By Mike Phipps
Keir Starmer set out his values on Tuesday in his speech to this year’s online replacement for Labour Party Conference, and again in his party political broadcast yesterday. And then last night he imposed a whip requiring Labour MPs to abstain on the government’s Overseas Operations bill and sacked three junior frontbenchers who voted against.
The controversial Bill seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations involving UK soldiers, by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.
Put bluntly, the measure makes prosecutions for war crimes, including murder and torture, far more difficult. Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said in the parliamentary debate that it “creates the risk that the very gravest crimes including torture and other war crimes go unpunished.” And then he abstained on it.
The bill was condemned by Jeremy Corbyn. Eighteen members of the Socialist Campaign Group defied the whip to vote against it. Beth Winter, Nadia Whittome and Olivia Blake were the three who were removed from the front bench for opposing it.
An amendment tabled by Jeremy Corbyn argued that the bill “violates essential rule of law principles such as judicial and prosecutorial independence and the absolute and effective prohibition of torture”.
Liberty, the Peace Pledge Union and Freedom From Torture all raised questions about the implications of placing British troops ‘above the law.’ Steve Crawshaw, director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said: “The idea that torture can effectively be written off after five years is insulting to the torture survivors we work with. It sends a deeply damaging signal about the UK and the world today.”
The measure further undermines Britain’s international reputation just a week after the government pressed on with its internal market bill, which breaks international law. How Keir Starmer can claim the moral high ground on that measure, while ducking a fight on the Overseas Operations bill will puzzle many activists.
The bill allows a government minister to consider opt-outs from the European Convention of Human Rights in certain circumstances. The incorporation of the Convention into UK law in 1998 was a lasting achievement of the Blair government, which the Tories have always resented. How can abstention on this be justified?
Paradoxically, this measure will put British soldiers more at risk. Freedom From Torture argue: “Abiding by the rule of law actually protects British troops in the event of their capture during hostilities. It is difficult for the UK to demand compliance with international laws against torture and other ill-treatment from others if it doesn’t follow them itself.”
It also opens the door for other states to duck their international obligations. But above all it is yet another barrier to justice, in a system where separate police forces and criminal courts already make the armed forces one of the country’s most unaccountable institutions.
The new Labour leader has emphasised his patriotism repeatedly this week. But patriotism cannot be reduced to supporting the military hierarchy in all circumstances. As Shami Chakrabarti wrote in the Guardian: “There can surely be no tension at all between any notion of British patriotism worth having and the international and domestic rule of law.”
Bell Ribeiro-Addy put it even more plainly: “There’s nothing remotely patriotic about rejecting international law and decriminalising torture.”
The Tory tabloids framed the bill as ‘backing our boys’. Labour seems to have accepted this narrative – even though the measure actually makes it more difficult for veterans to mount a case against the Ministry of Defence when they have been the victims of ’friendly fire’. Talk of support for service personnel is simple hypocrisy.
If Starmer thought that abstaining on the bill would head off Tory attacks on his patriotism, he was wrong – they attacked it anyway. Perhaps it was more important for him to be seen to be distancing himself from his predecessor. But for a former human rights lawyer to make such a wrong-headed stand suggests a lack of principle on a fundamental issue.