they must be investigated, and if there are grounds for the allegations, there must be prosecutions and punishment. Not including them in Schedule 1 from the beginning was a mistake, and one that could have led to British personnel and veterans being dragged before the ICC, as the ICC’s chief prosecutor herself said. Now, she has written another letter about the current government concessions, saying:

“I remain concerned that many war crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction would still be subject to the envisaged statutory presumption … any gap between the scope of coverage in the

Therefore, it was clear that there remained a serious problem and that the Government were still picking and choosing some crimes that are covered by the Geneva conventions.

We still believe that war crimes must be excluded and strongly support Motion A1 to exclude everything covered by Article 8.2 of the Rome treaty. We are therefore delighted with the Minister’s speech. Essentially, I believe the Government accept the essence of Motion A1, and we will see that in the new amendment from the Commons. I thank the Minister for her efforts and her willingness to talk to many interested parties. We have got to the right place.

It might be useful to lay out what I expect to happen now. As I understand it, Motion A1 will be pressed by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and the Government will accept it on the voices. It will then go back to the Commons, and an amendment in lieu will be moved by the Government. It will have substantially the same effect as Motion A1, and it will be approved in the Commons. The new amendment will then be returned to us, where we will unreservedly welcome and approve it. That will be a happy outcome to this complex debate.

I join other Members in celebrating that there have been a variety of speeches looking at this subject in this session, in previous sessions and outside the House. I accept that getting the balance right is a matter of some subtlety, but I believe we have got to the right place, and I look forward to the amendment in lieu coming back to us.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Again, I thank and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, for his assiduous attention and perseverance in respect of this issue. I endeavoured to engage widely, and I thank noble Lords for the recognition of that engagement. I was anxious to do my level best to understand where the concerns really lay.

I thank noble Lords for the welcome they have extended to the Government’s change of position on this. As indicated by the last speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, I welcome the recognition that there was a balance to be struck. I now detect, quite clearly, I think, that your Lordships are seeing the Bill reach a shape whereby it is a positive advance, providing clarity and greater certainty to our Armed Forces personnel. As I said in my opening speech, the Government will not oppose the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and they will table an amendment in lieu to ensure drafting accuracy.

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour

I am delighted with what the Government have said and with the support that has been given to this amendment in this House. We are doing absolutely the right thing by our troops. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, makes the strong point, which I have heard from a number of military officers, that to have left any vestige of possibility that our troops might have appeared before the International Criminal Court would have been a disgrace, entirely wrong and very damaging to the morale of those who are still deployed to defend this country and its interests.

The offences under Article 8.2 of the Rome statute are protected in international law as being without limit of time. To have invoked any presumption against prosecution for those offences would have been to be in breach of international law and international humanitarian law. If that had happened, it would have been a stain on our country, or, as one of the senior military representatives said, a national embarrassment.

This country has also been saved from the use of this legislation by every dictator and warlord in the world, who would have used it as a precedent for their own illegal actions. Even in the last few weeks, we have seen a number of countries subject to the ICC jurisdiction praying in aid this draft of the legislation. We have been saved from that as well.

I, of course, admire and respect those who serve in our name in conflicts overseas. They do so bravely, tenaciously and professionally. As Defence Secretary and then Secretary-General of NATO, I often had to make decisions about the deployment of these individuals and place them in harm’s way. These were never easy decisions to make, but I was comforted by the fact that our Armed Forces always act within the law. To single them out as being somehow above these laws would have done a disservice to them and to their purpose.

I thank the Minister for her consideration and for listening, the Secretary of State, who listened to the voices that have come from such a wide range of opinion, and all those who have helped in this particular argument. I look forward to seeing, before they are tabled, the drafting amendments that the Minister promises will be brought forward for the amendment in lieu in the other place. As a matter of form, I beg to move Motion A1.

Motion A1 agreed.