The UN’s high commissioner for human rights has stepped in to the controversy around legislation designed to curb claims against members of the armed forces following conflicts overseas. Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, said that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill risks undermining key human rights obligations that the UK has committed itself to respect. The bill goes to report stage in the House of Lords tomorrow.   

Among the subjects of concern raised by the UN official is a provision that would limit the ability of courts to consider civil claims after more than six years have passed. This may adversely affect victims’ rights to remedy, redress and access to justice recognized under international law, Bachelet said. 

She also said that, in its present form, the proposed legislation raises substantial questions about the UK’s future compliance with its international obligations, particularly under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions. 

’As currently drafted, the bill would make it substantially less likely that UK service members on overseas operations would be held accountable for serious human rights violations amounting to international crimes,’ Bachelet said.

Bachelet urged that all international crimes which the UK is under an international legal obligation to investigate and prosecute be excluded from the proposed restrictions. She welcomed the fact that Schedule 1 of the bill already excludes numerous sexual offences, including rape, from the scope. She urged that all other crimes of equal seriousness and concern be treated in the same way.

Another concern is that the current text of the Bill places a duty on the government to consider derogation from its international human rights obligations set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, in relation to overseas operations.

’The ability of the UK’s courts to resolve the most serious allegations against military personnel, with the independence and fairness for which they are known around the world, should be maintained and strengthened, rather than be cut back on such problematic grounds,’ she said.