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UK War Crime Revelations in Afghanistan Expose Justice Failings

‘Overseas Operations” Bill Risks Entrenching Impunity

British troops conduct a dawn foot patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, May 10, 2013. © 2013 Ben Birchall/Press Association via AP Images

A senior UK commander in 2011 feared a British military unit in Afghanistan had a “deliberate policy” of killing Afghan men, even when “they did not pose a threat” – which the commander called “indefensible behaviour” that “could be criminal.”

Nine years later, the UK government is doing its best to ensure it is almost impossible to prosecute such crimes.

This commander’s concerns, along with other evidence about possible unlawful killings by UK forces in Afghanistan, came to light this week after being disclosed to a court and published in the Sunday Times newspaper.  

The commander’s legal assessment was correct – the execution of civilians, or indeed fighters who had surrendered and did not pose a threat, would be war crimes. But criminal liability under the principle of “command responsibility” also falls on senior commanders and ultimately government ministers if they become aware of such crimes and fail to prevent or prosecute them.  

Despite a history of championing the laws of war, the United Kingdom has repeatedly failed to prosecute its own personnel when they commit war crimes.

The 2011 allegations are not isolated incidents. Evidence has continued to emerge, in UK court hearings and public inquiries, of abuses, such as torture, by UK soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that appear on their face to be war crimes. But hardly any UK national – and no senior military or political figure – has after 2001 even been prosecuted, yet alone convicted.

Successive British governments have repeatedly interfered in criminal justice, most blatantly by ministers shutting down criminal inquiries into UK forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current government is going even further, having a draft law before parliament creating a “presumption against prosecution” for alleged crimes committed by UK soldiers overseas more than five years ago. Rather than ensure justice for crimes like those alleged in Afghanistan, it would make it even harder to prosecute, even when the evidence had been withheld for so long.

Britain’s failure to prosecute its nationals responsible for atrocities overseas has a long history dating back to the British Empire. The current bill risks entrenching impunity for some of the worst crimes committed by British nationals.

The government should drop the bill and ensure any UK national responsible for war crimes and obstructing justice, anywhere in the world, no matter how senior, is brought to justice. That would send the message that foreign lives also matter.

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