Part 3 of the Bill—clauses 57 to 61—is in some ways the other side of the coin to clause 23. Clause 23 significantly hampers criminal accountability for ministerial or official involvement in crimes overseas, but there is also a very important civil avenue by which we might get accountability were the UK to get mixed up in torture or unlawful killing.
The Britons who were detained in Guantanamo Bay unlawfully without charge for many years and Abdel Hakim Belhaj, to whom the Government apologised, got accountability for the UK’s involvement in their appalling abuse through civil cases. They fought very hard, multi-year legal battles in the civil courts to win recognition from the Government that they had been involved in their mistreatment. Clauses 57 to 60 effectively introduce a range of so-called national security factors that would allow the Government to request a reduction of damages, potentially to nil, if those factors are present.
Say you are Mr Belhaj, who sued the Government and ultimately exposed their involvement in his torture, a national security factor that could have been applied in his case, were it in the form in the Bill, is that the UK, when it undertook the action that enabled his abuse, was acting to avert a real risk of harm. That obviously sounds convincing, but it is difficult to imagine an instance where the intelligence agencies would say they were not acting to avert a risk of harm—that is their core purpose.
The Bill also has national security factors that include the involvement of a third party. Say the UK Government passed on intelligence that led to someone’s torture by Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, historically. Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya is a third party and its involvement would mean that UK did not need to pay damages on that front. The action happening overseas is another national security factor. If there were any wrongdoing by the UK intelligence agencies that led to torture or abuse overseas, the person would not be able to seek damages because of that factor. Effectively, what we are seeing in clauses 57 to 60 is a really sweeping effort on the part of the Government to get out of paying any damages to anyone who suffers due to Government wrongdoing overseas.
Clause 61 is really interesting, because it effectively relates to all civil cases. It allows for the freezing of damages in all civil cases, not just cases in which the Government are accused of wrongdoing. We just have not seen any basis that there is an issue with global terrorist groups receiving financing from damages in personal injury or medical negligence cases. It seems an incredibly, sweepingly broad curtailment of one’s right to receive damages—one that likely duplicates existing provisions for asset freezing and terrorist financing.