Berlin – Today, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced its decision to close the preliminary examination of alleged systematic war crimes by British troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. Thousands of allegations of torture, mistreatment and killings have neither been investigated nor prosecuted by British authorities over the last 15 years.
“Today’s decision by the ICC reinforces longstanding double standards in international justice and shows once again that powerful actors can get away with systematic torture,” says Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. “To this day, the UK has failed to fully investigate and prosecute systematic torture by its armed forces in Iraq; in particular, it has refused to investigate those at the top of command. The ICC and the international justice system are failing in their primary purpose: to ensure accountability for grave crimes. The decision is a severe blow to Iraqi torture survivors.”
In 2014, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor reopened a preliminary examination into British war crimes in Iraq after ECCHR and the British organization Public Interest Lawyers submitted evidence of the widespread and systematic abuse of hundreds of detainees by UK armed forces in Iraq. After two follow-up submissions by ECCHR in 2017, the OTP confirmed that there is a reasonable basis to believe that UK forces committed war crimes in Iraq. In July 2019, ECCHR filed another follow-up submission concluding that the UK is unwilling to investigate those responsible at the top of the chain of command and, accordingly, the ICC must open formal investigations.
After the UK Director of Service Prosecutions Mr. Andrew Cayley QC announced, on 2 June 2020, the closure of domestic prosecutions of war crimes committed by British soldiers in Iraq, ECCHR urged the OTP to conclude the preliminary examination and submit the situation to the Pre-Trial Chamber without further delay, thereby requesting authorization to open a formal investigation according to Article 15(3) of the ICC Rome Statute.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is designed to complement domestic procedures and to close any impunity gaps with regard to the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole. “The complementarity test by the OTP failed to analyze the role of those at the top of the chain of command and thus serves to further injustice,” criticizes Wolfgang Kaleck.
In response to the ICC’s decision, Sabah Nouri Abdullah Rashed al-Sadoon, who was arrested in Iraq by UK forces in June 2003 and detained for 36 days says: “There has not been a single charge despite the torture that I was subjected to when I was at Camp Stephen. I was beaten with rifles and pistols in addition to having my face covered so I couldn’t breathe, for more than ten hours without any pause by more than twelve soldiers who took turns. Whenever I passed out, they woke me up and kept torturing me. I was a mass of blood and clothes. All this without any charge. Only torture and threats to kill me. This is an act not befitting the army of a superpower like Britain.”
Today’s decision is not a total whitewash of UK abuse in Iraq, as the Office of the Prosecutor confirmed that members of the British armed forces committed the war crimes of willful killing, torture, inhuman/cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and/or other forms of sexual violence. Rather, the OTP decision represents another blunt example of the recurring failure to prosecute and achieve accountability for such crimes, whether in domestic courts or the Rome Statute system. ECCHR will continue its engagement on the matter and will request a re-opening of the situation if the type of relevant information named by the OTP in the conclusion of the report comes to light.