An image of detained Iraqis being guarded by a British soldier that was shown at the the al-Sweady inquiry. Photograph: PA
The judgment on British troops mistreating Iraqi civilians is unprecedented. But behind it is Tony Blair’s misleading of the troops – and the whole nation
The ghosts of the invasion of Iraq, which haunted the Ministry of Defence and the British army for years, have returned with a vengeance. In an unprecedented judgment, the high court ruled on Thursday that the MoD breached the Geneva conventions and British soldiers had meted out “inhuman and degrading treatment” to Iraqi civilians, including beatings, and sleep and sensory deprivation. There was no evidence that the detainees were involved in any terrorist activity or posed any threat to the security of Iraq.
The case was brought by four Iraqis who will now join many others who have already been awarded compensation by the MoD in out-of-court settlements. The MoD faces even more damage to its reputation. In what he called “still unfinished business resulting from the UK’s military intervention in Iraq”, Mr Justice Leggatt said the case will have a bearing on more than 600 outstanding claims by Iraqis.
His ruling is a devastating response to persistent charges by defence ministers and officials that allegations of mistreatment by British troops were motivated by dishonest Iraqis, malicious journalists and self-serving lawyers. They blamed the European convention on human rights for extending its jurisdiction to British military detention centres abroad.
The government has said that in future the convention will not cover any of the activities of British troops engaged in foreign military interventions.
Defence officials conveniently ignore the successful claims against the MoD that have been brought by families of British soldiers killed or maimed as a result of inadequate training or equipment. And in Thursday’s ruling, the high court found that the MoD was in breach not only of the human rights convention, but also of the Geneva conventions, entirely separate instruments of international law.
The MoD previously seized on the conclusion of the retired judge chairing the al-Sweady inquiry – named after an Iraqi teenager killed in a battle between British troops and Shia militia in southern Iraq in 2004 – that Iraqi allegations of murder by British troops were “wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility”. Michael Fallon, then defence secretary, described the allegations in the Commons as “shameful and despicable”. He conveniently ignored the al-Sweady inquiry’s finding that British soldiers were guilty of mistreating detainees, including depriving them of food and sleep, and blindfolding them, in breach of international law.
And that expensive inquiry, at which young and inexperienced British soldiers were forced to recall horrific experiences, was entirely unnecessary. Had their commanding officers explained the circumstances of the battle of Danny Boy – in particular why Iraqis who were killed and injured were brought to the British camp (it was to discover whether they had been involved in the massacre of British military police a year before) – then the al-Sweady inquiry would not have been necessary.
The growing evidence of unlawful treatment by British soldiers of Iraqis they detained is the consequence of the circumstances surrounding the invasion of Iraq. British troops were not prepared for the invasion. They were not prepared because the Blair government did not want to give the game away. It wanted to keep the public – and British troops – in the dark. High-ranking military commanders were not prepared to speak truth to power. And the troops were poorly trained, and ill-equipped, because their commanding officers assumed – or hoped – that an invasion would be a walkover.
Yesterday’s judgment is the latest manifestation of that legacy. It is also a devastating indictment of officials, including lawyers, in the MoD. As the judge pointed out, they acted in breach of their own rules and regulations, as well as international law.