The Overseas Operations Bill currently passing through Parliament is a major insult to all those who wish to see accountability for the crimes of British imperialism. But the courts have always represented a means of providing the semblance of justice whilst avoiding accountability for those most responsible. Only political solidarity against imperialism can deliver real justice.
On Wednesday the Overseas Operations Bill, a piece of legislation which proposes to place strict time limits on prosecution for offenses committed in war, passed its second reading in Parliament with an overwhelming majority. Keir Starmer whipped Labour MPs to abstain on the vote, with only 18 objecting. This is true to the form of a Labour Party which has always maintained a strict loyalty to the British state, including its repressive functions, and has sought to channel working class aspirations through a nationalistic framework. As Angela Rayner proudly tweeted on Tuesday, Labour is ‘the party that created the NHS and founded NATO’. But while the Labour Party has always been a Party of British imperialism, this has often been expressed in a belief in the ‘moral superiority’ of the British military, as a force which upholds ‘International Law’, and performs its killing and imperialist plunder in a responsible and considerate way. The Overseas Operations Bill represents a sharp deviation from this comforting illusion, justifying itself in a naked nationalistic defence of the impunity of ‘our troops’.
If adopted, the Bill will make it far harder for the victims of imperialism to receive justice in the courts, since it effectively ‘decriminalises’ (through increasing the obstacles to prosecution) the crimes of the British state in foreign wars. On top of this, on Thursday, the Government introduced the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, which proposes to allow state agents to engage in activities which would otherwise be considered ‘criminal offences’. This would apply also to the ‘criminal’ repression of border agents meted out against migrants, and place MI5 agents above prosecution. When viewed together, these bills are a stark reminder of the inseparable connection between the international imperialism of foreign wars and the domestic imperialism of border controls and counter-terrorism which violently police the boundaries of citizenship. It also reminds us that we cannot separate our solidarity with migrants from anti-imperialism, or from the realities of domestic policing; all of these are tied together by the impunity and arrogance of the state.
The government claim that the Overseas Operations Bill is designed to protect soldiers from ‘vexatious claims’, preventing soldiers and border guards from being ‘hounded’ years after events occur. But who is really responsible for this ‘vexation’? Families in the North of Ireland waited nearly four decades for the British Government to admit that the Bloody Sunday massacre was ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’. 48 years on there has still not been a single prosecution. The British state employs a thousand different ways to tie victims up in byzantine and traumatising legal processes to prevent accountability for its crimes. The families of those killed in the Ballymurphy massacre have still not even had an inquiry.
For the government to talk about ‘vexatious claims’ is not only disingenuous, but insulting. It is a calculated insult to those who have spent years campaigning for the right to say that their loved ones were murdered rather than killed, to even write these words on their headstones. It is contemptuous of the unthinkable suffering endured by those who have had their lives destroyed by state violence, who have often had to fight for their day in the courts to assert things as simple as the fact that their loved ones did not ‘deserve’ to die. By describing these struggles for justice as campaigns of vexatious harassment against soldiers the government is implying that victims are ‘manipulating’ the justice system, somehow getting more than they deserve. In this respect it is remarkably similar to New Labour’s rhetoric of ‘bogus asylum-seekers’, both these phrases are attempts to stimulate public anger against those the government defines as a ‘nuisance’, sidestepping any focus on state violence.
In reality, even those who have been able to bring their cases to court have found the odds stacked against them. The courts transform state violence into questions of individual misconduct, shifting the blame from government policy onto the actions of ‘rogue soldiers’. As Eamonn McCann wrote in War and an Irish Town:
‘[The Saville report] didn’t deny British culpability but loaded the blame onto those at the bottom and protected those at the top. Thus, Prime Minister David Cameron, to wild applause at the Guildhall Square, felt able to welcome the report whilst insisting that the reputation of the British Army itself remained unsullied.’
The reason that the government are able to paint campaigners as engaged in ‘vexatious claims’ against low-ranking soldiers is because they choose the targets and set the parameters of the investigations. It is not a coincidence that the generals never end up in the dock. Pursuing low-ranking soldiers decades after atrocities have been committed is often the only ‘justice’ that victims are ever given the possibility of achieving. Despite the limitations of the courts, the adoption of this Bill, and the binding together of a right-wing coalition opposed to punishing the atrocities of state violence, would represent a major ideological victory for the right against a left that, often reluctantly, speaks the language of international law. It is part of the wider reactionary offensive being waged by this government against the politics of solidarity, whether the targets are Trade Unionists, environmental campaigners or ‘activist lawyers’ representing migrants.
Make no mistake, this Bill is a testament to the arrogance and murderous contempt of the British establishment, and it solidifies the impunity of the agents of state repression. But our anger and opposition to it should not lead us into supposing that the ‘justice’ previously offered to the victims of British imperialism ever represented anything more than a meagre and insulting concession wrung from the British establishment through tireless political activity. The only reason that there was a second Bloody Sunday Inquiry after the initial whitewash of the Widgery Report, which absolved the soldiers of all wrongdoing, was the resolute campaigning of the families of victims and political activists, forcing the hand of the British state. The courts have always represented a mechanism both for providing the semblance of justice and for avoiding accountability, especially the accountability of those most responsible. The forces of state repression have always been ‘above the law’, since it is their law, which works in their interests. Accountability for the crimes of imperialism and justice for its victims can only come through our unflinching solidarity and determination to make visible the reality of state violence, from Belfast to Gaza, and from the mass grave of the Mediterranean to the detention centres across Britain.