The government is expected to exempt genocide and torture from a controversial new legal protection in a bill aimed at protecting British armed forces personnel from “annoying” prosecution for historical suspected war crimes.
It comes amid reports that the minister behind the bill, Johnny Mercer, will step down for “trying and failing to get the government to agree that retired troops be prosecuted for murders in the riot” . The first two attempts should begin next week.
Mr. Mercer – a former soldier himself – was frustrated with the slow progress of the Overseas Operations Act, which will help protect armed forces personnel from criminal prosecution on historical matters. The legislation was developed in response to legal claims following operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not cover incidents in Northern Ireland.
It is believed that Mr. Mercer has briefed both Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove of his decision to privately resign to make a public announcement. He is said to be angry “that his courtesy to inform the government of his decision was returned with a leak,” reported Plymouth Live.
The House of Lords blocked the bill earlier this month because they wanted to ensure that the most serious crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture – do not come under the law.
Now the Department of Defense (MoD) has announced that ministers will table their own amendment to the Overseas Operations Act when it returns to the Commons on Wednesday.
It comes after the House of Lords voted 333-228 last week to amend the bill to ensure the most serious crimes aren’t covered by legislation protecting service personnel from annoying claims on the battlefield.
The amendment was tabled by former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson von Port Ellen and was supported by a number of former military chiefs, including former Chief of the Armed Forces, Lord Stirrup.
Warnings followed that the legislation originally proposed could damage the UK’s international reputation and lead to service personnel ending up before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In a statement, a Defense Department spokesman said: “While we do not maintain anything in this bill that prevents prosecution of those accused of violating the law, we have listened to concerns and to send a strong message to the international community Changes will be made to the Overseas Operations Bill.
“Excluded offenses in Part 1 of the bill are expanded to include torture, genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Legislation seeks to limit false and historical allegations from overseas operations by introducing a legal presumption against law enforcement five years or more after an incident.
Rape and other sexual violence crimes were already excluded from the provisions of the law.