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UK accused of 'hypocrisy' over Ukraine war crimes summit 20 years after Iraq invasion

London meeting to support ICC probe coincides with 20th anniversary of Iraq war in which ICC found British forces had committed war crimes
A British soldier walks past the debris strewn on the side of the road after a bus carrying Iraqi pilgrims crashed into back of a British Army armoured vehicle west of Basra on 18 February 2009 (AFP)

The British government has been accused of "rank hypocrisy" after it announced it would host a summit to discuss international support for an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

The London meeting, which is set to take place in March, is being co-hosted by the Dutch government and aims to increase "financial and practical support" for the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague.

British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said: "Russian forces should know they cannot act with impunity and we will back Ukraine until justice is served."

'Putin should absolutely be held to account, but the UK government is in danger of engaging in hypocrisy by failing to investigate crimes perpetrated by British soldiers'

Iain Overton, Action on Armed Violence

Dutch Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, who will co-host the meeting with Raab, said: "The reports and images of Russia’s unlawful and unprovoked armed attack on Ukraine are horrific. For us it is crystal clear: these crimes may not go unpunished."

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan launched an investigation into the situation in Ukraine last March following Russia's invasion of its neighbour in February 2022.

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The investigation examines alleged war crimes since 2013, covering the long-running conflict involving Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine's east, Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, and allegations of atrocities committed since the invasion.

The UK's Ministry of Justice has not confirmed the exact date of the meeting and had not responded to Middle East Eye's query at the time of publication.

But it is scheduled to take place in the same month as the 20th anniversary of British forces' participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq, which began on 19 March 2003, prompting criticism by rights groups.

Both British and American forces have been accused of committing war crimes during the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, while the invasion was denounced as illegal by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004.

The Netherlands also supported the war at the time, but a Dutch parliamentary inquiry in 2010 concluded that the invasion had "no basis in international law".

War crimes

In 2020, the ICC closed a preliminary investigation into allegations of war crimes by British forces in Iraq but said there was a "reasonable basis to believe 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".

In 2019, Middle East Eye reported that the British army had at times allowed soldiers to shoot unarmed civilians suspected of keeping them under surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to several former soldiers interviewed by MEE, those shot included a number of children and teenage boys.

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

Rights groups told Middle East Eye that the UK risked being branded as hypocritical over its support for the ICC's role in investigating alleged atrocities in Ukraine.

Iain Overton, head of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), told MEE: "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin should absolutely be held to account, but the UK government is in danger of engaging in hypocrisy by failing to investigate crimes perpetrated by British soldiers properly."

Overton highlighted recent British government moves to introduce a five-year time limit on investigations into alleged war crimes by British soldiers, and legislation currently passing through parliament which would grant immunity to members of the British armed forces accused of human rights violations in Northern Ireland.

"Under successive governments, we've seen both an attempt to put a time limit on investigations on war crimes by British soldiers and a go-softly approach on investigating crimes in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Recently, press and AOAV investigations of SAS killings in Afghanistan have instigated a judge-led report, but this is a rarity." 

In December, the British government announced a statutory inquiry into allegations that an SAS unit executed more than 50 civilians in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 201o and 2011.

Emily Apple, a spokesperson for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), also raised concerns over the British government's record on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of committing war crimes during the war in Yemen.

"While it’s good to see the UK government taking war crimes seriously, it’s time it applied the same standards to all war crimes, including those committed by countries it sells arms to. Despite numerous violations of international law, the UK government continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia to use in its war against Yemen," Apple told MEE.

"Since the war began, the UK has sold more than £20bn worth of arms to the Saudi regime, contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Dominic Raab’s commitment to accountability for the atrocities committed in Ukraine is nothing but rank hypocrisy when put in the context of the UK government’s continued support of the arms trade."

A UK government spokesperson said the dates for the international meeting had yet to be confirmed and emphasised Britain's strong support for the ICC. 

 “The UK has led the world in bringing war criminals to trial and has always cooperated with the International Criminal Court’s investigations," the spokesperson told MEE. 

 "Russian forces should equally be held to account for the atrocities we are seeing in Ukraine and this meeting will bring together the global community to help ensure the ICC has all it needs to prosecute those responsible.”

The Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security had not responded to MEE's request for comment at the time of publication.

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