The UK has turned its back on victims of war crimes

By Steve Hynd

“We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still-burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army” Chris Cobb-Smith, a British weapons expert who visited Gaza.

“Commanders ordered their subordinates to shoot civilians and ‘hors de combat’ fighters, and to torture and mistreat detainees. Orders were often enforced at gunpoint and anyone hesitating to comply risked arrest or summary execution” UN report on war crimes in Syria.

White phosphorous used by the Israeli military at a UN school in Gaza. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP

These quotes are from two wars and describe two different accusations of war crimes.  Britain’s response to these atrocities should deeply worry us all.

Last month Cameron all but offered Assad a safe passage out of Syria. Rightly there was outrage. Amnesty International commented that, “Instead of talking about immunity deals for President Assad, David Cameron should be supporting efforts to ensure that he faces justice, ideally at the International Criminal Court at The Hague”. They rightly then drew attention to the mass indiscriminate bombings that Assad had overseen – actions that constitute a war crime.

The arrogance that Cameron showed on that occasion was alarming. He believed that his idea of getting Assad out of the country at any cost was somehow superior to that of International Law. That he could bring peace where established human rights mechanisms couldn’t.

This was the first time I had heard this government leave its staunch “we support international law” line that it hides its inactions behind. Sadly it looks as though it wasn’t a one off. The Foreign Office on Monday night implied that the UK is prepared to back a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN if, and only if, Abbas pledges not to pursue Israel for the war crimes it has committed.

Can anyone tell me, since when has the UK started to hand out impunity for war crimes in return for entering into peace talks?

I can’t believe that these two incidents are not connected and I fear that they are signals for what is to come from the FCO.

The consequences of Cameron’s words

The UK is saying is that Abbas should not pursue justice for the victims of Israel’s 2009 “indiscriminate and reckless” use of white phosphorus. In contrast, Human Rights Watch said that senior leaders should be held to account as civilians “needlessly suffered and died”.

Equally, it is saying that Abbas should not follow up the evidence that suggests Israel used indiscriminate attacks in the latest up-surge of fighting in Gaza.

The UK has asked Abbas not to apply for membership of either the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The first being a body that aims to offer accountability by bringing to justice those who have committed the worse crimes – namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The latter is a pre-judicial body that aims to settle legal disputes between states based on international law.

The Foreign Secretary needs to be asked why it is he thinks Palestine should be a state – but should not have access to these bodies!

Clearly the UK is acting in this way for some reason – perhaps trying to compromise with a hard-line US position for example. Or perhaps they are hoping to avoid Israel annexing settlements in the West Bank. But, this is a price too far.

Once you start to compromise on these internationally agreed standards – standards that Israel has signed up to – then you stand at the top of a very slippery slope!

What we need is for the UK to be making clear and bold statements calling for all those accused of war crimes to be held to account through the established bodies – regardless of who the perpetrators are!

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  1. Hi Steve

    Thanks for your article, very interesting.

    Whilst I think you raise some important points, I’m not sure I agree with your arguments that:

    1. Cameron’s suggestion that Assad could be granted immunity in return for stopping the bloodshed is outrageous
    2. There is a link between this ‘offer’ and the UK’s stance on Palestine.

    Firstly, the issue of potentially offering immunity. The conflict in Syria has killed tens of thousands, some think over 100,000 (though that is much more than the ‘confirmed’ deaths). Many tens of thousands more are likely to die, unless some way is found to stop the conflict. It seems that the only chance of ending the conflict, especially in light of Western and other support for the ‘rebels’, is to remove Assad. He could be removed either forcefully – i.e. by killing or imprisoning him, done by either rebels or in a palace coup – or peacefully, that is, voluntarily by himself.

    The first, forceful option is both unpredictable and unlikely to happen before many more people have died. It is also likely to lead to many more deaths, as Assad is not a lone ruler, but rather is the man at the top of an entrenched ruling elite. I have seen little to suggest that killing him alone would create a sudden power vacuum that the opposition could rapidly and peacefully fill.

    The second option therefore presents itself as potentially the best way of saving Syrian lives. If somehow it proved possible to persuade Assad to step aside, in favour of some kind of transitional unity government, many fewer are likely to die than if the civil war is allowed to continue unchecked. Is he likely to stand aside if he thinks he is going to be tried for his crimes? Perhaps not, and surely he is less likely to stand aside in this scenario than if he were offered immunity for his crimes.

    In my opinion there are strong arguments both for and against offering immunity in return for standing aside and ending the conflict. Whilst there is nothing wrong, and perhaps a lot right, in arguing that he should not be offered immunity, it is hardly ‘outrageous’, either morally, legally, politically, or otherwise, to suggest that we try to save as many lives as possible by offering immunity. Rather, I think it would in fact be outrageous not to consider all options when trying to figure out how to solve the crisis in Syria.

    In academic literature around international criminal law, there is a huge amount of debate as to whether the threat of international prosecution might well discourage heads of state from giving up power. The only way they can save themselves from such prosecution might well be to hang on to power at all costs, such as committing further atrocities, whereas the offer of (admittedly distatsteful) asylum in another country could save many thousands of lives. Justice is precious, and is a worthy goal. But it is not the only goal, and must be balanced with others. In the present case, whilst Cameron might be wrong (and I’m not certain that he is), it is hardly ‘outrageous’ to at least consider the possibility of immunity and asylum if that could save lives.

    Secondly, and far more briefly, I don’t think you have offered any evidence of a link between the decision to consider the possibility of immunity for Assad, and the decision to require the Palestinians to abandon various routes for bringing claims against the Israelis in return for supporting a bid for UN recognition. I agree with you that the government’s position on Palestine is wrong, and that it should be far more supportive of the Palestinian application for recognition. But I do not see how the conditions imposed on supporting the Palestinian bid are in any way linked to Cameron’s comments regarding Syria. They deal with totally different issues, and the only overlap is in that they both make reference to questions of immunity. But please do correct me if I am missing something!

    Thanks again,

    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. My answer to your first (and main) point can summarized in one word – precedent (in that I worry it will set one).

      As you rightly say, this is debated widely – inc within academic literature on IHL (of which I have only read in passing). I of course agree with you that Syrian lives need to be saved and as such there is an urgency. BUT, there are plenty the UK (and indeed the EU) could be doing other than trying to smuggle a leader out (will that end the bloodshed anyway?). I see IHL though as a very basic standard – a minimum. I passionately believe that the debate about what to be done next needs to take place above these min standards.

      in terms of connection to Palestine – on Monday, this was the first time I heard any official hint that UK was varying from its support of IHL in relation to Israel. A worrying development. The connection? I don’t know, but I felt it to be odd to say the least! I know no more than you, I wonder whether these two events though hint at a change of thinking within the FCO. What do you think?

  2. mijj said:

    first and foremost is the warcrimes that we ourselves commit.

    Assad pales into insignificance compared to Bush, Blair, Camaron, Haig, etc.

    To point fingers at small fry and ignore the major criminals is to just use warcrimes as a tool of imperialism.

    No .. of utmost importance is to get our own war criminals to face justice. Otherwise we’re just playing at it.
    Saying we should concentrate on the ones we can get (and be satisfied with complaining about ours) won’t cut it. We should concentrate on the biggest criminals. The biggest breakthrough in cutting war crimes will be when we bring our own to justice.

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