Commentary 02 June 2014

ICC Sheds its Western Blind Spot

by Allison West               Le Monde diplomatique

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is no longer fixated on Africa. In a long overdue step, Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently reopened preliminary investigations into UK war crimes in Iraq. Bensouda’s principled move provides a new point of leverage for international civil society to revive and ratchet up pressure on the UK, and it marks a hopeful turning point for Iraqi victims, the Court, and international criminal justice on the whole. At a time when many around the world are weary and disillusioned with their impotence against enduring Western impunity for egregious crimes, the ICC decision offers a new reason for optimism and a basis for concrete action.

The ICC’s recent change of heart comes on the heels of new information that bolsters the gravity of Iraqi detainee abuse claims. Although the ICC previously admitted to having “a reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court had been committed” by the UK in Iraq, the former Prosecutor halted preliminary examinations in 2006, citing insufficient gravity. This January, however, the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and UK-based Public Interest Lawyers filed an extensive complaint to the Court’s new Chief Prosecutor detailing hundreds of additional allegations of detainee abuse extending all the way from 2003 to 2008. I supported the research as a trainee lawyer at the European Center, and our findings leave no doubt regarding the potential gravity of the claims. The new information paints a picture of systematic rather than one-off crimes and demands a new plan of action from UK courts.

Among the abuses alleged are the infamous “five techniques” — wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink — banned by the European Court of Human Rights in the 1970s after UK use in Northern Ireland. Despite the European Court’s unequivocal ruling, the UK stands accused of having used the very same techniques in Iraq, a scandalous lapse that deserves more uproar. Other allegations include severe beating, sexual assault, mock executions, and electric shocks, practices reminiscent of the appalling atrocities revealed at the US-run facility at Abu Ghraib.

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