BRITISH PACIFISTS SAY they are sad but not surprised by the news that armed forces police have closed all investigations into alleged war crimes by British forces personnel in Iraq.

In a written statement on 18 October, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that the Service Police Legacy Investigations (SPLI) has “officially closed its doors”, bringing no prosecutions despite investigating 1,291 cases.

Mr. Wallace added that he wanted to “draw a line under the legacy of our operations in Iraq”, after offering a brief apology that certain investigations in Iraq had failed to collect required evidence. But the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) said that it made a mockery of justice to allow the armed forces to police themselves.

The news comes less than a year after the International Criminal Court (ICC) reported that there was “a reasonable basis” to believe that members of the British armed forces committed war crimes including “wilful killing, torture, inhuman/cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and/or other forms of sexual violence.” The ICC did not launch prosecutions because investigations were still underway in the UK.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) said that the news raises wider questions about military power, given that the armed forces are the only institutions in the UK that are allowed to run their own criminal courts, as well as maintaining their own police forces.

The decision to drop investigations follows a sustained campaign which claimed that British veterans are being “dragged through the courts”. The PPU points out that in reality, UK armed forces personnel are almost never prosecuted for war-related crimes. On the rare occasions when this does happen, it is only junior personnel who are involved, rather than military leaders.

This is the second time this week that the armed forces’ ability to police themselves has come under the spotlight. On Monday 18 October, it was revealed that one in every 29 young women aged 16 or 17 in the military has reported being raped or sexually assaulted. The forces are allowed to deal with such reports through their own police and court system.

Symon Hill, Campaigns Manager of the Peace Pledge Union, said: “Ben Wallace wants to ‘draw a line’ under the Iraq war. There can be no ‘drawing a line’ for innocent Iraqi people who suffered in the invasion or for the relatives of British troops who died so needlessly. Pain and injustice cannot so easily be forgotten.

“In effect, the armed forces are placed outside the law, allowed to police themselves, even running their own criminal trials. Bungled and delayed investigations have seen enquiries abandoned, victims denied justice and some suspects and witnesses kept waiting for years. The International Criminal Court found a ‘reasonable basis’ for believing that a whole series of war crimes were committed by British troops in Iraq, but the armed forces’ own police are unsurprisingly protecting the institution of which they are part.”

On 9 December 2020, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, reported that “The Office has previously found, and today 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… The Office has identified a confined number of incidents to reach this determination which, while not exhaustive, appear to correspond to the most serious allegations of violence against persons in UK custody.”

Figures on young women aged 16 or 17 in the UK armed forces who have made formal reports of being raped or sexually assaulted were given by the Ministry of Defence, in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act by the Child Rights International Network. The UK government has rejected advice from the Defence Select Committee to include provision in this year’s Armed Forces Bill to remove all cases involving rape or sexual assault to civilian courts.

* Read the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence here.

* Read the data on sexual assault in the UK armed forces here.

* Read Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda, on the conclusion of the preliminary examination of the situation in Iraq/United Kingdom here.

* Source: Peace Pledge Union