LAST week saw the resignations of the UK Government’s most senior lawyer and the Advocate General for Scotland over the Prime Minister’s contempt for international law. 

This week, Boris Johnson will defy the advice of senior military officials and lawyers and blindly plough ahead with the erosion of the international rules-based order that the United Kingdom helped to create.

The Overseas Operations Bill being brought forward this week would put a time limit on prosecutions for crimes committed by members of the Armed Forces, flouting the internationally agreed rules of warfare, effectively decriminalising torture and placing UK Armed Forces at greater risk as they carry out their work.

It is roundly condemned by senior military figures, human rights groups and ex-military senior Conservative MPs, and the former command legal adviser during the Iraq War has warned that the Bill will “undermine the whole system of international law on the battlefield.  

At home too, it would weaken the power of the judiciary to uphold the rule of law: it would give the Attorney General – a political appointee – veto power over independent prosecutorial decisions.

The Government is putting this Bill forward in attempt to tackle what it calls “vexatious” prosecutions and civil claims made “on an industrial scale” against personnel and veterans.  

I will not pretend that such claims have never happened.

However, I wholeheartedly reject this government’s account of the scale on which they are brought, and I reject this Bill in its entirety. 

Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, former Chief of the Defence Staff and a staunch opponent of this Bill, has been explicit: “There can be no exceptions to our laws, and no attempts to bend them. Those who break them should be judged in court.”  

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Lord Guthrie added 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.”

Lord Guthrie is far from alone in voicing his concern: Judge Advocate General Jeff Blackett – Britain’s most senior military judge – has also raised “significant concerns” with the “ill-conceived” proposals in a letter to the Defence Secretary and called for the government to “think again”.

The UK Government has shown no sign of listening. Instead, it appears ready to ride roughshod over the system of international law it helped to create.  It is content to send a signal to the despots of the world that protections for civilians – and for UK Armed Forces – during conflict no longer matter.

The Bill does recognise that there are crimes so despicable that they must never go unpunished – it includes an exemption for sexual violence.  Over the weekend, I have been inundated with emails from constituents which ask the same question I have been asking myself: why did the Government choose to exempt sexual violence from the presumption against prosecution, but not torture?

The Government has given no explanation for this exemption which, notes former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, could “create the bizarre outcome that an allegation of torture or murder would not be prosecuted when a sexual offence arising out of the same incident could be”.  

This shoddy legislation does not benefit the Armed Forces.  It will not keep UK troops safe.  It will only serve a government determined to undermine the rule of law, bypass our system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the executive. 

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If this government truly wants to protect UK Armed Forces from legacy allegations of war crimes, it must create mechanisms for allegations to be properly addressed by independent investigators.  

As Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, has himself noted, “one of the biggest problems … was the military’s inability to investigate itself properly and the standard of those investigations… If those investigations were done properly and self-regulation had occurred, we probably wouldn’t be here today”.

I recognise that the Armed Forces do sensitive work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world and that, for security reasons, they cannot be expected to provide full public details about their operations.  

However, the UK Government must do more to facilitate oversight and accountability of the Armed Forces.  

There are numerous options for this – I have previously suggested that the remit of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee or the Intelligence and Security Committee could be expanded to provide such a role – but this government does not seem interested in long-term solutions.

The Armed Forces put their lives on the line across the world to defend our way of life, our values and the rule of law. This legislation undermines all of these.  

Only by upholding the rule of law and ensuring transparency can our Armed Forces avoid the risk of historical claims – not by legislation like this.

Stewart McDonald is the SNP defence spokesman and MP for Glasgow South.