Human rights abuses abroad – UK Government assessment
The UK Government has continued to seek to limit its accountability for responding to allegations of human rights abuses and complicity abroad, including by introducing an absolute time bar on human rights claims related to overseas operations, and provisions intended to make it harder to bring criminal proceedings against military personnel accused of some offences overseas. There has been no overarching inquiry into the abuse of Iraqi civilians by UK armed forces, despite evidence that it occurred. Evidence also shows complicity of UK personnel in the mistreatment of overseas detainees.
- There are concerns about the UK Government’s Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act, in particular its introduction of an absolute time bar on human rights claims and civil claims related to personal injury and death, which arise from UK overseas operations. There are also concerns that its ‘presumption against prosecution’ amounts in effect to a statute of limitations, making it more difficult to bring criminal proceedings in relation to certain offences. The Act also limits the ability of British service personnel to take legal action against their employer.
- Service Police Legacy Investigations, which investigates allegations of abuse against Iraqi civilians by UK armed forces between 2003 and 2009, has closed 1,213 cases with 74 still being considered. Hundreds of civil claims of mistreatment have been made, with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) paying over £20 million in compensation to Iraqi civilians.
- The lack of an overarching inquiry into the allegations of abuse in Iraq means that potential systemic issues – such as shortcomings in policy, training or supervision – have not been investigated independently.
- In 2020, the International Criminal Court confirmed that there was a ‘reasonable basis to believe’ that war crimes had been committed by British forces in Iraq, but closed its examination on the basis that the UK Government was not ‘unwilling’ to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing.
- A 2019 investigation by BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times alleged that the MoD and elements of the Armed Forces covered up evidence of war crimes, and that prosecutions were not pursued despite credible evidence.
- In 2018, the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee found that UK personnel appeared to have either witnessed, or been informed of, mistreatment of detainees in hundreds of US-led interviews, yet continued to cooperate with interrogators.
- The UK Government’s revised guidance for intelligence and service personnel on the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas does not address concerns that the guidance contains only a ‘presumption’ against proceeding where there is a ‘real risk’ of torture, unlawful killing or extraordinary rendition.
- In 2018, the UK Government shared information with the US Government about two suspected ISIS members without first obtaining diplomatic assurances that the information would not be used to impose the death penalty, contrary to usual practice. The Supreme Court later ruled that the UK Government had acted unlawfully on data protection grounds.
- Between 2018 and 2019, UK arms sales to countries of most concern regarding human rights increased by 390% to £849 million.
- The UK Government failed to act in accordance with a 2019 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, and a UN General Assembly Resolution, which demanded the UK withdraw its administration from the Chagos Archipelago to complete the process of decolonisation and allow the indigenous people to return following their forced removal.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on human rights abuses abroad.