Saturday, September 10, 2005

Soldiers should not be above the law

by Theo Russell

A NEW campaign to challenge the culture of brutality and secrecy within the British armed forces was launched last Monday at a meeting in London.
The End Impunity campaign is calling for the armed forces to be made accountable for human rights abuses and is supported by a wide range of human rights groups and campaigns, including the families of soldiers who died at Deepcut and other army bases.
Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre in Belfast spoke on the case of Peter McBride, who was shot as he ran away from an army checkpoint in Belfast in on 4th September 1992.
Two members of the Scots Guards were convicted of murder and received life sentences, but then given early release and allowed to rejoin the British Army. One was later promoted despite promises to the Irish government, and both served in the Iraq war.
Many human rights groups and leading lawyers from several countries have backed the demand for the soldiers to be discharged.
Leading human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, who is representing 50 families from Iraq, described how the truth about the abuses at the army’s Camp Breadbasket near Basra, have been glossed over by the Army and suppressed by the media.
He said the abuse was far greater than people have been told, with large numbers of Iraqis rounded up from the countryside, and said it was “open season for squaddies who wanted to give detainees a kicking”.
He gave the example of Baha Mousa, who died with horrific injuries across his body, with the skin on one side of his face taken off. Mousa was one of eight men arrested at a hotel suspected of involvement in a bomb attack, all of whom suffered prolonged beatings and sleep deprivation. One detainee was forced to cut another’s finger off.
Shiner described the court martial at the British base at Osnabruck in Germany as “a complete farce”, with the Iraqi families and himself denied any access. No charges were brought for murder or torture, instead an officer was charged with negligence.
He has sent a report to the Attorney General describing a policy of systematic torture and abuse with no accountability, and calling for a proper system of investigation by an independent authority, and public funds for families to enable them to participate in the process.
The meeting heard a powerful contribution from Jeff Green of the Deepcut and Beyond Families Group on their campaign for human rights, truth and justice.
“We are sick and tired of lies and cover-ups. At Deepcut, Catterick, Northern Ireland and overseas, bullies are getting away with murder. Zero tolerance is not enough – we need prosecutions. The families must be involved – they have no hidden agenda, just a need for closure.”
Leading human rights barrister Mike Mansfield, who has represented the Birmingham Six and the Bloody Sunday relatives, pointed out that the main concern of families was not the truth, but accountability, which he said “cannot be achieved through the ballot box”.
He described the Stephen Lawrence campaign as a major breakthrough, with an inquiry appointed by Labour which for the first time identified institutional racism in the police force.
But he warned the meeting that the same government has now effectively abolished genuine public inquiries in the future. In June Britain broke a commitment to the Irish government and Canadian judge Peter Cory to hold inquiries into four cases in the north of Ireland.
Instead the Inquiries Act was passed on 7th June. The first major change since 1921, this places any inquiry under the political control of the Government and excludes Parliament from the process.
Inquiries can no longer determine civil or criminal liability; the head of the inquiry will be appointed by a minister; restrictions can be imposed on public access and access to official documents. The Government now has power to halt an inquiry – including existing inquiries such as that into Bloody Sunday – or prevent the publication of its report.
Paul O’Connor ended the meeting by calling for MPs to be lobbied and questioned about the Peter McBride and other cases, and in particular to attempt to have the Armed Forces bill scheduled for November to be amended in line with the End Impunity Campaign.
The campaign has produced postcards addressed to MPs and can be contacted by email at and the campaign’s website is at