Claims that British soldiers carried out abuses during the Iraq war cannot be rejected out of hand

It was the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib that brought abuse, committed by Americans, to the world’s attention

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The International Criminal Court (ICC) is potentially one of the great achievements of modern times. Until now, in the history of our species, it was only the relatively petty crimes of individuals and gangs that came to judgment. Now, for the first time, the far worse crimes of nation states could come under the legal microscope and those responsible, however great their prestige, risk going to jail. It was one of the most creative outcomes of the uniquely brutish 20th century.

Yet it is true, as Africans lament, that until now the ICC’s prosecutions have been targeted exclusively at African leaders and warlords. That is partly because much of Africa is desperately ill-governed, even parts of it which claim to be democracies, but it is also true that the relative diplomatic weakness and disunity of the continent make it easy game.

But now the court is being urged to set its sights much higher and take aim at officials in Tony Blair’s government who bear the ultimate responsibility for abuses allegedly committed by British soldiers in Iraq after the invasion of March 2003. Two respected bodies, Public Interest Lawyers and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, have lodged complaints with the ICC in cases affecting more than 400 Iraqi detainees.

British soldiers, they claim, committed abuses that included the “hooding” of prisoners, burning, electric shocks, threats to kill, religious and cultural humiliation, sexual assault, mock executions, and threats of rape and torture. The allegations run into the thousands, and the plaintiffs claim they amount to war crimes.

It was the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib that brought abuse of this kind, committed by Americans, to the world’s attention. Donald Rumsfeld, then the US Secretary of Defence, wasted no time in absolving himself and his department of all responsibility. And of course the US is not signed up to the ICC, so the buck went no further. Similar abuse allegedly carried out by British soldiers in Iraq has received far less attention, with the single exception of Corporal Donald Payne, jailed for one year in 2007 for the inhuman treatment of Iraqi civilians.

The immediate and frosty rejection of these new claims by the Ministry of Defence is no surprise. The Ministry’s spokesman made two points: that the allegations are “under thorough investigation or have been dealt with”; and that any inhuman treatment uncovered was not, as is alleged, systematic – not committed on the orders or with the implicit endorsement of superiors. As Mr Rumsfeld insisted, the buck stops with the grunts. 

Of course it is embarrassing for the likes of Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary at the time, and Adam Ingram, the former armed forces minister, to find themselves in the line of fire like this; President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, arraigned by the ICC for the death of political opponents during an election campaign, feels the same. But if Britain supports the aims and actions of the ICC, to exculpate British officials in advance would be deeply hypocritical. The Iraq war was a shameful and unjustified episode. If the ICC finds there is enough evidence to launch a prosecution for war crimes against senior former British officials, those officials must face the music. Any other course would further damage the court’s prestige.

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