Pledge to protect veterans from prosecution not amnesty – Defence Secretary

The Tory pledge to protect veterans from “vexatious” claims would not amount to an “amnesty”, the Defence Secretary has said.

But human rights groups have hit out at the proposals, branding them an “attack” on the Human Rights Act (HRA).

Labour, meanwhile, said it could not see a reason why the law needed amending but suggested it supported the motive behind the move.

The Prime Minister declared during the Tory leadership race in the summer that he wanted to end unfair trials of veterans where no new evidence had been produced.

As part of a package of measures to support veterans if the Conservatives win the election, the party announced it would introduce legislation to ensure the Law of Armed Conflict has primacy and that peacetime laws are not applied to service personnel on military operations.

Under the proposals, brought out to coincide with Armistice Day, the Tories would amend the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to issues – including deaths during the Troubles in Northern Ireland – which took place before it came into force in 2000.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “This isn’t an amnesty, because if people haven’t been investigated and they haven’t had an inquest, then of course, they won’t be able to avail themselves of that.

“This is about repeated and vexatious claims.”

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said she supported the Tory plans but questioned the need to “change” the HRA.

She told the BBC: “Their main purpose is to stop vexatious and unfair actions – who could be against that?

“I don’t think that, personally, you need to change the Human Rights Act about that.”

Campaign groups Liberty and Amnesty International both criticised the policy.

Liberty’s advocacy director Clare Collier called the changes “extremely concerning” and said they could “undermine” the ability for victims’ families to seek justice.

“This is just the latest attack on the (Human Rights) Act which would risk opening the door to further erosion of its powers and all of our rights,” she said.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, added: “It is essential that no-one, including members of the Armed Forces, is above the law.

“Yet in preventing former soldiers from being prosecuted over killings and other abuses that took place during the Northern Ireland conflict, that is exactly where this would place them.”

Julian Lewis, chairman of the defence committee before Parliament was dissolved for the election, said he backed the Government’s intentions as they followed the advice of reports from the influential group of MPs.

He said: “It has been a consequence of human rights legislation that it has extended in scope and in territory in a way in which it was never intended by Parliament to be applied when we adopted it into our own law.”

PM veterans
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets with military veterans at the Lych Gate Tavern in Wolverhampton (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

In a conversation with an Armed Forces veteran while on the campaign trail on Monday, the Prime Minister said he was doing his “best” to win the service personnel vote.

Asked by one veteran to stop ongoing prosecutions against soldiers, Mr Johnson said: “Individual cases are very difficult for us as a Government to intervene in.”

The veteran later told Mr Johnson “you’ve got to win my vote”, to which the PM replied: “We will do our best.”

Former corporal Graham Tilley, 72, who served in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and lives in Wolverhampton, said of Mr Johnson’s policies for veterans: “If it works out, it will be brilliant.”

Asked about how Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn compares to Mr Johnson on military matters, Mr Tilley said: “All the ex-army personnel who have served in Northern Ireland – I know an awful lot of them – they just turn him off when he comes on the TV.”

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