Techniques used by the British forces in Iraq include the use of sensory deprivation; a wide range of physical assault, including beating, burning and electrocution or electric shocks; as well as wide-ranging sexual assault and humiliation.
“My hands were still cuffed behind my back. They made me sit in a kneeling position with my head pushed downwards and then they started to beat me. They beat me on my face, my back and stomach. They then kicked me really hard in my mouth … While they were beating me, I could hear the voice of my father who was shouting to them “please don’t kill my son.” My mother was screaming, and I could still hear the wives and children. At this point I was bleeding a lot because of the damage to my mouth”.
BRUSSELS – This testimony and hundreds of others have been reproduced in a devastating dossier on the abuses allegedly committed by British forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 and submitted earlier this month by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Public Interest Lawyers U.K. to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
According to the report, recurring techniques used by the British forces in Iraq include: hooding of detainees; the use of sensory deprivation and isolation; sleep deprivation; food and water deprivation; the use of prolonged stress positions; a wide range of physical assault, including beating, burning and electrocution or electric shocks; both direct and implied threats to the health and safety of the detainee or friends and family; cultural and religious humiliation; as well as wide-ranging sexual assault and humiliation.
The dossier, “Responsibility of U.K. Officials for War Crimes Involving Systematic Detainee Abuse in Iraq from 2003-2008,” is the most detailed report yet to be submitted to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor on abuses allegedly committed by British forces in Iraq. With 250 pages of factual and legal analysis, ECCHR and PIL conclude that the systematic abuse against detainees during the U.K.’s presence in Iraq meets the threshold of war crimes.
Article 8 of the ICC statute forbids torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of civilians in armed conflicts and considers them as war crimes. The ICC has jurisdiction over the British troops in Iraq, because the alleged abuses were committed by nationals of a state that has accepted the court’s jurisdiction. The U.K. ratified the ICC statute on Oct. 4, 2001.
The human rights lawyers have drawn on the cases of more than 400 former detainees from Iraq who gave testimonies about their mistreatment and torture under British custody. Eighty-five representative cases were then chosen for an in-depth analysis, which alone present more than 2,000 separate allegations, occurring from 2003 to 2008.
Widespread and systematic abuse
According to the lawyers, these cases demonstrate a clear pattern of the same abusive “conditioning” and “interrogation” techniques being used in all detention facilities over the whole period that U.K. personnel were in Iraq and represent “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The report emphasizes not only the reality of systematic torture in Iraq under British custody, but also the impunity attached to it as a result of the unwillingness of the U.K. to prosecute. The lawyers are convinced that some at the highest level of the British army and the political system were among “those who bear the greatest responsibility” for alleged war crimes. U.K. military commanders “knew or should have known” that forces under their control “were committing or about to commit war crimes.” And they conclude that “civilian superiors knew or consciously disregarded information at their disposal, which clearly indicated that the U.K. services personnel were committing war crimes in Iraq.”
General Sir Peter Wall, head of the army, former Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, and former defense minister and former Scottish MP Adam Ingram are among those named in the 250-page dossier.
The British government reacted by saying that all allegations of abuse had already been examined or were being examined in Britain. Foreign Secretary William Hague, quoted by the BBC, said that “there have been some cases of abuse that have been acknowledged and apologies and compensation have been paid appropriately.”
He added that the government “has always been clear and the armed forces have been clear that they absolutely reject allegations of systematic abuses by the British armed forces.”
But human rights lawyer Phil Shiner from Public Interest Lawyers, said his firm and the ECCHR were forced to act, as U.K. authorities were unwilling to. He claimed the Iraq historical allegations team set up by the Ministry of Defense to investigate any wrong-doing produced little in four years.
Shiner said: “And I am sure that the plan, as it was in Northern Ireland, is to drag it out and kick it in the long grass and make sure that if it ever comes out, those responsible are long since dead and the British [public] probably no longer care. That’s not good enough.”
The speed with which Hague responded to the report reflects the concern of the U.K. government over the potential damage to Britain’s reputation. Even 11 years on, the political sensitivity of the U.K.’s involvement makes the prospect of an ICC inquiry explosive.
The U.K. itself does not hesitate in criticizing other states about their human rights records – like it did in the past with Myanmar or Zimbabwe – so it would not look good if it were found guilty of abuses. Second, an external investigation by an international court would spark concern within the Ministry of Defense, since this would mean that the ICC recognizes the numerous shortcomings of the British investigation. And a failure to enforce compliance with the rules of war would be a most serious allegation for the British military to face.
But unless compliance is enforced robustly from the top down, similar problems risk continually arising. Such treatment and torture by British armed forces is not a new phenomenon, but date back to counter-insurgency operations in British colonies such a Kenya. Specific stealth torture techniques were also often used by English forces in Northern Ireland. In 1972, a Parliamentary Committee chaired by Lord Parker exposed the long U.K. legacy of using such torture techniques.
After the publication of the Parker report, then Prime Minister Ted Heath proclaimed that the techniques would never be used in future interrogation. Despite public commitments and widespread recognition of the impropriety and illegality of the techniques, they were not only re-introduced in Iraq, but they were used extensively.
In 2006, the ICC declined to open a formal investigation into U.K. military abuses in Iraq. After preliminary fact-finding, the prosecutor concluded that “there was a reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the court have been committed, namely willful killing and inhuman treatment.” However, the prosecutor determined that the gravity threshold had not been met; thus preventing admissibility before the court. But he also decided that “this conclusion can be reconsidered in the light of new facts or evidence.”
Eight years later, the lawyers are considering hundreds of new cases have emerged, and there is fresh evidence not available in 2006. They believe there is now enough evidence to pass the tests for a ICC inquiry: that there was systematic rather than isolated abuse; that the scale of the complaints cleared the “gravity” threshold; and proceedings within the U.K. have been lacking in number and in quality. U.K. officials have been all too reluctant to prosecute or investigate high ranking officials.
“The International Criminal Court in the Hague is the last resort for victims of torture and mistreatment to achieve justice,” stated Wolfgang Kaleck from the ECCHR. “Double standards in international criminal justice must end. War crimes and other severe violations of human rights must be investigated and prosecuted, regardless of whether they are committed by the most powerful.”