Joint APPG statement on BBC Panorama allegations of UK Special Forces abuses in Afghanistan

This statement reflects cross-party concerns of Officers from the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Drones and Modern Conflict, and on Human Rights (PHRG), whose Members have long championed the need for greater scrutiny of military operations, and renewed commitments to the protection of civilians in conflict and international law, following the release by BBC Panorama this week of its follow up investigation into allegations of UK Special Forces abuses in Afghanistan.

Newly obtained military reports raise the question as to whether one unit may have unlawfully killed a number of Afghans in a single six-month tour. It is further alleged that concerns around actions of Special Forces in Afghanistan were raised repeatedly in internal military emails and that, despite this information, senior officials failed to act or provide the Royal Military Police (RMP) with all available evidence.

The UK’s Special Forces are rightly viewed as an elite, highly professional, and effective grouping tasked to deal with extremely challenging situations in ever-complex armed conflicts. But challenging circumstances cannot excuse criminal behaviour and misconduct: no soldier is above the law.

Calls for an Inquiry

The Government and Secretary of State for Defence should heed growing calls for a robust and independent inquiry, which is appropriately resourced, has access to all relevant evidence and whose findings can be made public,

In response to concerns raised regarding the conduct of British forces in Afghanistan, Sir Howard Morrison QC, a former judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC) said: “[A]t the very least, a judge-led inquiry should be established to re-examine the evidence. The Panorama investigation raises such a powerful case, using civilian and military sources, it is difficult to believe anyone would disagree that these issues need to be thoroughly reinvestigated.”

The call for an inquiry is also supported by a number of former senior military leaders, including Colonel Oliver Lee, Commander of Royal Marines in Helmand, 2011, and General Lord Richards, former Head of the Armed Forces and Chief of the Defence Staff between 2010 and 2013 when the alleged extrajudicial killings occurred. The RMP have also requested that Panorama share the information gathered in its investigation, to assess whether war crimes may have been committed.

If the UK does not adequately investigate these allegations, there is also the risk the ICC may do so.

Meaningful Oversight of UK Special Forces

UK allies have addressed alleged abuses by their Special Forces in Afghanistan. After similar concerns raised in Australia, a judge-led inquiry found “credible evidence” that members of its Special Forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 people, using ‘drop weapons’ in an attempt to justify shootings. Australia then declared it would reform its Special Forces and the Chief of the Defence Force accepted all 134 recommendations of the report. The US Congress, expressing concern over ‘misconduct, ethics and professionalism’, ordered a review into US Special Forces.

It is no longer plausible for the UK to hide behind its blanket “no comment” policy on Special Forces, which, over the years, has been questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee , the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Defence Select Committee, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. Unlike the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, France, Denmark and Norway have institutionalised mechanisms that allow their governments to provide information about their special forces, or for their legislatures to scrutinise special forces actions.  The UK already has a precedent for such Parliamentary scrutiny, in relation to the classified work of its intelligence agencies.  As the UK expands the size, function and deployment of its Special Forces through its ‘persistent engagement’ strategy, the need for enhanced scrutiny is likely only to increase.

Reform of Military Investigation Process

More generally, the military’s flawed investigation process needs reform. The failure to conduct timely, independent and comprehensive investigations into alleged misconduct, due in part to failures in the chain of command, is causing repeated, delayed and lengthy cases. This has been underlined by Judge Blackett, Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces, 2004-2020, and General Sir Nick Parker, retired Commander-in-Chief for the Land Forces, who said the UK must develop “a credible, independent operational capability which can examine any allegations as rapidly as possible, retain information for challenges that come back in the future, and critically must be respected”.

Those allegedly responsible for war crimes, and those overseeing them in the chain of command, must either be punished or exonerated.  The above APPGs therefore call upon the government to carry out an inquiry into the allegations in the Panorama programme, ensure the law is upheld, and undertake a review and reform of the military investigation process, to protect both personnel and civilians, and maintain the integrity, professionalism and international reputation of the UK military.

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MEDIA ENQUIRIES – PLEASE CONTACT:

Aditi Gupta, APPG on Drones and Modern Conflict guptaab@parliament.uk

Nicole Piche, Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, pichen@parliament.uk

 

 

 

 

 

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