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The Guardian’s editorial on SAS killings: a response

Action on Armed Violence welcomes The Guardian’s editorial commentary on BBC Panorama’s July 2022 programme detailing alleged SAS war crimes in Afghanistan. This programme was produced in parallel with the report “Killing in the Shadows” by Action on Armed Violence.

The Guardian’s article states that “there is prima facie evidence that Britain’s soldiers have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.” Further– “this suggests that the UK has been reluctant to prosecute its own personnel” and that “British ministers think foreign lives don’t matter.”

Action on Armed Violence calls for an independent investigation into the allegations broadcast and highlighted in the above report.

The full text of the article can be read below:

The Guardian view on the SAS in Afghanistan: investigate claims of war crimes

The elite soldiers of the British army cannot be allowed to escape the laws of war

The government closed down its investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, known as Operation Northmoor, before any soldier was prosecuted. But the BBC’s Panorama has unearthed shocking evidence that Britain’s special forces executed detainees and murdered unarmed people in cold blood in Afghanistan. The programme suggests there was a cover-up within the military to protect the SAS. Any decent prime minister would launch an independent investigation into claims that British soldiers, especially those of its elite units, had committed war crimes. But Britain has Boris Johnson.

The allegations date back a decade, to when British troops were still fighting the Taliban alongside allies in Afghanistan. The BBC obtained detailed military reports of SAS night raids and uncovered a “pattern of strikingly similar reports of Afghan men being shot dead because they pulled AK-47 rifles or hand grenades from behind furniture after having been detained”. It found that 54 people were killed in suspicious circumstances by a single SAS unit in Helmand between 2010 and 2011. The death toll sparked alarm among senior officers, who worried about a “deliberate policy” of unlawful killing.

However, there are suggestions that key information was not shared with the Royal Military Police. Two years later – in 2013 – the special forces director, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, allegedly did not disclose to the RMP, who were investigating the raids conducted on that tour, any of the earlier concerns over unlawful killings, or the existence of a rare review into the squadron. General Carleton-Smith, who declined to comment to the BBC, went on to become head of the army before stepping down last month.

In 2014, the RMP launched Northmoor, a wide-ranging investigation into 675 criminal allegations in Afghanistan, including a number of killings by the SAS squadron. Six years later, Northmoor was shut down. No UK soldier faced prosecution. But investigators told the BBC that they were obstructed by British military in their efforts to gather evidence – which may explain why there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. At the time Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, blamed human rights lawyers for bringing claims against the Ministry of Defence. The allegations of death and deceit never went away. Rather than deal with the message, the MoD has shot the messenger, claiming the BBC reached “unjustified” conclusions.

There is prima facie evidence that Britain’s soldiers have committed war crimes in Afghanistan. This is unsurprising, given that in 2020 the international criminal court found evidence that British troops committed war crimes in Iraq. The MoD breathed a sigh of relief back then as the ICC declined to prosecute. But it ill behoves the country to reserve justice only for its enemies. Attempts to prosecute claims in the courts have engendered a hostile environment for legal redress. The UK government tried to make it almost impossible to prosecute war crimes with legislation last year. Labour did not do enough to oppose that bill. Despite a history of championing the laws of war, the UK has been reluctant to prosecute its own personnel. This suggests British ministers think foreign lives don’t matter. Other nations have faced up to the brutal fact that their soldiers committed atrocities. The first step to doing so would be for Britain, like Australia, to set up a statutory judge-led inquiry into war crimes.