In Depth

How new military veterans amnesty law will work

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt proposes law to prevent war crime prosecutions against British soldiers - with one controversial exception

British troops facing investigations over alleged historical offences committed during combat will get greater legal protection under new laws proposed by the defence secretary.

Penny Mordaunt is to announce plans for a presumption against prosecution for offences committed more than ten years ago during conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else in the world - with the exception of Northern Ireland, The Guardian reports.

Under the proposed law, historic prosecutions dating back more than a decade would also be allowed in  “exceptional circumstances”, such as if compelling new evidence emerged, says Sky News.

In a statement ahead of the official announcement, Mordaunt - who took office at the start of May following Gavin Williamson’s sacking - claimed the legislation will “provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line”. 

The move comes three years after Theresa May said the government would end the “industry of vexatious claims” against veterans, by taking advantage of a right to suspend aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights at times of war.

However, the BBC reports that there are “still dozens of investigations ongoing” from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and “some will question whether they should be abandoned”. Critics of the amnesty plan are warning that “if the law is changed to protect troops, it could be used by terrorists too”, adds The Sun.

What is the new law?

Mordaunt is seeking to ensure that both veterans and serving troops are not subjected to repeat investigations into historical operations.

The Guardian notes that banning prosecutions over alleged crimes that go back more than ten years would rule out “future claims dating from the Iraq wars”, which technically ended in 2009.

The proposals will be subject to a public consultation before being brought to the Commons, the paper adds.

Mordaunt said this week that “we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Armed Forces, who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and security”.

“It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line,” she continued.

Why has it been introduced?

Both the defence secretary and the prime minister have faced significant pressure from fellow Torys in recent months to provide protections for veterans.

Last week, Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former Army officer, warned that he would “no longer support the Government” in the Commons unless the historical prosecutions of ex-military personnel ends.

In an open letter to the PM published on Twitter, Mercers said that he found the repeated investigations into allegations “personally offensive” and that he would refuse to vote with the Government in Parliament - except on Brexit - until “clear and concrete steps” were taken to end the “abhorrent process”.

The Tory government has taken action in the past to halt some historical prosecutions for suspected battle crimes. In 2017, it closed down the Iraq Historical Investigations Team amid claims that a number of the allegations against soldiers were “found not to be credible and that unscrupulous law firms were bringing forward a large number of claims”, The Daily Telegraph reports.

Why is Northern Ireland not included?

As many as 200 British former military personnel are reportedly under official investigation for alleged offences during the conflict in Northern Ireland, also known as the Troubles. 

When the amnesty system was first proposed by the government, Irish republican party Sinn Fein - which played a major role in the Troubles - warned that there should be “no immunity or impunity for British forces guilty of crime, collusion and murder in Ireland”.

According to the Telegraph, ongoing tensions over the conflict in the province had made the issue “too difficult to resolve”.

This inability to provide protections for Northern Ireland veterans is problematic for Mordaunt, says BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale.

“It is the prosecution of veterans who served during the Troubles that has so incensed Tory backbench MPs,” Beale writes. “And on that issue she has not been able to offer any solution.”

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