Joanna Cherry

Does Boris Johnson care so little for the law that he would allow the decriminalisation of torture?

Under a new Bill being introduced by the Ministry of Defence, there would be a “triple lock” against prosecuting any UK personnel for acts of torture committed on “overseas operations” where the offences took place over five years ago.

This triple lock would apply even in cases where UK personnel had committed torture and war crimes, no matter how grave the conduct involved or how detailed the evidence.

The Government claims this measure is designed to protect soldiers, but in fact it runs counter to everything our military personnel fight for.

After the Second World War, our Armed Forces helped update and expand the Geneva Conventions, which protect captured personnel. Both the Army Field Manual and MoD doctrine explicitly forbid torture or cruel treatment.

In Scotland torture was prohibited under the Treason Act 1708 albeit too late for the Covenanters, brutally tortured at the behest of the state. In England torture has been illegal for more than 300 years, since the Long Parliament’s abolition of the star chamber.

Shamefully, however, British imperial history is littered with incidences of torture perpetrated by the state in colonial territories, for example, during the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya.

To her credit, none other than Margaret Thatcher fought to preserve the ban against torture, and in 1988 she made it a criminal offence no matter who committed it and regardless of where in the world it took place – a fact right-thinking Tories should remember when they consider the MoD’s new Bill.

We have seen in recent weeks how little importance Boris Johnson’s government places on the rule of law. But decriminalising torture is a shocking departure even for this Government.

The Defence Minister, Johnny Mercer, has claimed the Bill is not decriminalisation per se, and the MoD argues that prosecutions for torture could technically move forward under “exceptional circumstances”.

But there’s a reason the Government has called the measures to prevent prosecutions a “triple lock”. You don’t create a triple lock against something if you expect to allow it in.

It simply cannot be right not to prosecute acts of torture if there is strong evidence they took place. Torture victims have a right to see their tormentors brought to account, and there should be no time limit on justice.

This is not just a matter of domestic criminal law. Decriminalising torture would fly in the face of our international law obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the Rome Statute.

International law may not mean much to this Government, but they forget at their peril that it helps keep all of us safe.

Some of our most senior living soldiers have warned the Government that departing from international rules against torture puts our own troops in greater danger.

Field Marshall Lord Guthrie, who served as Chief of the Defence Staff, has warned that: “These proposals appear to have been dreamt up by those who have seen too little of the world to understand why the rules of war matter… If we start down the slippery slope of arguing that rules apply to others, but not to ourselves, it is we who will suffer in the end.”

Those who have fought so hard against torture overseas deserve better than to see it decriminalised at home.

If this is what the Tories meant by their manifesto promise to “update” human rights laws then we should all be alarmed.

Joanna Cherry QC is the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West