UK cannot shirk accountability for war crimes

As predicted, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence has chosen to play down the BBC report last week that revealed evidence of war crimes by members of the UK's elite Special Air Service in Afghanistan.

Military reports obtained during the course of the four-year investigation by the BBC's Panorama team suggest that one SAS unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in a single six-month tour.

By alleging that prior investigations into the conduct of UK forces in Afghanistan found insufficient evidence to bring charges, the British government again hopes to turn a blind eye to the issue. Something it did in 2004, 2008 and 2019 when reports emerged of UK forces executing civilians in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

In a statement to the BBC last week, the MOD said, "The UK armed forces served with courage and professionalism in Afghanistan and we will always hold them to the highest standards." The government even published a document "UK Approach to Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict" in 2020 that claimed it was strengthening accountability.

Yet internal emails show that the top-level special forces officers were aware of the concerns over the "deliberate killings of individuals even after they have been restrained" and the "fabrication of evidence to suggest a lawful killing in self-defense", but they failed to report these to the military police.

In 2014, a Royal Military Police-led investigation was launched into 675 allegations relating to the UK's detention operations in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2013 that were received from 159 individuals. However, the investigations were discontinued in 2019 amid allegations of obstruction by the MOD, which claimed that no evidence of any criminality had been found. The MOD cannot be the player and the referee at the same time. There should be an independent probe by the International Criminal Court to determine if war crimes have been committed.

The BBC report is the latest in a long series of disclosures over the years highlighting that the "systematic abuse" and killing of civilians in Afghanistan by UK armed forces is not just a marginal cost of "soldiers-are-soldiers" but a consequence of the refusal to act by the UK military and government.

After operations in Iraq and Afghanistan gave rise to "an unprecedented number of legal claims", the UK government introduced the Overseas Operations Bill, which further puts the military above the law by acting as a statute of limitation on war crimes, making it virtually impossible to prosecute the perpetrators five years after the offense happened.

The shame and culpability that the UK government now shares after the BBC report is a damning indictment of the UK's "high standards".