Can Europe Make It?

Australia confronts its war crimes in Afghanistan: Britain should do the same

The UK’s Overseas Operations Bill is a symbol of a Trumpian world that is coming to an end.

Sonya Sceats
23 November 2020, 11.36am
Press release for a report on war crimes in Iraq referred to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor in the Hague in 2004.
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Johnny Green/PA. All rights reserved.

As the sun sets on Donald Trump’s presidency, Australia’s pursuit of justice for its atrocities in Afghanistan is a sign of changing winds on war crimes among Britain’s closest military allies. Boris Johnson continues to support impunity for British troops accused of killing sprees and other abuses in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it is not too late for him to change course.

Gruesome abuses have occurred on both sides of the Afghanistan war, including by the US and its allies. The US military and the CIA stand accused of unlawful killings and torture in the country and at CIA ‘black sites’ in Lithuania, Poland and Romania where detainees from the conflict were taken. In 2009, two German ministers and the army chief of staff were forced to resign for covering up civilian Afghan casualties from a botched air raid ordered by a German commander. Canada stands accused of knowingly handing detainees over for torture by Afghan authorities.

Now the International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating evidence of international crimes committed during the conflict not only by the Taliban but also by the US and its allies. Trump retaliated with an executive order that led to asset freezes and travel bans on ICC personnel. He had already revealed his contempt for military justice by pardoning American soldiers accused of war crimes, including one who had been convicted. But Trump is yesterday’s man. Joe Biden will surely revoke the executive order and end these immoral pardons. He is emphatic that the CIA torture programme was a “mistake” that must not be repeated.

As an Australian working with survivors of torture who have sought safety in the UK from countries including Afghanistan, I am proud to see Australia leading the way by confronting evidence of its war crimes. General Angus Campbell, chief of the defence force, has for years encouraged investigation of disclosures by traumatised Australian soldiers about special forces’ soldiers, consumed with ‘blood lust’, who tortured, shot and slit the throats of Afghan civilians, including children. Now he has shared with the world a redacted version of the report from a judge-led inquiry that ensued. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also to be applauded for his decision to “respect the rule of law” by creating a special investigator to drive prosecutions.

The contrast with Britain

The contrast with Britain is shameful. Ministers have abandoned David Cameron’s promise of a judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in torture during the so-called “war on terror” and they continue to cover up and pursue impunity for alleged British war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to detectives involved in the investigations, British soldiers fabricated evidence and ‘closed ranks’ and the investigations were shut down prematurely for political reasons. The Defence Secretary was recently ordered by the High Court to explain his failure to disclose a cache of emails revealing SAS commander concerns about “massacres” in Afghanistan.

Boris Johnson is pushing through the Overseas Operations Bill… designed to block prosecutions and civil claims relating to abuses committed by British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is pushing through a Bill (the Overseas Operations Bill) designed to block prosecutions and civil claims relating to abuses committed by British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. A proposed statutory presumption against prosecution after five years for crimes, except sexual offences, committed abroad has been condemned by survivors of torture, including my colleague Kolbassia Haoussou who serves as a survivor champion of the UK’s flagship Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, senior British military, political and legal figures, Britain’s most senior military judge and Bishops, including the Bishop to the Armed Forces.

Even Donald Trump did not go as far as legislating de facto impunity for international crimes. The end of his presidency marks a turning of the tide against attacks on the rule of law and other authoritarian impulses he encouraged in other leaders, including Boris Johnson. Johnson now famously looks to Australia as a model for British policy. He should steer clear of Australia’s inhumane asylum policy, but these efforts to deliver accountability for war crimes are worthy of emulation.

The Australian inquiry is said to have turned up evidence of British war crimes. As one special forces’ informant told a review commissioned by Campbell, “Whatever we do, though, I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse. I've watched our young guys stand by and hero worship what they were doing, salivating at how the US were torturing people.”

Even Donald Trump did not go as far as legislating de facto impunity for international crimes.

Johnson can begin to live up to the positive example set by Australia by ensuring this evidence is collected and acted upon in line with Britain’s international legal obligations. He should also scrap barriers to justice in the Overseas Operations Bill, including by removing the proposed statutory presumption against prosecution, as the UK’s parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has recommended.

The Overseas Operations Bill is a symbol of a Trumpian world that is coming to an end. As he removes advisors associated with that world and resets his premiership, Johnson should reflect on the enormous damage new legislation would cause to the international image of Britain, and opt instead to champion principles of international justice which Britain helped to forge.

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