NI veteran prosecutions would have to go to European Court, says Defence Secretary Ben Wallace

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is proposing new legislation to prevent “vexatious” prosecutions of Armed Forces veterans in cases which have already been investigated - unless there is “compelling” new evidence.

Monday, 11th November 2019, 2:00 pm
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace arriving at Downing Street. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire

If they win a majority at the election, the party will 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, the Tories would amend the Human Rights Act so it does not apply to issues - including deaths during the Troubles - which took place before it came into force in 2000.

Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace told Radio 4 the government based the approach on recommendations from the Defence Select Committee, which he noted was made up of Labour, SNP, DUP and Tory MPs,

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The aim was to “make sure that soliders aren’t above the law but that vexatious claims don’t trigger continued investigations time and time again to the same people, because that is unfair to our soldiers and people who have gone out to defend us whether that is in Iraq, Afghanistan or indeed Northern Ireland”.

The approach aims to address “a continued sort of exploitation of the difference” between the Geneva Convention and European Convention of Human Rights, he said.

This has allowed lawyers to go back to inquests in Northern Ireland to say that their clients “who more often than not was actually a terrorist who was killed in the act of terror” were harmed by the state.

He added: “And we have had continued repeated inquests going round and round in circles, unfair to men and women of the armed forces... with no clear solution in the end,”

Mr Wallace said the legislation would not impact on live cases already before the courts.

“No, we recognised the independence of the judiciary and we can’t step in now,” he said. They are also proposing a statute of limitation of ten years for events outside the EU.

“In events that have happened outside the jurisdiction of the European Convention of Human Rights, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the government believes there should be a statute of limitation to ten years unless compelling new evidence comes forward”.

The aim is to ensure that lawyers cannot go out “shopping around Iraq and Afghanistan looking for victims”.

He noted this has been done by UK lawyer Phil Shiner, who was later struck off as a solicitor for related misconduct.

The first step for NI is to amend the Human Rights Act to make sure the difference between the two sets of legislation “can’t be exploited” Mr Wallace said.

Asked if the new law would also apply to terrorists, he said it would “apply to everyone” who wants to make a claims about a crime that has already been investigated or an inquest that has already taken place.

In such circumstances, any new case would “have to go directly to the European Court” he said, however this would not be an amnesty because “everyone will still be able to avail of the European Court of Human Rights”.