A group of over 100 Iraqi citizens is demanding a far-ranging public inquiry into alleged abuses — including torture — committed by British soldiers. In a three-day legal battle — it began Tuesday — in Britain’s High Court, a team representing 135 Iraqis will attempt to prove inaction by the British government and consequently their violation of international laws of war.
Judges will hear testimony from Iraqis accusing Britain of a “systemic” policy of abuse sustained for over five years (from 2003 to 2008) as well as the unlawful killings of women, children, and the elderly. Plaintifs’ accounts include descriptions of sleep, food and water deprivation, beatings and stonings, and sexual humiliations. Lawyers representing families of killed Iraqis will also be filing complaints.
This is the second inquiry into abuse by British forces in Iraq: the Ministry of Defense previously investigated the death of Baha Mousa, a hotel worker killed while illegally detained in British custody. However, given the much wider scale of the current case and the disturbing nature of its allegations, a negative ruling for Britain would carry greater weight. Human rights lawyer Phil Shiner says that while the Baha Mousa inquiry “may have shone a torch into a dark corner,” the evidence to be presented to the High Court looks more like “a stadium in which we will switch on the floodlights.”
The allegations against Britain have drawn inevitable comparisons to abuses in Abu Ghraib, a U.S. facility at a Baghdad prison where American soldiers engaged in acts of sexual and psychological humiliations and illegal interrogations. However, while 28 soldiers and officers there were eventually suspended from duty or dishonorably discharged, senior officers were left relatively untouched. Notably, one year after the Abu Ghraib controversy broke in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear torture allegations brought by 250 Iraqis.
While precedents of authorized and widely publicized abuse by a military can be found in both the goings-on in Abu Ghraib and the U.K.’s conviction for “inhuman and degrading treatment” of Irish political detainees by the European Court of Human Rights in 1977, these recent allegations — emerging nearly ten years after the Iraq war began — are by far the most damning to Britain. The High Court will determine whether abuses were isolated incidents, or evidence of a widespread and (more significantly) condoned policy of torture. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would open a public inquiry into the abuses, which in turn might lead to an actual prosecution of top military brass and policymakers.
Although the High Court’s ruling may accord Iraqi abuse victims needed public acknowledgment of their abusers’ culpability, its legal implications may not extend as far as criminal justice advocates would like. Allegations of similar war crimes in countries like Mali and the Sudan are unlikely to be investigated by internal probes — meaning that the repercussions of any eventual convictions of high-ranking British officers or government officials may be contained within the United Kingdom. However, it is not unthinkable that a ruling against the U.K. might affect controversial drone policies (adopted by NATO and the United States, among others). If Britain sets the precedent of prosecution within one’s own country for extralegal or quasi-legal military action, world leaders — including U.S. President Barack Obama, whose personal involvement in drone strikes has drawn vociferous criticism — may begin to reconsider their theories of drone use and perhaps even the deeper structures of military accountability.