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A u-turn on torture

A u-turn on torture

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In 2020 the government tried to pass legislation that would have made it harder to prosecute British troops for war crimes like torture. This is how one group of campaigners forced it to rethink the Overseas Operations Bill.

“When it started off, it seemed like a pretty much impossible, uphill battle.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

That’s Steve Crawshaw.

“We were going to fight the good fight, but couldn’t really see how we would win it.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

He’s the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom From Torture, a charity that provides therapy and support for torture survivors.

“The government put onto the table the Overseas Operations Bill which had a number of elements within it…

… You had to read the bill very carefully to see what it was doing but basically it said we will investigate this very, very small number of offenses and… the ones they were ready to investigate quite rightly, is rape and sexual violence… but torture and other crimes do not need to be investigated.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

In 2020, the UK government attempted to pass a Bill that would decriminalise torture and war crimes committed by British soldiers.

“What they said was that it was to stop what they call the vexatious prosecutions of British troops abroad… What this attempted legislation… really was doing in effect, was… creating impunity for war crimes, including torture… truly extraordinary, quite baffling.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

The Bill would introduce a series of measures making it next to impossible to prosecute almost all cases —  once five years had passed since the alleged offence occurred.

“The way the government framed it was there would be what they called a presumption against the prosecution after five years… and so if a successful prosecution had not been brought before that, then it would all fall away. Five years is really nothing in terms of investigation of complex issues in distant war zones.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

But the government denied that they were doing this.

“It kept saying, just read the bill, read the bill.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

This was Johnny Mercer, the veterans minister at the time and himself a former British army officer, speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight…

“No apology for it at all, it’s about time this country realised its responsibilities to those who serve and under this government that’s what you’re going to get.”

Johnny Mercer MP, BBC’s Newsnight

Not convinced by the government’s argument, Freedom from Torture joined a coalition of human rights organisations, torture survivors and lawyers, to analyse the exact wording of the Bill.

“The formal legislative documentary… was quite hard to read because it was framed within the complexities of brackets within brackets, within brackets within brackets meant you could easily lose your way in that.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

Because within the “brackets within brackets within brackets” there were provisions that would give soldiers impunity from accusations of heinous crimes.

***

As part of the coalition, Freedom from Torture began to change the narrative.

“What was perhaps also interesting and we’ve seen replicated a little bit in more recent activities, for example, on the nationality and borders bill… establishment voices, including, and especially in the house of Lords, who said, you cannot do this these are your obligations under international law. And these laws are here for a very, very good reason.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

They argued that if the Bill was passed, it would weaken the UK’s commitment to the United Nations Convention against Torture.

“This is not just about legality it is about basic morality. And those voices from former senior judges, former field Marshalls, former attorney generals, a former NATO secretary general, all of these voices came together again and again and again in the House of Lords.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

The coalition had support in the House of Lords and from some Conservative MPs, and the British government found itself in a difficult position when it got public backing from two unexpected allies.

“So Sri Lanka, which is notorious for its practice of torture and many of the torture survivors who come through the doors of Freedom from Torture for rehabilitation… many of those come from Sri Lanka… Sri Lanka, publicly praised the proposals in the British government’s bill saying yes, this kind of thing is exactly what would be helpful…

Likewise, at an international press conference in Beijing, this was highlighted… very uncomfortable for Britain.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

For the government, it wasn’t a good look.

“One of the dangers of this Bill was not just what it meant in terms of the signal that Britain would be sending out about not caring, no accountability at all, of course, I hope the British troops would not commit torture. But that’s not the point. The point is that if it does happen, then of course it should be prosecuted. The idea of shutting that off is really dangerous.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

***

By early 2021, the Overseas Operations Bill had failed to make much progress through parliament.

“In the House of Lords, they became more and more unhappy. And so it was a very interesting combination of those voices out there in society saying, this is not the country that we should be.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

Ex-generals and former defence ministers countered government claims that the Bill was necessary for the protection of soldiers.

“We had voices of torture survivors, very powerful, and we know from stories we heard that that opened doors and unlocked doors that were otherwise firmly shut.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

Keen to get other provisions in the Bill passed into law, the government made a major U-turn.

“The government realised the House of Lords was so angry that we were ready to play very hard ping-pong and they were about to run out of time. The Bill would have fallen and at that point they rolled over and gave way.”

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

They agreed to exclude torture and war crimes from the legislation.

Defence minister Leo Docherty said the u-turn was “to prevent any further perceived damage to the UK’s reputation in respect of our ongoing commitment to uphold the rule of law and our international obligations, particularly the UN convention against torture.”

Freedom From Torture had won it’s impossible, uphill battle.

“It was an incredible moment. I feel so proud of all of those that we worked together with to make this happen.””

Steve Crawshaw, Freedom from Torture

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.