Britain faces international war crimes trial

Reckoning: The International Criminal Court says it takes the findings “very seriously”. © Getty

Is Britain’s military a force for good or evil in the world? A year-long probe has uncovered evidence that the British Government covered up atrocities by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For many decades, the British military has maintained an enviable reputation, upholding law and order around the globe.

But, following dramatic revelations in The Sunday Times this weekend, that reputation may soon lie in tatters.

A year-long investigation by the paper and the BBC’s Panorama found that two inquiries into “chilling” allegations of war crimes by British troops were closed down by former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in 2017, before they reached trial.

It is alleged that British soldiers beat, tortured, sexually assaulted and killed detainees at a British base in Basra, Iraq, in 2003. The Ministry of Defence has acknowledged that two men who died were innocent civilians.

The inquiries also looked into the case of an SAS soldier, who allegedly shot three children and a young man dead in their home while they were drinking tea in October 2012. Neither the soldier nor his senior officers faced legal action.

“It’s absolutely reprehensible for politicians to take it upon themselves to interfere in investigations into crimes this serious, and to close those investigations down before they’re complete,” said Lord Macdonald, a former Director of Public Prosecutions.

Now that the evidence is coming to light, Britain could be tried in the International Criminal Court. It would be the first time the body has taken action against any UK nationals for war crimes.

But it would not be Britain’s first war crime: the country’s history is scattered with them.

There are the concentration camps of the Boer war, in which over 40,000 South Africans died. There is also Britain’s use of chemical weapons, including chlorine and mustard gas, in World War One, and the massacre of villagers in Malaya in 1948.

But in the awful business of war, very few nations come out untarnished.

American soldiers have been convicted of rape, torture and murder in Iraq. Farther back, in the darkest episode in US military history, soldiers marched in Vietnam’s My Lai village and massacred 500 unarmed civilians, including 350 women and children.

Then there are the notorious crimes of Japan in World War Two, which include biological warfare, human experimentation, and illegal attacks on the USA, Malaya and Hong Kong, launched without warning. In total, historians estimate that the Japanese government illegally murdered six million people, including Western prisoners of war.

Is the British military a force for good or evil in the world?

Poisoned legacy?

English journalist Robert Fisk is frank about the evil committed by Britain, despite efforts to disguise it. “When is a war crime not a war crime? When it’s committed by us, of course,” he writes. “We can murder Iraqis and Afghans and get away with it, but must be a bit more restrained in Northern Ireland […]. We have grown used to this. From the sky, from the street, in the desert, we kill and absolve ourselves.”

But war is brutal, and rogue soldiers can tarnish the reputation of the majority. Britain’s role in upholding international law and protected people around the world should not be sneered at. “The world is unimaginably more prosperous and peaceful now than in 1914,” writes The Telegraph. “For its role in building that peace and prosperity, and in continuing to promote it no matter the sacrifices entailed, this nation can be justifiably proud.”

You Decide

  1. Is war always a crime?
  2. Should Britain be proud of its military history?


  1. Make a timeline of the Iraq war, including at least seven major events.
  2. Write a one-page story about a soldier who faces a moral dilemma.

Some People Say...

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
An investigation by BBC’s Panorama and The Sunday Times has turned up evidence that the British state covered up war crimes by British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the murder of three children who were shot at point blank range. The British Ministry of Defence has said that the allegations are unsubstantiated, but the International Criminal Court (ICC) is taking them “very seriously”.
What do we not know?
Whether the UK Government could be tried at the ICC. The ICC’s Office of Prosecutor said it would “independently assess” the findings, which could be “highly relevant” to their decision whether to open a probe into the UK — the first of its kind.

Word Watch

Two inquiries
Operation Northmoor for Afghanistan and the Iraq Historic Allegations Team.
Baha Mousa, a hotel worker in Basra, died after being tortured and beaten by British troops in 2003. A public inquiry led to the only conviction of British soldier for war crimes in Iraq.
The Special Air Service, a unit that is renowned for taking part in tough, dangerous missions. For example, counter-terrorism and hostage rescue.
International Criminal Court
Based in The Hague in the Netherlands, the ICC has a responsibility to act when countries fail to prosecute members of their military for breaking the Geneva Conventions, which set the international standards of warfare.
Boer war
1899-1902. In total, 45 tented camps were built for Boer internees (white Afrikaners) and 64 for black Africans. In these camps, 28,000 white people and 20,000 black people died.
Known as the the Batang Kali massacre, it took place in modern-day Malaysia.
Hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the Pearl Harbor base in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 1941. More than 2,400 Americans, including civilians, died in the attack, and another 1,000 people were wounded.

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