UK

Official figures reveal only one prosecution of UK armed forces personnel for war crimes overseas since 2001

Official figures reveal only one prosecution of UK armed forces personnel for war crimes overseas since 2001

December 2020

Official figures released by the Ministry of Defence to Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights reveal that since 2001 there has only been one prosecution of UK armed forces personnel for war crimes overseas.

Despite lengthy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and evidence of serious abuses by UK service personnel against local civilians, data supplied to Ceasefire under the Freedom of Information Act show that only one war crimes prosecution has been conducted, in over nearly two decades, under the International Criminal Court Act 2001, which brought within UK law those offences of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the ICC. No prosecutions against UK personnel were brought under either the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which first criminalized war crimes in UK law, or under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which criminalizes torture.

‘These figures contradict the argument by defence ministers that the Overseas Operations Bill, currently going through Parliament, is required to put an end to “vexatious prosecutions” for war crimes,’ said Rose Burke, Policy Officer at Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. ‘In reality, there have been none. There should no longer be any doubt that war crimes and torture, along with sexual crimes, should now be exempted from the Bill’s “triple lock” on prosecutions after five years.’

The sole war crimes prosecution relates to the killing of Mr Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian from Basra, which later formed the subject of a judicial inquiry. Three members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were charged, and one convicted in 2007, of inhumane treatment as a war crime under the International Criminal Court Act 2001. An autopsy on Mr Mousa’s body recorded 93 separate injuries.

The MoD figures show that, in addition to the one war crimes prosecution, five prosecutions were conducted for other offences allegedly committed against members of the local population in Iraq (this includes one in relation to the Baha Mousa case) and nine for other offences against the local population in Afghanistan.

In relation to military operations in Iraq:

  • Five prosecutions in total were conducted, in which a total of 25 defendants were charged, and six convicted at court martial. This includes the sole war crimes prosecution.
  • In total seven members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were tried for the killing of Mr Mousa, the most senior being a colonel. Three were charged with the war crime of inhumane treatment, and five were charged with other offences. All were acquitted except Cpl Donald Payne who was convicted of inhumane treatment but acquitted of manslaughter.
  • It is understood that the convictions listed under ‘other offences committed against the local population’ include those of three members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who were given custodial sentences of up to two years in 2005 after photographs emerged of them abusing Iraqi civilians at Camp Bread Basket, in Basra in 2003.

In relation to military operations in Afghanistan:

  • Nine prosecutions in total were conducted, with a total of 16 defendants
  • Of those 16, none faced prosecution for war crimes or crimes under the International Criminal Court Act 2001, but were prosecuted for ‘other offences against the local population’. Nine convictions were secured at court martial.
  • The killing of a wounded Taliban fighter, who was hors de combat, in Helmand province in September 2011 led to the prosecution of three members of the Royal Marines, of whom two were acquitted. Sgt Alexander Blackman was convicted at court martial of murder in 2013, reduced on appeal to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Despite being recorded at the time of the killing as saying ‘I just broke the Geneva Convention’, he was never charged with a war crime.

It emerged in June that the Service Prosecuting Authority had closed all but one of the remaining legacy investigations from Iraq and that any further prosecutions were now unlikely.

The sole prosecution and conviction for a war crime committed in UK overseas military operations demonstrates that the Overseas Operations Bill, which includes a ‘presumption against prosecution’ after five years for alleged war crimes committed by British troops abroad, is fundamentally misguided.

Although there have been few prosecutions, the MoD has approved payments totalling £20 million to settle over 300 cases of alleged violations committed by UK service personnel in Iraq alone, including in relation to conduct which falls within the definition of war crimes. The Overseas Operations Bill introduces an absolute long-stop of six years on claims against the MoD from either service personnel or civilians who have suffered harm.

‘With the release of these figures, the real purpose of the Overseas Operations Bill has now become obvious. It is not to protect UK armed forces from prosecution, but to shield the government from liability,’ said Mark Lattimer, Ceasefire’s Director. ‘It should be renamed the MoD protection bill.’

The new data form a more comprehensive account than the one given to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on 5 October by Damian Parmenter, Director of Defence and Security Industrial Strategy at the MoD, and follow a review of the historic prosecutions before the establishment of the Service Prosecuting Authority in 2009. Ceasefire wrote last week to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court to provide her with the latest figures.

This information comes as the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has announced the closure of her preliminary examination of the UK’s record in Iraq. The Prosecutor found that there was a reasonable basis to believe that UK servicemen committed war crimes including wilful killing/murder, torture and inhuman/cruel treatment, but declined to pursue a full investigation because it was not shown that the UK had acted to shield perpetrators from justice.

Notes for editors:

  1. The updated MoD response to Ceasefire’s FOI request is available here.
  2. Ceasefire’s briefing on the Overseas Operations Bill is available here. Ceasefire argues that the bill will not only limit accountability for abuses by UK armed forces but will also remove avenues for redress for civilian victims, violating the UK’s legal obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.
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UK Overseas Operations Bill violates civilian rights

September 2020

Draft legislation in the UK will restrict the rights of civilian war victims to claim compensation for the harm they have suffered, further marginalising some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

The Overseas Operations Bill, which will be debated in Parliament on September 23rd, not only creates a de facto statute of limitations for crimes committed by the UK’s armed forces overseas, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it also creates an absolute statute of limitations or ‘longstop’ of six years for civil claims and claims under the Human Rights Act brought against the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

For years, successive UK Defence Secretaries have sought to introduce legislation which they claim will prevent ‘vexatious claims’ against the MoD, and limit the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to UK military operations overseas. Defence ministers have repeatedly stated that the law of armed conflict- not human rights law- is the appropriate and applicable law to military operations. Yet in the Government’s attempt to put IHL at the fore, they have introduced a Bill which would violate some of the fundamental principles of IHL.

