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Aniqah Choudhri

Shameful bill grants a free pass for British war crimes in Iraq

The 2003 invasion of Iraq prompted the UK's biggest ever public demonstration [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 September, 2020

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Comment: The 'Overseas Operations Bill' denies justice to victims of torture perpetrated by British armed forces, and contravenes international law, writes Aniqah Choudhri.
During the British occupation of Afghanistan, a woman named Bebe Hazrat was woken up in the middle of the night. British special forces climbed over the walls and rounded up her family, forcing them outside. Her family were unarmed. The British soldiers told her sons to put their hands in the air.  After they did, they open fire. Her sons were shot in front of her.


Speaking to 
BBC Panorama she describes the moment as one she'll never forget, "They had shot the boys in the head. They were placed next to each other and their brains had come out."

Later Major Chris Green, based near the village where Bebe lived, said "We had no intelligence to suggest that they were members of the Taliban. There was nothing to suggest that these were bad men doing bad things." Most of the allegations in the programme are based on evidence made by British soldiers and there are dozens of stories like Bebe's of civilians being shot in cold blood.

Or of civilians being tortured, or of children being killed.

The passing of the second reading of the Overseas Operation Bill on Wednesday means these people will likely never receive justice. The bill makes it far more difficult to prosecute overseas personnel for war crimes such as torture and murder if they took place more than five years ago. The implications of this are breathtaking. It is a bill that effectively grants immunity to those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, from prosecution. 

Last year, a joint investigation from the BBC and the Sunday Times obtained evidence that the British government and British Army had been involved in the cover up of the murder of civilians and children in Afghanistan and Iraq. The evidence was leaked from the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which had been opened to investigate war crimes in Iraq committed by British soldiers.

It is a bill that effectively grants immunity to those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, from prosecution

In 2017, IHAT was shut down when solicitor Phil Shiner was struck off for misconduct. It has been suggested that this was a political decision, as the organisation was shut down, rather than put under the charge of another person, and the incident has been used to discredit all the allegations made by the team. 

A former IHAT detective told BBC 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." 

This new bill now makes prosecution even more unlikely. Also worrying, is the lack of opposition it met on its passage through parliament. Not a single Conservative MP voted against it and even worse, most of the main opposition in parliament - the Labour Party - abstained. The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru voted against the bill but they were only joined by a measly 18 Labour MPs.

These MPs broke the party whip to vote against the bill and consequently, 
three of them were fired from the front bench. 

Read more: Muslim-British soldier's refusal to serve over UK-backed Yemen war is a heroic cry of conscience

This decision has been widely criticised by Labour members but is also a reflection of the party's role in the backdrop of these prosecutions, for it was the previous Labour government who made the decision to take Britain into an illegal war with Iraq in 2003. This led to the UK's biggest ever public demonstration, which saw over 1 million people protest in the anti-war movement in London. 

Despite the public outcry, the invasion went ahead anyway. This fact was raised by the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, during a heated exchange in parliament this week, who said the bill was in response to the "mess" created by the Labour government's "illegal wars". 

Let's pause to take stock for a moment: The reports of torture and other crimes against humanity have already been released to the public, but this bill aims to put the people who committed them above the law.

Torture is prohibited under several international treaties to which the UK is party. This includes the UN convention against torture and the European Convention on Human Rights. There was a widespread and vehement outcry against 
the government breaking international law over Brexit only under a month ago. Why has this bill, a piece of legislation that is an even bigger violation of international law and also human rights, not received the same outcry? 

Reports of torture and other crimes against humanity have already been released to the public, but this bill aims to put the people who committed them above the law

In an effort to contrast himself with Labour's previous leader, Keir Starmer has embraced a cloak of patriotism and the trappings that go with it. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, was often criticised for having a more international outlook. This may partly explain why Starmer whipped the party into abstaining from a vote that would make it harder to prosecute veterans, even in cases of torture.

To understand why this bill was allowed to pass so easily, it is also necessary to understand the current political and social climate in Britain. There has been much discussion since the last general election about being "proud to be British". The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has used British values and has manipulated
the exceptionalism of the British people to cover up a range of flaws in his approach to the coronavirus crisis.

The Labour Party, in response to this, has embraced an overtly patriotic image too.
 

This explains partly why no attempt was made to stop this bill from passing, but it certainly does not justify it. This is a dark moment for human rights and is particularly biting after the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, which began to address Britain's long and ugly history of imperialism and war crimes.

That it faced only the slightest impediment from both sides of the political house is perhaps one of the bitterest pills to swallow

As Labour MP Apsana Begum - one of the 18 rebel MPs - wrote in her Tribune article"A war crime doesn't stop being a war crime after five years."

But now, thanks to this bill, the victims of these crimes will have to face a legal system which is designed to never give them justice. That it faced only the slightest impediment from both sides of the political house is perhaps one of the bitterest pills to swallow.

Aniqah is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. Her work has appeared in The Independent, gal-dem and Exeunt Magazine. She also writes fiction and poetry and has been published in several anthologies.


Follow her on Twitter: @aniqahc 

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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