A BBC TV Panorama investigation has reported that the British government and military repeatedly covered up evidence of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The allegations are deeply disturbing, but unsurprising given the evidence.
British judges have concluded in case after case that some British soldiers mistreated Iraqis in detention during the Iraq war. Abuses include deliberately depriving detainees of sleep or food, or repeatedly beating them. In some cases, judges found that Iraqis died as a result of ill-treatment, such as Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist who was beaten to death in British custody. Many of these abuses, amounting to torture or other war crimes, were the result of broader systemic failures.
With credible findings like this, people implicated in such crimes, and those who turned a blind eye to the systems that enabled them, would usually expect to face prosecution, especially considering the UK government’s strong commitment to ensuring justice for serious crimes in other countries, like Syria.
But instead, hardly any prosecutions have taken place, and none against senior figures. Even in the case of Baha Mousa, who died after receiving more than 90 injuries during 36 hours in British custody, just one soldier, a corporal, was convicted of war crimes, and he served just one year in prison.
The BBC investigation alleges a cover-up to stop some prosecutions, and it’s clear that successive British governments have indeed tried to deny what happened. In 2017 the then-Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, shut down the unit investigating alleged UK army abuses in Iraq before it had completed its work, transferring a handful of cases to a new body – a clear example of political interference in the justice system.
The UK authorities’ response to these allegations needs to be swift and public. The current government and all political parties should explicitly commit to ending political interference in investigations and prosecutions of alleged war crimes. The next UK government should ensure that everyone credibly implicated in committing, aiding, or covering up war crimes ends up in a court room facing justice, not being shielded from the law. Under the principle of command responsibility, this could include senior military commanders and ministers responsible for the armed forces.
And if British authorities remain unwilling to prosecute those implicated in war crimes, the International Criminal Court in The Hague is there to step in.