The prohibitions of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide have long been considered peremptory norms of international law. The special status of these jus cogens norms means that statutes of limitations for prosecution cannot be applied to them- as confirmed in the Rome Statute, and the right to remedy for victims of these norms cannot be restricted.

In fact, there has been a growing recognition of the individual right to reparation for civilian harm over the past two decades. The USA’s Department of Defense, for example, is currently developing a comprehensive policy addressing civilian casualties resulting from US military operations. Yet despite claiming to be a global leader in the respect of human rights and humanitarian law, it appears the UK is going backwards.

The Overseas Operations Bill discriminates against civilians who have been subjected to rights violations overseas, who will be left with no avenue to claim reparation for the harm they have suffered after six years. There are many reasons why civilians in countries where the UK has recently conducted military operations- like Iraq and Afghanistan- may not be able to make a claim within six years. In Afghanistan, for example, the country remains in a state of armed conflict up to this day, with fraught peace negotiations ongoing. The plight of many civilians who have been subjected to decades of warfare, is compounded by practical issues such as language barriers and lack of awareness of the UK’s legal systems.

Legislation which would introduce a de facto statute of limitations for war crimes and restrict the right of civilians to reparation for violations of IHL, goes against the values at the core of IHL, as well as who the UK claims to be as a country. Rather than causing further harm to civilians overseas, the UK should introduce a policy on reparations for civilian harm, which would allow civilians to access their rights, and prevent the UK from violating international law.

For more information on the Overseas Operations Bill and how it violates the UK’s legal obligations, see CEASEFIRE’s briefing.

See also CEASEFIRE’s submission to the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which highlights the impact of the civil litigation longstop on the right to reparation for victims of IHL violations.

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UK overseas operations bill: ‘Suppress the violations, not those who expose them’

March 2020

Described by defence ministers as an attack on ‘lawfare’, the UK government today introduced a new bill creating limits on accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights committed by UK armed forces overseas. CEASEFIRE believes the proposals undermine the UK’s international obligations to suppress war crimes and the crime of torture.

‘Defence ministers have set up the straw man of the “vexatious lawyer” to justify limiting accountability for war crimes,’ said Mark Lattimer, CEASEFIRE’s director. ‘But the records of UK public inquiries, court judgments and civil settlements all demonstrate that the cases of abuse are real and serious. The Ministry of Defence should be supporting the armed services to stop violations, not going after those working to expose them.’

To understand the UK’s record in Iraq, read CEASEFIRE’s briefing ‘Seven myths about UK military abuses against civilians in Iraq.

The new bill:

  • creates a statutory presumption against prosecution of current or former service personnel for alleged offences committed more than five years ago while deployed abroad;
  • requires courts to take into account the ‘operational context’ when extending normal time limits for civil claims for personal injury and/or death in connection with military operations overseas;
  • imposes an absolute limit or ‘longstop’ of six years on bringing claims for personal injury and/or death in connection with military operations overseas;
  • requires governments to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to future overseas operations.

Under the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention against Torture and under human rights law the UK is obliged to investigate violations of the laws of war and cases of torture and to suppress them. By legislating to limit accountability for such violations – potentially contributing both to impunity and to a lack of redress – the UK will likely be in breach of its obligations under international law.

Certain sexual offences are excluded from the provisions in the bill limiting criminal prosecutions, but not other serious offences – including murder and torture. The measures may also create incentives to prolong or obstruct investigations in order to benefit from the new time limits.

‘Most of the cases of proven and alleged violations in Iraq were perpetrated against civilians – the very people UK armed forces were mandated to protect,’ added Mr Lattimer. ‘Introducing incentives not to undertake genuine investigations into cases of abuse will obstruct justice for civilian victims, both now and in the future.’

Notes for editors: The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was published on 18 March 2020 and is available here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0117/20117.pdf

For further information or for comment, please contact e-mail: contact@ceasefire.org or call Tel: 07970 651342.

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Ending enforced disappearance: from Baghdad to Belfast

January 2018

Pooling international best practice to support Iraq in ending enforced disappearances was the theme of a combined study and advocacy tour to Belfast and London undertaken by leading Iraqi MPs last month, organized by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights in partnership with the Institute for International Law and Human Rights.

Iraq has faced the recurring problem of enforced disappearances at many times in its recent history, and all Iraq’s communities have been affected. Thousands of people remain missing, even just from the latest phase of the conflict. In 2010 Iraq acceded to the International Convention on Enforced Disappearance but it has yet to enact any implementing legislation.

Following an agreement with the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Parliament, Ceasefire and IILHR have provided technical assistance in reviewing draft legislation in line with international standards.

In December, key members and officials of the Iraqi Human Rights Committee responsible for the bill came to London and Belfast to hold discussions with academics specializing in transitional justice from the School of African and Oriental Studies – University of London, Queen’s University Belfast, MPs and Peers, UK Foreign Office officials, relevant NGOs and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (NI).

Photo caption: MPs from the Iraqi delegation meet in Belfast with Ceasefire and IILHR staff and the lead forensic investigator for the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains (December 2017)

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