Theresa May pledged this week to “put an end to the industry of vexatious claims” against soldiers under human rights law.
Perhaps she was talking about cases such as the killing of Baha Mousa. British soldiers raided an Iraqi hotel and arrested Baha, a receptionist there, in September 2003. Within 36 hours he was dead.
The “violent and cowardly” assaults by a “large number” of soldiers inflicted 93 injuries, an inquiry later found. These included a broken nose and fractured ribs.
British troops kept detainees hooded, handcuffed and in “stress positions”.
Soldiers urinated on detainees, scalded them with boiling water, denied them food and drink in extreme heat, kicked and punched them, and deprived them of sleep.
The inquiry called it an “appalling episode of serious, gratuitous violence”—and made clear that it wasn’t an isolated incident.
No soldiers were convicted for Baha Mousa’s death. What judge Justice Ronald McKinnon called “a more or less obvious closing of ranks” limited the evidence.
But the inquiry did force the government to set up the Iraq Historic Allegations team.
As of June it still had 1,492 accusations to look into, including 237 alleged unlawful killings.
The Tory press make a lot of those allegations that have been rejected. The Daily Telegraph newspaper whined that those accused “face months or even years of worry” and it “costs the taxpayer millions of pounds”.
Their favourite example is the al-Sweady inquiry—named after an Iraqi teenager killed by British forces.
It rejected accusations that soldiers murdered Iraqis and mutilated their bodies after a battle.
What tends to be forgotten is that the inquiry found that troops abused prisoners and breached the Geneva Convention. The European Convention of Human Rights bans such abuses, yet states are allowed to opt out.
New Labour did this in 2005 so that it could put terrorism suspects, found guilty of no crime, under house arrest.
More recent exceptions or “derogations” come from France to allow its repressive state of emergency, and Turkey for the clampdown that has followed July’s failed coup.
May is turning the exception into the rule with a “presumption to derogate” at times of war.
That’s worth bearing in mind when looking for a solution to the carnage in Syria (see page 20).
May’s licence to torture is, in her own words, a way of reassuring soldiers “that they are able to do what is necessary”.
Behind the waffle about “soft power” and “British values”, our rulers are driven to project their influence worldwide.
Brutality isn’t incidental—it’s essential.