Iraq war crimes happened – but no further action taken

By Mike Phipps

The International Criminal Court says it will not take action against the UK, despite clear evidence that British troops committed war crimes in Iraq.

Its 180-page report says hundreds of Iraqi detainees were abused by British soldiers between 2003 and 2009. At least seven Iraqis were illegally killed while in British custody between April and September 2003. Some detainees were raped or subjected to sexual violence.  Others were beaten so badly they died from their injuries. All the individuals were unarmed and in British custody at the time.

The ICC was unable to determine whether the UK had acted to shield soldiers from prosecution. On that basis, it decided to take no further action. The Ministry of Defence immediately declared that the report “vindicates our efforts to pursue justice where allegations have been founded”.

In fact, it does nothing of the kind. The ICC told the BBC: “It is without dispute there is evidence war crimes were committed.” And it could “not rule out” that there had been a cover up on the part of the British authorities.

The report follows a BBC Panorama investigation last year which revealed credible evidence of war crimes committed in Iraq. Yet not one of the cases was taken forward by the army’s prosecution service.  The Panorama investigation went so far as to call this a cover-up.

According to Human Rights Watch, only one British soldier has received a prison sentence – of one year – for war crimes in Iraq. There has been no criminal accountability for senior British military and political figures who either ordered the abuses, turned a blind eye, or prevented prosecutions.

At the same time, the British government currently admits that it has received so many complaints from Iraqis who were unlawfully detained and allegedly mistreated by its troops that the Ministry of Defence is unable to say how many millions of pounds have been paid to settle the claims.

The ICC said the army’s internal investigations into allegations, which had been carried out by the Royal Military Police, had been “inadequate” and were “marred by a lack of independence and impartiality”. It also dismissed as “disingenuous” any attempt to dismiss the claims of war crimes as spurious. The UK government has repeatedly accused human rights lawyers of bringing vexatious claims.

In fact, the government’s Overseas Operations Bill, currently going through Parliament, is entirely based on the notion that baseless allegations are repeatedly made against the armed forces. If passed, it would introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said in the parliamentary debate that it “creates the risk that the very gravest crimes including torture and other war crimes go unpunished.”  Yet Labour abstained in the debate at the Committee stage, only later voting against it.

Parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee said of the bill: “”The government is effectively using the existence of inadequate investigations as a reason to legislate to bring in further barriers to bringing prosecutions or to providing justice for victims”.

The ICC is having to tread carefully around powerful western states. It has been openly attacked by Washington for opening an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by US troops in Afghanistan.  The Trump Administration this year imposed sanctions on its personnel, blocking their assets and refusing them entry into the country, because of the investigation. Human Rights Watch condemned the sanctions as a “shameful new low for US commitments to justice.”

More subtly, the British government has insisted on restricting increases in the court’s budget to a bare minimum and called for setting timelines for completion of the prosecutor’s preliminary examinations.

Reading the latest report, however, one is struck by the thoroughness and legal grounding of its deliberations. International justice cannot be provided on the cheap.

The ICC’s decision to close its preliminary examination of alleged war crimes by British forces in Iraq will add to a perception of double standards in international justice. If there is clear evidence that UK forces were responsible for numerous war crimes in Iraq, why no further investigation?

Last month, a report by Australian authorities alleged that its special forces killed 39 unarmed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. The ICC report will raise more questions about the role of western troops in countries they invade, in particular, what was ordered and concealed by whom.

Mike Phipps is a member of Brent Central CLP and editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at

Image source: U.S. Special Operations Forces in Iraq [Image 5 of 10], author: DVIDSHUB, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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