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UK government setback in bid to limit accountability for soldiers' war crimes

UK's House of Lords chamber on 5 September 2016 in, London, England. [Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images]
UK's House of Lords chamber on 5 September 2016 in, London, England. [Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images]

The British government has suffered a major setback in its attempt to safeguard British soldiers from being prosecuted for crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and war crimes. The House of Lords — Britain's upper chamber — submitted an amendment to the proposed Overseas Operations Bill.

Peers voted earlier this week by 333 to 228 to halt plans by the government to restrict prosecutions for torture and war crimes alleged to have been committed by British soldiers serving abroad. The amendment in the Lords rejects government efforts to protect British soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan from what it calls "vexatious" claims.

Read: UK forces violated Geneva conventions in Iraq, High Court rules

The amendment passed by the upper house says crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and war crimes should not be given such protection. A group led by former NATO secretary general George Robertson, and supported by some former military chiefs, told peers that they wanted torture and war crimes to be excluded from a five-year limit on prosecutions proposed in the bill, which won parliamentary approval last September.

Read: ICC finds UK committed war crimes but won't prosecute

The bill was introduced after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan gave rise to an unprecedented number of legal claims. Nearly 1,000 compensation claims are said to have been made against the Ministry of Defence for unlawful detention, injury and death. A further 1,400 judicial review claims seeking investigations and compensation for human rights violations were also made against the ministry.

A key aim of the bill is to limit false and historical allegations against service personnel and veterans in relation to overseas operations. However, opponents of the proposed legislation have warned that the bill in its current form could breach Britain's international legal obligations.

Read: War crimes claims against British Iraq war veterans dismissed

Rejecting the inclusion of serious human rights violations in the Overseas Protection Bill, Robertson said that the government plan "undermines some of the most basic legal standards for which this nation was renowned."

The amendment is expected be put back to the House of Commons towards the end of the month, alongside other changes called for by peers.

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