I arrived in the UK two decades ago after escaping persecution and violence in my native DR Congo. With the sanctuary and new citizenship I have rebuilt my life here. As a lawyer for refugees and survivors around the world, I am proud to be one of two surviving champions for the British Government. Preventing sexual violence in conflict initiatives (PSVI) Now, the same government is proposing legislation to make it easier for those who torture to escape justice.
The Overseas Operations Bill has been a blow to me and other foreigners living in Britain who have survived torture. It simply proposes the creation of “charges against justice” for members of the UK Armed Forces accused of serious crimes, including torture, committed abroad more than five years ago, excluding “exceptional circumstances”. While I welcome that this bill does not include the heinous crime of rape or sexual violence, do we understand that torture is a “lesser” crime?
In Central Africa, where I grew up, war criminals and perpetrators were either unpunished, or held the highest office in the state. The catastrophic effects of torture I saw first hand – the way it affects the whole family, society and generation. What happens when I look at what happens when a government starts pushing for a ban on torture?
Accountability and the rule of law are essential tools of justice for survivors of torture. These proposals not only add legal barriers for us, they give the green light to oppressive states everywhere to continue their illegal and inhumane behavior. Countries like Sri Lanka where there are signs of civil war are deep and incidents of military repression Running, Is already considering adopting a proposed model of British immunity.
I am not alone in my criticism. Last week, the House of Lords voted by an overwhelming majority to amend the bill to ensure that torture would be prosecuted as a crime in any situation. The government suggests that critics have misunderstood, telling us we should “just read the bill.” But it does not stand up to the test of reason, especially after strong condemnation from the United Nations, which noted that the bill was drafted “substantially less” that the UK military would be held responsible for their worst crimes.
Another worrying aspect of the bill is the damage it does to Britain’s armed forces. The government has promised that the bill will protect the military from “worrying demands.” Rob Gallimore, a veteran and security expert in the British Army, says otherwise. “This law is designed to protect people who have worked in the heat of battle, but torture is a pre-meditative act – it is an act that people can hear gunfire, but can’t smell cordite.”
Other critics, including senior legal figures, argued that the passage of the bill put British soldiers at risk of being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), making it impossible for them to survive “in-house” torture. Britain was one of the founding members of the ICC and most recently the British nominee Karim Khan was appointed as the new Chief Prosecutor of the court. Embarrassingly, will he need to oversee his own country’s investigations?
Finally, Bill’s controversial five-year window calls me to prosecute. It took decades for the rapists to be convicted after the Bosnian war – convicted in late 2011. And more personally, it took me a long time to come to terms with what happened to me in the country where I once lived. Why is Britain setting a deadline?
Not only is this bill morally unacceptable, but the UK’s credibility with global leadership and all the work that has been done through PSVV to accept this torture by sending this message to the world is at stake.
The global ban on torture is now a legal norm. But governments around the world are also under threat from defending authoritarian terrorism. If the Overseas Operations Bill is passed in its current form, it would reduce Britain’s international standing and add it to a long list of countries that have endured persecution. For those who have survived persecution everywhere, we must resist this bill.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the author and his editorial position on Al Jazeera.