January 21, 2021Featured Article Pat Finucane Impunity Northern Ireland Human Rights Act Jurisdiction Accountability and Access to Justice
Military and civilian victims must be able to get justice for human rights abuses and other harms caused during overseas military operations
‘Impunity benefits no one. If the UK wants to remain a credible voice for human rights internationally, it must not wash its hands of accountability for abuses.’ – Emily Ramsden, Legal and Policy Officer at Rights and Security International
(London, 21 January 2021) – A bill advancing through the House of Lords could bar many armed forces members and civilians from getting redress when the Ministry of Defence acts wrongly, and the government should urgently amend the bill to prevent impunity and injustice, Rights and Security International said today.
Yesterday, the Overseas Operations Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords.
If adopted, the bill would stop victims of human rights abuses, preventable personal injuries, or wrongful deaths arising during the UK military’s overseas operations – such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan – from claiming recompense after six years have passed. The bill’s strict six-year time limit could effectively bar claims from people in conflict zones who cannot get legal advice or help from UK lawyers right away, as well as armed forces members and others whose symptoms take time to appear. People in the latter group may include those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or hearing loss, for example.
Emily Ramsden, RSI’s Legal and Policy Officer said:
“It is entirely predictable that people in a war zone – whether UK soldiers or civilians – will not be able to talk to a lawyer and file a claim right away when they get hurt or when their family members are killed. The government is trying to exempt itself from giving justice and financial recompense to the vulnerable.”
Even within the six-year time limit, the bill introduces factors for a court to consider which would make it excessively difficult for victims to have their cases heard.
The bill could thus prevent military and civilian claimants from getting access to justice, undermining the UK’s commitment to fair and equal treatment for everyone before the courts. By allowing the Ministry of Defence to duck liability due to unnecessary legal technicalities, the bill could also undermine the ministry’s accountability.
By creating a risk of impunity for human rights abuses, the bill could also lead to breaches of the UK’s obligations under international human rights law, which requires that everyone whose rights the government violates must have access to an effective remedy – even if the violation was committed by the military. Additionally, these gateways to impunity would undermine the UK’s credibility as a voice for human rights in its international relations.
In light of these concerns, RSI urges the Government to reconsider its approach to the bill: to withdraw the strict time limits for bringing a claim, to ensure that military and civilian victims alike can access justice, and to amend the bill so that it complies with the UK’s international human rights obligations.
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