Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners

It begins to look as if the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and other civilians has been somewhat less prevalent among British troops than with the Americans, although the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, had to acknowledge in the House of Commons on 10 May that there had probably been some bad cases in the British sector, with serious allegations both from our own troops and from Amnesty International, all apparently promptly investigated and with some prosecutions imminent.  One of these alleges the killing of at least one innocent Iraqi civilian by British soldiers, something several degrees worse even than torture, and there are reports of several more wholly inexcusable killings by British soldiers.  Hoon also admitted, under intensive questioning, that British troops had been hooding Iraqi prisoners, contrary to military instructions going back to the time of Edward Heath’s government, and said this had been stopped last September as soon as it had come to light, prompting the question why it had been allowed to happen at all.  It emerged that a report to the Coalition by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on ICRC visits to Coalition detention "facilities" between March and November last year had been delivered to the U.S. Iraqi civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, in February this year (2004), and Mr Hoon said that a copy of the report had been given to Bremer’s then British deputy, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who passed it on to the British military in Iraq, who passed it back to their headquarters in London — where nobody saw fit to show it to British ministers, even though it included reports of abuse in British as well as American detention centres.  The excuse for this omission, apparently accepted by Geoff Hoon and, by implication, Tony Blair, was that the passages in the ICRC report referring to alleged abuses by British troops had already been identified and investigated before the delivery of the report:  no further action by the British authorities had therefore been required:  so there was no need to tell ministers about the report.  No sooner had the Defence Secretary’s statement in parliament been reported in the press than the Foreign Secretary publicly corrected it:  it now seems that the report found its way to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London via a French legal adviser to the Coalition but that Greenstock didn’t receive or see it after all.  But this can’t affect the central points:  officials of the FCO or Ministry of Defence who saw the report should have shown it at once to ministers:   British ministers should have taken immediate action with their American counterparts to press for an end to such unacceptable behaviour: and the government should take much more seriously its responsibilities as a senior partner in the Coalition, not just confine its concerns to the activities of British troops and officials. 

There are at least two worrying aspects of all this.  

First, abuses of Iraqis by the Coalition involving degrading treatment and violence right up to the level of systematic torture are, or should be, of immediate and pressing concern to all the governments of the Coalition, whether they have been committed by American, British or indeed any other Coalition forces.  This kind of behaviour by any of the Coalition forces has the most serious possible implications for the whole Coalition, not just for the Americans, with disturbing consequences for the Coalition’s relations with the Iraqis and hence for the prospects of eventual success of the whole Iraqi enterprise.  It passes belief that any British official or military officer, in Iraq or in London, could have failed to recognise the importance of the ICRC report and the obvious need to bring it to the immediate attention of British ministers.  It manifestly called for immediate consultations at the highest level with the Americans about its policy implications, and about how to handle the fallout from the inevitable publication of the substance, if not the actual text, of the incidents it described.   Meanwhile we’re bound to wonder whether the climate created by the scorn and disregard for international law exhibited by George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest, in disowning America’s international obligations, and above all in going to war in deliberate defiance of the Security Council and the United Nations Charter, may not have affected the attitudes of American soldiers, gaolers and interrogators in Iraq towards their own legal and moral obligations.  What’s sauce for the goose…

Secondly, it’s time for our ministers to stop seeking to excuse their failures and shortcomings by claiming not to have been told what has been happening in their own departments or in their own spheres of responsibility.  The old saying that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ applies, or ought to apply, to government as much as to the law.  One of the top priorities of a responsible minister must be to ensure that he or she is fully and promptly informed of any event, practice, document or other development likely to affect policy or to arouse public or parliamentary concern — indeed, of anything that might need to be reported to the prime minister, to parliament, or to the people.  Any half-sensible minister will make absolutely certain that his or her senior and middle-ranking officials are fully aware, and frequently reminded, of their responsibility to report such matters to ministers, however daunting the thought of confronting a minister with potentially disastrous news.  The dismissal of a few officials who fail in this elementary duty can concentrate the minds of the rest in a most salutary manner.  The phenomenon has been cropping up with melancholy frequency recently: the prime minister "wasn’t told" that the 45-minute warning about Iraq’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction applied only to battlefield weapons, not long-range rockets or artillery;  Geoff Hoon, as Defence Secretary, "wasn’t told" that his own department had decided to out the luckless Dr David Kelly as the source of the reports in the media of the government’s action in consciously including misleading information about Iraq in the famous WMD dossier;  the former immigration minister "wasn’t told" that sections of her department were admitting large numbers of immigrants without doing proper checks on them, indeed without apparently doing any checks at all.  Parliament should never again have to listen to a minister pleading that "It’s not my fault, guv:  I never knew, did I?"  The Opposition, the back benches and the media should be replying in unison:  "Well, you should have known, and it’s your fault if you didn’t."

