Talk About

The British Custom of Impunity for War Crimes

In early December 2020, news broke out on the International Criminal Court’s decision to formally drop its case against Britain for its ‘conduct’ in Iraq. This is despite the existence of a 184-page report containing compelling evidence of war crimes committed by British troops throughout the occupation. Headlines like ‘Court finds UK war crimes but will not take action‘ are perplexing in their dichotomy and reveal two crucial things, where the latter ensures the former: one, the perpetual impunity for British crimes abroad and, two, the fraudulence of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The British crimes in question

The report released by the ICC on the 9th of December 2020 confirms there is ‘reasonable basis to believe’ an extensive number of war crimes were committed by the British against Iraqi detainees, many of them civilians and unarmed. It should, however, always be noted that even if detainees are not civilians it is forbidden under international law to torture any person in custody. As per the ICC report, the crimes committed by British troops in detention centres range from ‘torture and inhuman/cruel treatment’, ‘outrages upon personal dignity’ (think humiliation and degradation) and ‘rape and/or other forms of sexual violence’ all the way to the ‘wilful killing/murder’ of detainees. These crimes were ‘sufficiently well supported’, as professed in the report. 

I’d like to open a parenthesis here to remind readers that, as a society, we’ve become so incredibly desensitised to violence that many of us will read over the crimes highlighted above and not think twice about, nor imagine, what these unspeakable acts really constituted. Chances are many of us will have heard, at least in passing, about Abu Ghraib or some of the many other atrocities committed by the US and the UK during their crusade in Iraq, but very few have dug deeper. For those of us who have, the revelations were gut-wrenching and are genuinely impossible to articulate. Below is a video of just one former detainee at Abu Ghraib prison, Ali al-Qaisi, who remembers his abuse 15 years on (warning: the content is distressing and viewer discretion is strongly advised):

Circling back to the ICC report, on what grounds, then, did the inquiry not proceed? After the 180-page report highlighting evidence of war crimes, the Prosecutor decided to drop the case because it deemed the UK was ‘not unwilling’ to investigate, or already investigating, British crimes in Iraq. This is known as the principle of ‘complementarity’ under the Rome Statute that created the ICC. In short terms, it refers to the ICC’s inability to prosecute if the government in question is already making a genuine effort to prosecute. This conclusion is shocking and quite frankly mocking: the ICC is willing to let Britain off the hook for inhumane acts based on a mere technicality, a technicality which in itself is incredibly out of touch with reality.

A history of cover-ups

The UK has, throughout the years, gone to exceptional measures to ensure the British military isn’t prosecuted for war crimes and to claim otherwise is simply ahistorical. By June 2020, of the thousands of claims made against the British military, only one case was being examined. Every other case has been dropped by the Service Prosecution Authority (SPA). In August 2020, it was once again revealed that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had withheld evidence, this time related to the execution of 33 Afghan civilians in 2011 by SAS soldiers.

A 2019 investigation by the BBC and The Sunday Times brought to light new evidence from the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) and Operation Northmoor, two government initiatives supposedly tasked with investigating British war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. Among this new evidence was a 2012 UK Special Forces night raid of an Afghan village, reviewed by Operation Northmoor, which led to the murder of a young man aged 20 and three children aged 17, 14 and 12 in a family home at the hands of a British soldier. The detectives involved in the investigation recommended the soldier be charged with four counts of murder, but no prosecution ensued. Why set up government bodies tasked with bringing justice to the victims of British crimes overseas only for the findings to be dismissed?

I use the word disgusting. And I feel for the families because… they’re not getting justice. How can you hold your head up as a British person?

Former detective involved in the investigation of British war crimes.

On top of this history of cover-ups, it seems as though the government is willing to go even further to ensure British troops accused of war crimes are immune from prosecution. A new bill is being proposed in Parliament, sponsored by the MoD no less: the Overseas Operation Bill, which would place a 5-year limit on criminal prosecutions against British military personnel. This would effectively sign off any possibility of prosecuting many of the heinous crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill additionally proposes the UK be exempt from ‘the European Convention on Human Rights in connection with operations of the armed forces outside the British Islands’. In other words, free rein on torture and murder. Passing this bill has very little to do with protecting soldiers from ‘vexatious claims’ — as supporters of the bill purport — and very much to do with safeguarding the British army from accountability for its overseas bloodshed.

Personnel from 904 Expeditionary Air wing and the Joint Force Support Unit based at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan head back to the UK on a Royal Air Force C17 Globemaster aircraft.

One thing seems pretty clear: justice is unable to be served by virtue of the British government. As for the ICC, tasked with delivering justice where governments have failed to, they’ve once again revealed who they’ll always protect. How long will we, as a collective, continue to turn a blind eye to the crimes of the powerful, more specifically, the crimes of ‘powerful nations‘? How are we so comfortable with a system where those who govern us can enact unspeakable acts of violence with impunity? Individualism, championed by the dominant ideology of neoliberalism, has conned us into disregarding human suffering beyond our own, but anyone with an inch of humanity should be utterly enraged at the atrocities committed overseas in the name of British or American glory. We must then channel that anger into upholding the fight for systemic change.

To become more acquainted with the UK’s (and the US’) legacy of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, I highly recommend the following:

  • A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa, book by A. T. Williams on the murder of a hotel receptionist in Iraq at the hands of British soldiers and the wider crime of torture being endemic to the military. 
  • The Shock Doctrine, book by Naomi Klein that uncovers the practice of torture on detainees, all the way from Chile to Iraq.
  • The Report, a 2019 dramatisation based on true events related to the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program created in the wake of 9/11.
  • We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a documentary on the broader WikiLeaks revelations with a chilling account of war documents and classified footage of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

By Elisa Emch

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