British soldiers' shameful impunity

Phil Shiner

THE SYSTEM of investigating and prosecuting incidents of torture and unlawful killings by British forces in occupied Iraq was lambasted on Wednesday by the court of appeal. Its judgment, relating to the cases of six men who died in southern Iraq in 2003, provides a probing analysis of what is wrong and expresses the hope that fundamental deficiencies will be remedied.

So far the Government's response has been dismal. It has been faced with the clearest possible evidence that soldiers have shamed themselves, their regiments, the military, and the public by torturing Iraqi civilians to death, or so severely that death was imminent. But it has insisted on denying the evidence of systematic torture, including a policy of hooding and stressing all detainees. It denies that international human-rights standards apply to U.K. armed forces personnel wherever they are in the world, and maintains that the Human Rights Act applies only within Britain.

Today the U.K.'s policy on torture lies in tatters. Following a ruling by the law lords two weeks ago, it can no longer rely on evidence obtained through torture by other states.

The court found that the obligation to comply with well-established fundamental human rights standards would require a far greater investment in the resources available to the Royal Military Police, and the complete severance of their investigations from the military chain of command. If there is honour and decency left in the military and the government they will now take on board this judgment and initiate the inquiry and reform programme that the attorney general has been urging for many months.

It is troubling that the court of appeal judgment finds that there is jurisdiction only in a situation where U.K. troops deprive others of their liberty and then torture or kill them. It does not apply the same reasoning where there is control of others at roadblocks or during dawn raids in homes. The court of appeal also failed to identify clear principles on which to decide whether actions of torture and abuse by agents of the state who have authority and control over their victims should fall within the jurisdiction of the U.K. Government no matter where in the world they occur.

The Government must end this shameful history of impunity. Given the judgment on the military system as it relates to torture cases, the time has come to stop playing games. It is a truism that if a single Iraqi can be tortured to death in detention by our soldiers it diminishes us all.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

(Phil Shiner is a solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers, which is acting for the families of the six Iraqi men in these cases.)

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