David Davis MP comments on why torture must be excluded from the remit of the Overseas Operations Bill


As published in The Times:

The British Army’s motto is “Be the Best”. That’s the standard our heroes live by and sometimes lay down their lives for. But being the best isn’t just about strength, numbers or equipment. It is also about values.

One of those values is that British soldiers do not torture people. Our enemies may have committed terrible crimes, but we do not beat them by matching their brutality. We beat them by being better. That is why I am deeply troubled by government plans to decriminalise torture by British personnel if it took place more than five years ago. Under legislation introduced by the Ministry of Defence there would be a “triple lock” against prosecuting personnel for torturing people, no matter how bad the torture or how detailed the evidence.

The government’s intentions are good. Boris Johnson wants to stand up for British soldiers and I commend him for that. In particular, I support the government’s proposals to protect elderly Northern Ireland veterans from endless pursuit in the courts and have called for faster action to put these plans into law. But decriminalising torture is an entirely different kettle of fish.

The triple lock against torture prosecutions does not apply to Northern Ireland, which the government plans to deal with separately. Nor are these proposals limited to acts carried out in the heat of battle, where soldiers must make split-second decisions carrying potentially grave consequences.

Instead, this would cover the kind of treatment the Blair government got us mixed up in. Acts such as tying a detainee to a vehicle and dragging them behind it at full speed. Or leaving a prisoner in a cage to be attacked by dogs. Or kidnapping a pregnant woman and sending her to a torture chamber. British soldiers want nothing to do with this kind of conduct. Torture is forbidden by the army field manual and armed forces recruits are told, “You must always keep your self-control, however angry or provoked you might be, because no soldier is ever above the law.”

As a question of military tactics, torture simply does not work. Torturing someone doesn’t elicit accurate intelligence — people in pain will just tell their torturers whatever they want to hear. Abandoning rules on torture also makes our own soldiers less safe, as it sends a signal to other armed forces that they may also ignore these protections.

Torture blurs the line between Britain and our enemies. In the words of our most senior living soldier, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, “We must not, in the false name of moral equivalence, degrade ourselves to their level.”