The Overseas Operations Act, which recently became law, aims to limit the exposure of members of the armed forces to prosecution for crimes committed in the course of armed conflict. Unsurprisingly its passage through Parliament was fraught with controversy. In addition, the Parliamentary debate surrounding the Act highlighted that government thinking around the use of armed drones continues to rely on problematic presumptions and tropes. In its response to questions raised in Parliament, the government has betrayed its underlying view that drone warfare is inherently lawful and clean.
With the aim of limiting ‘vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events’ that emerge from the ‘uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas’, the Act is divided into two substantive parts. Part 1 creates a new framework of hurdles to be overcome before members of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes committed more than five years ago during overseas operations. These prosecutions will now only go ahead in ‘exceptional cases’. Part 2 reduces the time period within which civil and human rights claims can be brought against the Ministry of Defence or armed forces. Additionally, the Act seeks to place a duty on the government to consider derogating from (i.e. suspend) aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to ‘significant’ overseas operations. Unsurprisingly, the Act has been subject to a great deal of criticism. It has been described as a ‘significant barrier to justice’, contrary to the rule of law, and likely to hamper the training of soldiers.
Beyond this, the passage of the Act has incidentally allowed insight into the government’s thinking around the use of drones, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). In a House of Lords debate on 11 March 2021 Lord Browne of Ladyton tabled an amendment which would have required the government to produce a report into the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. Lord Browne’s reason for tabling this amendment was his belief that the Act is based on incorrect perceptions of the future of war, focusing on traditional ‘boots on the ground’ operations, and ignoring the increasing use of remote and autonomous technology. Read more