Wednesday, July 20, 2005

UK soldiers to stand trial for war crimes

Three British soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment are to stand trial for war crimes, following the death of a detainee under their custody in 2003. The men in question have been charged with "inhuman treatment"; other men have been charged with manslaughter and negligent performance of duties, but the former crime is the only one that comes under the heading of "war crimes", under the International Criminal Court Act of 2001. Article 51 of that Act explicitly incorporates the crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC into English and Welsh law, and extends jurisdiction to acts committed "outside the United Kingdom by a United Kingdom national, a United Kingdom resident or a person subject to UK service jurisdiction".

This decision is to be applauded. Some may complain that the investigation has taken too long - at two years, it probably has - whereas others may bemoan the fact that they are to be tried before British courts martial, and not the ICC itself. Certainly, much propaganda mileage could have been got out of such a move - proof that the British are willing to take accountability before independent international courts seriously even for their own soldiers, and that the ICC is not simply an instrument of "victors justice". However, it probably doesn't make much sense to go down that road. Firstly, the crimes involved - although of a very serious nature individually - are probably on too small a scale to go before the ICC; certainly, if all such incidents were to be referred to it, the Court would very quickly become overwhelmed and unworkable. Also, only the crimes of "inhuman treatment" are considered war crimes, and thus as potentially under the ICC's jurisdiction: the ostensibly more serious charges in this case, those of the manslaughter of the detainee, would thus not be justiciable by the international tribunal, and would have to be heard separately. However, the three servicemen will become the first UK soldiers to be face charges of war crimes.

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