The near total disregard for such complaints suggests the British authorities should not be given such responsibilities

Mayer Wakefield


(Photo: Alisdare Hickson/flickr/cc)


Another month, another slap in the face for those seeking justice against alleged war crimes by British soldiers in Iraq. With the Overseas Operations Bill passing a second reading in the House of Commons in November, now the International Criminal Court has decided to shut down its long-drawn out investigation into the conduct of British servicemen in the country between 2003 and 2008.

Confusingly, a statement accompanying the decision from the ICC’s Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, 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’.

Bensouda’s preliminary examination also ‘found that the initial response of the British army in theatre at the time of the alleged offences was inadequate and vitiated by a lack of a genuine effort to carry out relevant investigations independently or impartially’.

Yet despite this almost entirely condemnatory statement the ICC has decided to close the investigation because it can only ‘exercise its own competence in a criminal case’ when it finds that a state is ‘unable or unwilling’ to act against alleged atrocities. The report found that given ‘the scope of the allegations examined by Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT)’ that the British authorities had not attempted to block investigations.

This decision makes a travesty of international law by effectively allowing the British government to police its own war crimes. Out of the thousands of allegations made against UK soldiers between 2003 and 2009 only one was found to have a case to answer. This near total disregard for such complaints suggests the British authorities should not be given such responsibilities and that a robust role for bodies like the ICC is essential, making this outcome even more troublesome.

The pressure put on the ICC prosecutor by the US is also a factor here. If the accusations are to be believed, yet again the major imperialist powers are permitted to get away with murder, torture and rape committed during their catastrophic wars and occupations. We only have to look at past cases and the shocking example of the Australian troops in Afghanistan to be sceptical about denials of war crimes. In any case, the only way to find out is to allow prosecutions where there is the required evidence to decide.

Another question that must be raised is how the Overseas Operations Bill will affect future potential cases. The Bill, which it is claimed will ‘put the UK at odds with the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court (ICC)’ is a deliberate attempt to shield British soldiers from any future inquiries similar to that of IHAT. Will we see the ICC take action in future if the Overseas Operations Bill is passed into law and similar crimes to those alleged are committed? We shouldn’t hold our breath.

Bensouda’s statement concludes by saying that her decision ‘might be met with dismay and disappointment by some stakeholders or perceived as an endorsement of the UK’s approach by others’. For those in power and occupying armed forces it is not so much an endorsement as a perpetual license to kill and torture. As anti-war campaigners it is difficult to feel anything other than anger and frustration at yet another denial of justice to the Iraqi people.

11 Dec 2020

Sign Up