Skip to main content

UK to introduce 10-year amnesty for war crimes investigations

New legislation would see soldiers protected from prosecution over war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan
British troops pose under the famous archway of two swords held up by hands modelled after former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's hands in Baghdad's fortified 'Green Zone' (AFP)

The UK's defence secretary has announced she will introduce an amnesty for potential crimes carried out by British personnel in foreign conflicts in the past 10 years.

EXCLUSIVE: British army permitted shooting of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan
Read More »

Penny Mordaunt, who was appointed to her position earlier this month, announced a consultation on proposals to prevent historic prosecutions, and said she would support plans to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in “significant military operations” in future.

“It is high time that we change the system and provide the right legal protections to make sure the decisions our service personnel take in the battlefield will not lead to repeated or unfair investigations down the line," she said in a statement.

Although the amnesty will apply to personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will not apply to crimes carried out during the conflict in Northern Ireland. This will anger many Conservative Party members, who had been incensed by the recent prosecution of a former paratrooper for the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.

Last month, the Guardian revealed that as many as 200 former soldiers and police officers were facing prosecution for actions that took place during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

More details on the amnesty are set to be released in the coming days.

'We will protect you'

Middle East Eye has previously reported that British soldiers engaged in shooting unarmed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan were told that they could expect protection in the case of an investigation.

Why was the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan?

+ Show - Hide

The UK sent forces to Afghanistan as part of the international coalition that invaded the country in 2001 following the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks in the US, and to Iraq in 2003 as part of a US-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

In both countries British soldiers became increasingly bogged down fighting against insurgents opposed to international occupation.

In Iraq, British forces were handed responsibility for security in Basra and three provinces in the south, but their presence was challenged by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army militia fighters.

In September 2007, British forces withdrew from their bases in the city to the airport on the outskirts, the targets of “relentless attacks”, according to an International Crisis Group report which said that their retreat was viewed by locals as an “ignominious defeat”.

In Afghanistan, British forces had been deployed in 2006 to Helmand Province. But they proved ineffective against the resurgent Taliban and in 2009 more than 100 British soldiers were killed.

British troops eventually withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014, with 454 service personnel killed over the course of their 13-year campaign in the country.

One ex-soldier told MEE in February that he had witnessed the fatal shootings of a significant number of civilians in Basra, claiming that a relaxation of the rules of engagement had resulted in “a killing spree”.

“Our commanders, they would tell us: ‘We will protect you if any investigation comes. Just say you genuinely thought your life was at risk - those words will protect you,'" he said.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence declined to comment on the allegations at the time.

Former soldiers told MEE that the relaxation of the rules of engagement during the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan had, at times, allowed the shooting of unarmed civilians.

One former Royal Marine told MEE that one of his officers confessed to his men that he had been responsible for the fatal shooting of an Afghan boy, aged around eight, after the child’s father carried his body to the entrance of their forward operating base and demanded an explanation.

Another ex-soldier alleged that a cover-up had been mounted after the fatal shooting of two unarmed teenage boys, which he says he witnessed in Afghanistan.

A pair of Soviet-era weapons were removed from a store at the British soldiers’ base, he said, and placed next to the bodies to give the false impression that the teenagers had been armed Taliban fighters.

This man says he saw similar weapons being stored at other bases.

“I’m fairly sure that they were being kept for that purpose. We were visited daily by troops from headquarters, and these weapons could easily have been catalogued and sent back.”