Plan to protect veterans from 'vexatious claims'

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British soldiers in Afghanistan in 2013Image source, PA Media

The government has presented new legislation to protect military personnel and veterans from prosecution for alleged historical offences in conflicts overseas.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said it would help to end what he called "vexatious claims".

But human rights groups said the proposals would undermine international law.

Separate plans are being announced for troops who served in Northern Ireland.

The legislation proposes a five-year limit on criminal prosecutions from the date of an incident - unless there is compelling new evidence - and a six-year limit for any civil case involving personal injury or death.

The bill will also compel any future government to consider a derogation - effectively opting out - from the European Convention on Human Rights in any conflict overseas.

The Conservatives have previously promised to end what they call "vexatious claims" against serving and former soldiers who they say have been hounded and repeatedly investigated for alleged war crimes such as unlawful killing and the abuse of detainees.

The MoD said military operations in Iraq had resulted in nearly 1,000 compensation claims for unlawful detention, personal injury and death, and about 1,400 judicial review claims seeking investigations and compensation over alleged human rights violations.

It says many claims have been made without foundation and caused "uncertainty among military personnel and others called upon to give evidence".

In their election manifesto, the Tories promised action on the issue within 100 days if it was re-elected.

But human rights groups have expressed anger, saying the legislation would place the military above the law and undermine existing international conventions.

'Cycle of reinvestigations'

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Mr Wallace confirmed the bill would "deal with overseas operations" only.

However, he said it would be accompanied by a statement from the Northern Ireland Office setting out how the government would deal with Northern Ireland veterans.

"They will be as equal, as similar, to the protections we're going to look at overseas," he added.

The plans for Northern Ireland will see only cases where there is "new compelling evidence and a realistic prospect of a prosecution" move to a full-blown investigation.

And once a case has been considered, there will be a legal bar on any future investigation, which the Northern Ireland Office said would "end the cycle of reinvestigations".