The International Criminal Court: British Soldiers Committed War Crimes in Iraq

On 9 December 2020, the International Criminal Court (ICC) released its report on British war crimes in Iraq. This is one of its conclusions: “In terms of subject-matter jurisdiction, the preliminary examination has shown that there is a reasonable basis to believe that various forms of abuse were committed by members of British forces against Iraqi civilians in detention. This includes the war crimes of murder, torture, rape and/or other forms of sexual violence, and forms of mistreatment amounting to inhumane and cruel treatment or outrages against personal dignity”. According to the report, hundreds of Iraqi prisoners were abused by British soldiers between 2003 and 2009, and at least seven of those were illegally killed while in British custody.

Despite these findings, the ICC has decided not to take action against the British government, because it claims not to have been able to determine whether the government acted to shield soldiers from prosecution. This is a highly dubious claim, given that an investigation by BBC Panorama in 2019 “found evidence the state had covered up killings of civilians by UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan”. The Panorama investigation revealed that detectives from the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which investigated alleged British war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, uncovered evidence of widespread abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers in 2003.

In one case, IHAT detectives gathered statements from British soldiers and army staff that described how two Iraqi prisoners were tortured at a British army base before they were found dead with bags tied over their heads. In 2019, British military prosecutors decided that no one would be prosecuted in connection with these deaths. Former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald described this decision as “staggering”, as “the conclusion begins to become rather obvious, that prior to their deaths, it's overwhelmingly likely that these men were physically abused”. IHAT was shut down by the government in 2017, and none of its investigations resulted in a single prosecution. One IHAT detective told Panorama: “The Ministry of Defence had no intention of prosecuting any soldier of whatever rank he was unless it was absolutely necessary, and they couldn't wriggle their way out of it”.

It should be noted that in 2019, the US denied visas to ICC officials in retaliation for the court investigating alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan, and threatened to impose sanctions on the court if it continued its investigation or opened up investigations into alleged war crimes by US allies, specifically Israel. In September 2020, the US followed through on its threat and imposed sanctions on ICC officials, including chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. This may have played a role in why the ICC decided not to take action against the British government.

These revelations of British war crimes in Iraq come just after it was revealed that Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, which included slitting the throats of children. As with the British war crimes outlined in the ICC report, none of the Australian war crimes occurred during ‘the heat of battle’, but rather when the victims were completely defenceless. This was also true of the notorious abuses carried out by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. An illustrative example of one such British war crime in Iraq is described in the ICC report (readers should be warned that the details are extremely graphic):

“According to the detailed account of one [Iraqi] victim, PIL 16, the violence started when he entered a room where one British soldier “was performing oral sex on” another soldier. PIL 16 was allegedly forced to the floor under the threat of a knife, brutally undressed, and raped by the two soldiers in turn. After the rape, the victim alleges that the soldiers started to punch him and cut his arms with the knife. He was then taken to the hospital and subsequently released. PIL 16 complained that his anus bled for a week and that he suffered from panic attacks as a result of the incident”.

The ICC report concludes that the “information available provides a reasonable basis to believe” that this particular incident occurred, as well as at least six other incidents involving sexual violence against prisoners.

The report also details an incident involving the torture of children:

“[T]he information available indicates that members of UK armed forces committed the war crime of torture and inhuman/cruel treatment against at least 4 Iraqis detained at the margins of a riot in Al-Amarah in April 2004. Specifically, the victims, including at least two children, are alleged to have been subjected to prolonged beating inflicted with particular cruelty. On 12 February 2006, the now-defunct UK newspaper ‘News of the World’ released still images from a video footage reportedly provided by a whistle-blower depicting British soldiers assaulting Iraqi civilians in April 2004 in Al-Amarah, Iraq. The MoD confirmed it had opened an urgent Royal Military Police (“RMP”) investigation into the conduct shown in the videotape. It appeared that four Iraqi civilians, including at least two teenagers, had been snatched from a rioting crowd and brought inside a military compound where they were assaulted. 

“According to the ‘News of the World’ report, the video footage depicted soldiers “beating [the captured teenagers] senseless with vicious blows from batons, boots and fists” before “what appears to be an officer” delivered a “full-force kick in the genitals of a cringing lad pinned to the ground” and a cameraman delivered a “commentary urging his mates on…”. According to the UK army press release on the incident, the video footage shows an alleged kick to the body of a deceased Iraqi civilian. Although no official version of the video has been published to date, the Office reviewed open source footage available online with the stamp ‘News of the World’ that was consistent with the details in the media report”.

For evidentiary purposes, footage of this incident is available here, and it goes without saying that it is extremely disturbing:

You can read the full ICC report here.