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"A GRUESOME video showing an American contractor being beheaded by an al-Qaeda linked group in revenge for the “Satanic degradation” of Iraqi prisoners was released yesterday with a warning that his body would be followed by “coffins after coffins”.  Nick Berg, 26, was filmed identifying himself in the short tape posted on the internet before being pushed to the floor. One of five masked men put a knife to his neck. Amid Mr Berg’s screams and shouts of “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)” the man sawed off his head before holding it in front of the camera."  The Times, 12 May 04.

No conceivable comment can do justice to this.  The fact is enough.

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The publication of photographs (and now videos) showing American soldiers terrorising and abusing Iraqi prisoners — parading them naked, hooding them, threatening them with death by electrocution or shooting, forcing them to commit sexual acts, setting ferocious dogs on them — has further aggravated the anti-American sentiment which has taken hold in Europe and indeed in much of the rest of the world in the last year or two.  It’s sad that the huge outpouring of sympathy and identification with the Americans throughout the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 should so quickly have been dispelled, to be replaced increasingly by anger, fear and disgust as Mr Bush’s administration has persistently ignored and defied both international opinion and indeed international law, boasting that the most narrowly defined interests of the United States will henceforth outweigh all long-term international interests and that the US no longer considers itself bound by treaties or other international agreements and understandings, even including the United Nations Charter. Of course there has always been hostility (often generated by envy and a hint of fear) towards any country which is unashamedly richer and more powerful than others, and whose culture is seen as a threat to the national identity of its junior partners.  When Britain was the world’s superpower, she was more interested in being respected than in being liked.  The Americans are unusual in wanting to be both liked and (under the current administration anyway) feared, a double trick that’s not at all easy to pull off.   The paradox is that millions of people all over the world are indeed strongly attracted to many features of the US:  the openness of its society and government, the commitment to its people’s freedom, its wonderfully liberal and versatile constitution, the warmth and friendliness of its people (many of them, anyway), its informality and apparent lack of snobbishness (with some inevitable but rare exceptions), its encouragement of anyone, of however humble origins, to reach the highest positions of wealth and power by hard work and dedication, its success in reconciling all-American patriotism with respect for the national cultures and life-styles of its many immigrant communities;  not forgetting the glories of the American landscape, from the magnificent San Francisco harbour to the awesome Rockies, the Grand Canyon and the Manhattan skyline, New England in the fall and the buzz of Key West.  In every country there are countless people who dream of the chance to migrate to the United States in search of a better and more glamorous life.  Yet there is increasingly also a sense in the other western liberal democracies that in some mysterious way the US has got left behind, complacently self-satisfied in its vast self-sufficiency, increasingly impervious to what has been going on in the rest of the civilised world.  It’s surely inexplicable that a country which commands so much envy and admiration in the outside world should persist in the gruesome practice of judicially killing its criminals, when the abolition of capital punishment is one of the key qualifications for membership of the European Community, executions so widely regarded outside the US as evidence of barbarity.  Commentators on the revelations of hideous abuses of Iraqi prisoners are increasingly pointing out that the physical and psychological abuse and deliberate humiliation and degradation of convicts in US penitentiaries, often euphemistically given the Orwellian title of Corrective Institutions, is widespread throughout the country to the extent of being effectively systemic.  Some American commentators have sought to explain, although admittedly not to excuse, the revelations of torture by Americans in Iraq by the failure of the US armed forces to inform their soldiers and interrogators of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and to provide them with copies of those texts, as if without such knowledge no-one could reasonably be expected to see that there’s anything wrong with stripping a defenceless prisoner naked, putting a hood on him, shackling him to steel bars in an agonising posture, and threatening to kill him.  Anti-American feeling in the rest of the world is bound to be inflamed by this sort of thing.  But for those of us who feel genuine affection for that wonderful country and its great people, who have lived there, have much-loved friends and relations there, and have ineradicable memories associated with the place, it’s terribly sad to see international respect for and liking of the Americans steadily ebbing away.