Some of Britain’s most senior military and political figures came a step closer to facing a war crimes inquiry today, as the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it would make a “preliminary examination” into claims of “systemic” abuse by British forces in Iraq.
The ground-breaking decision by Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the ICC, comes in response to a detailed dossier presented to the ICC in January. New evidence presented in the dossier, revealed exclusively in the Independent on Sunday earlier this year, included allegations of electrocution, mock executions, beatings, and sexual assault.
General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the British Army, former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, and former defence minister Adam Ingram, are among those named in the evidence submitted by Public Interest Lawyers (Pil) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). More than 400 individual cases are cited, representing “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
In a statement on its website, the ICC said: “The new information received by the Office alleges the responsibility of officials of the United Kingdom for war crimes involving systematic detainee abuse in Iraq from 2003 until 2008.” The ICC is to look in detail at the evidence to “ultimately determine whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation”.
Professor William Schabas, an expert on human rights law, based at Middlesex University, said: “This is a very positive development. It shows the matter is being taken very seriously in The Hague.”
He said that the likes of Mr Hoon, Mr Ingram and Sir Peter Wall “should be very worried” and “can’t assume that, because they are important people in the British establishment, that they are immune from the reach of the law”.
Cori Crider, Reprieve's strategy director, said: “Today’s announcement by the ICC should put the UK and other rich democracies on notice: fail to account properly for war crimes or torture and you could find your officials in the dock at the Hague one day.”
But in a statement yesterday, Attorney General Dominic Grieve said the Government "completely rejects" claims that British forces had been responsible for systemic abuse and pledged to do "whatever is necessary" to show any allegations were being dealt with within the British justice system. He described British soldiers as ”some of the best in the world” and said “the vast majority” of the armed forces “operate to the highest standards, in line with both domestic and international law.” Mr Grieve added: “I will provide the office of the prosecutor with whatever is necessary to demonstrate that British justice is following its proper course."
The Ministry of Defence did not respond to a request for comment tonight, but General Lord Dannatt, former chief of defence staff, told The Independent: “I fully support the principle that where credible accusations of misconduct by British soldiers are made then they should be investigated and the due process of law be applied to anyone proven to have done wrong.”
He added: “There have been isolated cases of misconduct in Iraq - the Baha Musa case was one example - but I am deeply sceptical that allegations of widespread misconduct and abuse will be upheld. I suspect mischief on the part of those seeking compensation.”
However, Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor for Human Rights Watch, said: “The British military justice system has failed for a decade to properly investigate criminal responsibility in the hundreds of allegations of war crimes in Iraq, especially of senior military and political commanders.”
He welcomed the ICC’s decision and said it “should be taken as a final warning by the UK authorities that they need to ensure proper independent criminal investigations, including of senior military and political commanders now”.
Phil Shiner, Public Interest Lawyers, said: “This is an unprecedented and extremely important breakthrough in a 10 year struggle for accountability for the criminality that was the UK’s detention and interrogation policies in Iraq. The prosecutor has recognised that the gravity threshold has been crossed and that accordingly she must investigate thoroughly whether war crimes have been committed under article 8 of the ICC stature, and if so who was responsible, in particular at the top of the chain of command including; politicians, senior civil servants, lawyers, Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of Defence Intelligence.”
Carla Ferstman, director of human rights charity Redress, said: “Until justice is done and seen to be done in all outstanding detainee abuse cases, the ICC most certainly has grounds to pursue allegations of systematic detainee abuse by UK troops in Iraq. The ICC has jurisdiction if a country is unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute.
“To date, the UK has failed to mount credible prosecutions which reflect the extent and gravity of the abuse allegations. In the notorious case of Baha Mousa, a hotel worker who was effectively tortured to death, a court martial judge blamed the weak evidence on a 'more or less obvious closing of the ranks', which prevented all the perpetrators who administered the blows from being identified. Criminal justice is not an optional policy objective but a clear obligation. We hope the renewed interest by the ICC Prosecutor will help ensure that justice is achieved, for the sake of the victims and for the sake of the rule of law.”
Labour MP Madeleine Moon, a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said: “If the ICC has genuine concerns then they must be investigated and I am pleased to see the Attorney General offering to provide all of the information needed by the Court. There is always the risk that the actions of a few, as we saw in the recent Camp bastion trophy photographs, can besmirch the reputation of the many fine disciplined personnel in our armed forces. The suggestion of ‘systemic abuse’ is alarming and one I find difficult to imagine.”
The ICC has previously admitted that there was a “reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the court had been committed, namely wilful killing and inhuman treatment” by British forces in Iraq. Yet at that time, in 2006, prosecutors cited the low number of cases as a reason for not mounting an investigation. The years since have seen hundreds of cases emerge, and the decision marks another step along a process which could result in British politicians and generals being put in the dock on war-crimes charges, if the ICC finds sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation under Article 15 of the Rome Statute.