Richard Medhurst is a British journalist born in Damascus. Owing to his coverage of international relations, US politics, the Middle East and Julian Assange extradition he has built a successful YouTube channel and hosts a program on Press TV. Follow him on Twitter @richimedhurst
Across Britain people are protesting against a proposed bill which restricts that very right, but two other laws have already passed, allowing undercover agents to commit crimes, and giving British troops immunity from war crimes.
At the heart of current protests in Britain is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This controversial new law, dubbed the “anti-protest bill,” would impose severe restrictions on protests and slap those who fail to comply with harsh sentences. The ‘Kill the Bill’ movement, a coalition of activist groups, seeks to stop this legislation while it’s still in passage through Parliament. It sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for civil liberties, undermining any supposed democracy the UK may have. In addition, in recent months the United Kingdom has passed two other laws, one which allows undercover agents to commit any crime, and another which gives British troops immunity from war crimes prosecutions. These have gone largely unnoticed by the British public.
In March 2021, Britain’s Conservative government under Boris Johnson introduced a new act into Parliament titled the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This mammoth piece of legislation aims to shake up the criminal justice system in England and Wales. It gives police sweeping new powers, allowing them to decide whether or not a protest is justified, impose a start and finish time, and shut down a protest on the spot. The criteria proposed for shutting down a protest includes vague, arbitrary language like being “too loud” or a “nuisance” – effectively neutering any significant public protest. Asked to explain the meaning of a “noisy protest,” equally vague and unclear answers were given by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Under the proposed law, failure to comply with police orders could result in a fine of up to £2,500. The punishment for defacing or damaging memorials has been increased from three months to 10 years; this comes in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 which saw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston thrown into the Bristol dock.
Activists in the UK called the bill a “blatant attempt to create an authoritarian police state,”undermining the right to free speech and peaceful assembly – the pillars of a supposed liberal democracy. Since March 2021, protests have erupted all over Britain, including in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and other major cities, with hundreds being arrested and detained by police.
The United Kingdom goes around the world lecturing other countries about freedom and human rights abuses. It bombed and destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of ‘democracy’ – and in its absolute hypocrisy it persecutes Julian Assange for exposing the crimes of those wars. Now, it seeks to trample on the very democratic values and liberties it claims to uphold.
The Police and Sentencing Bill has already passed first and second readings and now sits at the committee stage, and protests against it continue. Yet two other laws have already been passed under Boris Johnson’s government: The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Act and the Overseas Operations Bill. Despite their authoritarian nature, plus their threat to civil liberties and international law, their passage through Parliament has gone largely unnoticed.
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill (nicknamed the ‘SpyCops’ Bill) gives undercover agents permission to commit crimes through a “Criminal Conduct Authorisation.” This includes rape, torture, murder, and other violent crimes. The bill applies to MI5, Britain’s security service, but also extends to any police force in Britain and other agencies like the Gambling Commission, Food Standards Agency, Home Office, and Ministry of Justice. In the name of preventing crime, or in the interests of national security or the ‘economic interests’ of the UK – which could mean anything – officers would be allowed to commit some of the most heinous crimes with impunity. The SpyCops Bill has already become law.
Many fear that worker unions, activists, and organisations opposed to the government and other power centres in the UK will be targeted. Previously, police have infiltrated such groups, disproportionately targeting left-wing organisations, activists, and protesters. The Guardian also disclosed in 2018 that London Met had used over two dozen officers to infiltrate left-wing groups as part of an undercover spying campaign that spanned 37 years.
With the Tories guaranteed to vote overwhelmingly in favour of their legislation, Labour leader Keir Starmer naturally did what one expects of the opposition: nothing. Labour MPs were whipped into abstaining – only 34 of them choosing to rebel – gifting Conservatives with an unopposed passage of the bill. In the Lords, an attempt to remove the most heinous crimes from the bill, such as rape, murder, and torture, was subsequently shot down in the Commons. The bill received Royal Assent on March 1, 2021.
This carte blanche to commit crimes – essentially a license to kill – can be devastating in the wrong hands. Giving the state such extraordinary powers over the lives of ordinary citizens is authoritarian at best and madness at worst – and the government isn’t stopping there.
War crimes allegations? They’re just annoying
Another worrying piece of legislation that has already become law is the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act. It proposes a so-called “presumption against prosecution” for service members overseas, essentially giving British troops immunity from war crimes prosecutions. It introduces a statute of limitation of five years, meaning that if an alleged crime took place more than five years ago, it will not be considered by the courts and the Ministry of Defence.
The government claims this law protects British troops from what Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called “vexatious” claims and “endless investigations” into war crimes and other atrocities – dismantling any hopes of justice for the many victims of Britain’s war crimes. The government is essentially dismissing war crimes allegations as annoying.
Previous UK investigations into war crimes by British troops, such as Operation Northmoor and the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), resulted in no convictions or cases being brought forward – despite damning emails detailing the executions of Afghan civilians and cover-up by Britain’s elite special forces, the Special Air Service.
The government is using the fact that these inquiries did not result in any prosecutions (something it made sure of), and the case of Phil Shiner, as an excuse to give British soldiers blanket immunity from prosecution for war crimes, torture, and other heinous crimes older than five years. This is like saying that anyone who committed murder five years ago cannot be prosecuted anymore because a few people were wrongly accused of murder at some point.
The bill has been criticised, albeit nowhere near enough, for its violations of the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The #OverseasOperationsBill violates essential rule of law principles, including with regards to the absolute prohibition of torture. It also fails to protect the safety, well-being and rights of our military personnel.For these reasons, I have voted against it.
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) September 23, 2020
Making the illegal legal
Keir Starmer’s Labour is no opposition party. Usurped by Zionists who character-assassinated former leader Jeremy Corbyn, plus corporatists, and Britain’s political establishment, Labour is an empty shell that allows the Tories to dictate government policy unimpeded. Similar to how the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States represent two sides of the same coin, the same is true of the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain.
While the Kill the Bill protests are significant and important, opposition to the aforementioned laws must increase, because the British public is largely ignorant of what is unfolding. How many Britons know that their government just legalised torture and war crimes? The media has done an excellent job of leaving these issues underreported, shielding the government from scrutiny and criticism. Where are the crusaders of regime change who feign so much concern for human rights, civil liberties, and democracy?
The United Kingdom loves meddling in other countries’ affairs, giving lectures about democracy and human rights while violating these very same things at home. Not that the United Kingdom was ever a model of equality to begin with: the British Empire, the largest in history, is responsible for untold amounts of suffering and killing through colonisation, slavery, and occupation. Now the only difference is that the gloves are off and the facade is lifted.
The first British soldier ever to be convicted for war crimes was Donald Payne. He spent just one year in prison after beating Baha Mousa to death, a 26-year-old Iraqi from Basra in 2003. Even when the British find someone guilty of war crimes, they just give them a slap on the wrist, so why would anyone now expect them to take them seriously? That’s not justice.
The United Kingdom dares to lecture other countries about human rights, while violating its own Human Rights Act or amending it to make the illegal legal whenever possible. Britain has legalised state-sanctioned murder for undercover agents, given its troops immunity from war crimes, and now it wants to ban protesting. A country that gives harsher sentences for defacing the statue of a slave trader than for murdering Iraqis has no place lecturing anyone about human rights.