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Credible evidence of British war crimes in Iraq, says International Criminal Court

British soldiers in training

Credible evidence of British war crimes in Iraq, says International Criminal Court

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court says that there is "reasonable basis" to claims that UK troops committed war crimes in Iraq.

In a report published this afternoon (9 December), the Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said that despite this the court's investigations would go no further as she had found no evidence that courts within the UK had tried to shield troops from investigation.

Bensouda declared, “The Office has previously found, and today confirmed, that there is a reasonable basis to believe that members of the British armed forces committed the war crimes of wilful killing, torture, inhuman/cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and/or other forms of sexual violence."

She continued, “The Office has identified a confined number of incidents to reach this determination which, while not exhaustive, appear to correspond to the most serious allegations of violence against persons in UK custody.”

Most of the allegations relate to events following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which involved UK troops despite widespread opposition to the invasion amongst the British public.

In response, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) urged the UK government to withdraw the Overseas Operations Bill, currently going through Parliament, which will make it even less likely that UK armed forces personnel will face prosecution for war crimes. 

The ICC prosecutor today criticised the “failures of the British army at the time to conduct effective investigations”.

While acknowledging that there have been other investigations in the UK since then, Bensouda pointed out that “the outcome of the more than ten year-long domestic process, involving the examination of thousands of allegations, has resulted in not one single case being submitted for prosecution to date: a result that has deprived the victims of justice.”

Today's report by the International Criminal Court (ICC) will raise further questions about the Overseas Operations Bill currently going through Parliament.

Nicknamed the War Crimes Immunity Bill by the Peace Pledge Union, it will introduce a “presumption against prosecution” after five years for UK armed forces personnel accused of war-related crimes. It will also prevent individual forces personnel and veterans from taking legal action against the Ministry of Defence if it relates to events more than six years earlier.

The PPU has pointed out that British troops are almost never prosecuted for war-related crimes. When they are charged, it is always low-ranking troops rather than the major decision-makers.

Flying in the face of this reality, the militarist lobby in the UK have whipped up a fantasy of a “witch-hunt” against British veterans facing “vexatious” claims of war crimes.

This idea is clearly rejected by the ICC's report today.

“On the question of vexatious claims, the fact that the allegations investigated by the UK authorities did not result in prosecutions does not mean that these claims were vexatious,” explained Bensouda.

She stated firmly, “the Office has found untenable the proposition that these various processes all arose from vexatious claims”.

Despite this, Bensouda said she was closing the investigation because to proceed the ICC would need evidence that authorities in the UK were deliberately shielding troops from prosecution. She said that the ICC could not continue to investigate if genuine investigations were continuing in the country concerned, in this case the UK.

However, she added, “While this decision might be met with dismay and disappointment by some stakeholders or perceived as an endorsement of the UK's approach by others, the technical reasons set out in the accompanying report should temper both impressions.”

In response, the Peace Pledge Union's Campaigns Manager, Symon Hill, said, “The investigation into UK troops has been closed because of a quirk of procedure.

"Far from exonerating the UK armed forces, the International Criminal Court has today stated that there is substantial evidence of war crimes by British forces personnel, including unlawful killing, rape, torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners”.

He added, “Despite this damning report, the Overseas Operations Bill continues to threaten impartial justice and the rule of law. British forces personnel, especially more senior personnel, are virtually never prosecuted for war-related crimes. But instead of ensuring that prosecutions take place when the evidence is there, Boris Johnson and his ministers are trying to put armed forces above the law.”