After much speculation and parliamentary debate, it has emerged that army veterans will be protected from prosecution for alleged historic abuses under plans to introduce a 10-year limit on new cases.
Defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, is expected to bring forward the proposed legislation in this year’s Queen’s speech.
It is believed that the legislation will put in place three main steps to protect soldiers and veterans.
Firstly, there will be a presumption not to prosecute veterans if an offence took place more than 10 years ago.
Secondly, a cabinet minister has to give his approval in order for a prosecution to proceed.
Thirdly, the attorney-general will advise on the level of evidence required to bring forward a prosecution. Any prosecution must also be in the public interest.
In recent times, military service personnel have been exposed to individual prosecution like never before – in particular historic cases from Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which was shut down in 2017, was one of the most shameful episodes in British history. Some £57million of public money was spent wrecking the lives of innocent soldiers.
In extreme cases, soldiers who left military service many years ago and had settled into civilian life, were subjected to bully-boy tactics by investigators posing as detectives and falsely accused of unlawful killing. Closure came at a price – not only to the taxpayer but in terms of shattered lives, careers, marriages and health of those falsely accused.
There will always be “men on the ground” in warfare and the likelihood of accusations whether real or spurious. Parliament’s task now is to make changes to the existing law to protect those serving their country, when following orders, in the line of duty. It does not need to introduce a defence for those who act outside of the line of duty on a violent frolic of their own.
The Defence Secretary’s ten-year time limit is a sensible way forward. Anything less would be a betrayal of our veterans, many of whom have already have had their lives ruined by false accusations.
Concerns remain however.
Mr Williamson has previously endorsed an amnesty for IRA killers in return for ending historic prosecutions against British troops serving in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
An amnesty covering terrorists is simply not acceptable. If we pardon the IRA where do we stop? Isis? The Taliban? And what of future threats and enemies to come? The precedent would be far too dangerous and needs to be categorically ruled out.
I also believe the proposals could, and should, go further. The good the Human Rights Act was brought in to do has been overshadowed by abuse of the Act and legislation is needed to put a stop to this abuse once and for all.
Human Rights legislation is totally inappropriate on the battlefield and combat immunity needs be enshrined into criminal law as a partial defence to prosecution.
Hilary Meredith. A version of this blog first appeared in @TimesLaw