Friday, June 08, 2018

Military Justice

Britain's top military officer, Air Chief Marshal Peach said he was "very uncomfortable" about historic allegations against serving and former military personnel involved in past conflicts - from Northern Ireland to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some MPs have called for a statute of limitations to protect veterans who might be accused of past abuses. 

Who, ultimately, is responsible for crimes committed by British personnel in war? Individual service personnel bear criminal responsibility for crimes they commit in war, such as murdering civilians or torturing prisoners. Under international criminal law, senior officers can also be held accountable for the actions of their subordinates if they did not take “necessary and reasonable” action to prevent it. Under the act that Britain signed when it joined the international criminal court (ICC) in 2001, generals and even politicians are potentially liable for systematic abuses by British soldiers. This has proved largely theoretical, however: the last person in Britain to be prosecuted for crimes committed by forces under their command was in 1651 during the civil war.

In Iraq numerous public inquiries have concluded that five banned interrogation techniques were widely used by British soldiers. These techniques – hooding, white noise, sleep deprivation, food deprivation and stress positions – were outlawed by the UK in 1972 and breach the Geneva conventions. Soldiers may have been told by commanding officers to, for instance, hood detainees. This meant that, under Ihat, soldiers could theoretically face criminal prosecution for things they were told by their commanders to do. In 2011, the European court of human rights ruled that the UK had a duty to investigate allegations of deaths and ill treatment involving its service personnel in Iraq. If it didn’t, Britain and the politicians and generals in power at the time of the Iraq war might have a case to answer in the ICC. Somthing those in command of the Israeli army and its snipers ahould heed. 

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) was set up by the Labour government in 2010, to draw a line under lingering allegations from an unpopular war and dispatch the idea that military misconduct was widespread. It aimed to investigate credible claims of abuses in Iraq and secure criminal prosecutions where appropriate. 

“What was meant to be an administrative exercise, tidying up a few loose ends, had taken off into the stratosphere,” Nick Harvey, minister for the armed forces from 2010-12, said.  A parliamentary inquiry concluded Ihat had “directly harmed the defence of our nation” by making soldiers on the battlefield anxious about later legal repercussions. When Ihat closed, outstanding cases were reduced, overnight, from 3,400 to just 20. It had cost the taxpayer £34m and failed to secure a single prosecution. The collapse of Ihat seems likely to mark the end of serious attempts to investigate alleged crimes by British soldiers in Iraq, leaving questions about the scale of abuses and accountability unanswered. The MoD could avoid uncomfortable questions about its own role in training soldiers in procedures that breached the Geneva conventions.

Of the hundreds of cases Ihat investigated, not one ended in prosecution. While this has been held up in the rightwing press and in government as evidence that the claims were “spurious”. 

Many working at the ground level – from the lawyers representing Iraqis to the Ihat investigators – felt that they were being asked to pursue the wrong target, investigating individuals rather than looking at systemic problems in the military. But they were trapped within the process. Of course, individual soldiers had personal responsibility – but allegations often related to the way in which personnel had been trained, what they were told to do, how they were told to treat people. It was about the government and the MoD in particular. A retired police detective who worked as an investigator, felt frustrated that his inquiries were limited to low-ranking individuals. Some of the British soldiers he interviewed were functionally illiterate, he said: “They’d signed statements taken immediately after the event [for which they were being investigated]. But I found they could barely read or write, and they’d just signed anything so they could go home,” said Paul. Wanting to investigate the chain of command, in one case, he requested permission from Ihat’s leadership to interview a senior army officer in relation to an alleged unlawful killing. This was refused. Every time he tried to pursue this line of inquiry, he claims that it was shut down by Ihat’s leadership or MoD lawyers. Many investigators complained that they had gathered what they thought was enough evidence to prosecute, and then they’d have an MoD lawyer go to the senior leadership of Ihat and tell them to drop the case.

When it comes to the scale of British wrongdoing in Iraq, many human rights advocates point to the £21.8m paid out by the MoD to Iraqi claimants in over 300 cases, citing it as a tacit admission of guilt.

Ministers in successive governments had hoped Ihat would finally put to bed the idea that British troops committed widespread abuses against civilians in Iraq. When it closed, it had certainly ended the discussion The perceived failure of the investigation into abuses in Iraq had become a way to discredit the entire idea of looking seriously at historic abuses committed by British troops. In her keynote speech to conference, the new prime minister Theresa May pledged: “We will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, leftwing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave.”

Khalaf, an Iraqi journalist, has the last word, “People in Basra are always angry at the British army, for the simple reason that it did not fulfil its promises of bringing us stability, prosperity, construction, and turning Basra into a wonderful city. The British have tried to buy people by providing some compensation to those whose property was destroyed. But none of us ever really believed Britain would try its army and soldiers.”

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