THE BLOG

Impunity in the Armed Forces, Inconsistency in the Foreign Office

17/04/2014 12:36 BST | Updated 16/06/2014 10:59 BST

On the 10th of April, Foreign Secretary William Hague launched the Foreign Office's Human Rights and Democracy Report for 2013. The report paid special attention to the "Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative", launched by Mr Hague and Angelina Jolie, UN Special Envoy for Refugees, in 2012. "A key UK human rights objective," the report states, "is to end impunity for sexual violence in conflict... (and) to make accountability for these crimes the norm."

The Foreign Office is not without past achievement regarding this issue. In April 2013, during the British presidency of the G8, the UK secured a declaration recalling "that rape and other forms of serious sexual violence in armed conflict are war crimes" constituting "grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions." This declaration was formally recognised on 24 June, 2013, in UN Security Council Resolution 2106.

However, the success of past resolutions is not encouraging. Resolution 2106 acknowledges this, singling out resolution 1960, of December 2010, for comment. The Security Council, it states, remains "deeply concerned" over "the slow implementation of important aspects of resolution 1960" - a resolution that likewise sought to prevent sexual violence in armed conflict and postconflict situations.

Included in resolution 1960 is the demand that all parties to conflicts "comply fully with their obligations under applicable international law, including the prohibition on all forms of sexual violence." Civilian and military leaders are reminded that these obligations include the responsibility to "demonstrate commitment and political will" regarding prevention of sexual violence. "Inaction," the resolution notes, "can send a message that the incidence of sexual violence in conflicts is tolerated."

Statistics released by the Ministry of Defense on 10 March, 2014, suggest that, despite the zeal of the Foreign Office, the UK is guilty of just such inaction and tolerance. This guilt is revealed in its indifference to its own soldiers.

According to the MOD figures, 22 cases of rape within the army were referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) in the year 2012. This resulted in only 4 convictions. In 2013 there were 20 cases referred to the SPA. To date only one trial has been held. It did not result in a conviction.

It is true that the civilian system's conviction rates for sexual offences are poor and that, aside from fraud and forgery cases, they take longer than any other offence to complete in court. However, the MOD statistics show that the record of the Army's judicial system is poorer still. To say nothing of those that go unreported, it is nonetheless clear that a great number of reported sexual crimes are going unpunished.

This failing is difficult to reconcile with the Security Council's demand that Military leaders "demonstrate commitment and political will" in their campaign against sexual violence. Recent cases such as the suicide of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement, whose reported rape was not pursued by Army police, do little to undermine the claim that this failing is an institutionalised one.

The Army's leadership, however, is not only guilty of failing those within its employ, but also those within its custody. In January of this year, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) together with Public Interest Lawyers Birmingham UK (PIL) submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) requesting action with respect to the abuse and mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by UK military forces. It documented, over 250 pages, the "systematic abuse against detainees" during the UK's presence in Iraq. The evidence, they argued, "meets the threshold of war crimes."

William Hague, speaking to Sky News, conceded that there were indeed "substantiated allegations of things going wrong" and that they were "being investigated". However, the investigations, he went on to say, did "not require references to the International Criminal Court." On this matter the MOD was in agreement: the best judges of British war crimes were considered to be British military and civilian courts. This is not the position Mr Hague proposed for other countries in his Human Rights and Democracy Report.

In reference to the "Responsibility to Protect" initiative, the report states: "(t)he objectives of this work are: to detach and protect... prosecution from political and other improper influences; to develop international legal co-operation, bilaterally and regionally; and to promote cooperation between justice agencies to make judicial processes more efficient." The ECCHR's Communication to the ICC upholds those objectives. Mr Hague has not adequately explained why it has not received his support.

Such inconsistencies can only give succour to those forces who resort to war crimes, and refuge to the perpetrators of sexual violence. The ECCHR and PIL Communication to the International Court affirms this when it states that those most responsible for British War Crimes are not the soldiers but those "high ranking civilian and military officials" reluctant to prosecute. If the Communication is successful, and the ICC is forced to act, these officials may yet be held to account.