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British military deliberates: is releasing details of alleged war crimes to AOAV in public interest?

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has delayed releasing details of investigations into UK military war crimes in response to a Freedom of Information request, saying it needs to weigh up the public interest before it does so.

The request, made by Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) executive director, Dr. Overton, sought details of nine investigations into allegations of ‘war crimes’ conducted by the Royal Military Police (RMP) between 1 January 2004 and 31 March 2014. This includes incidents in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other unspecified locations.

Dr. Overton’s request, prompted by details given over by the MOD in a submission to the Independent Inquiry into Afghanistan, sought comprehensive details of these war crimes allegations. The specifics asked for included the location, date, nature of the crime, implicated regiment, and outcomes of the investigations. Additionally, Dr. Overton asked for any shareable ancillary information within cost limits, such as concluding reports.

The request was in response to a witness statement by Kristian Rotchell of the Royal Military Police (RMP). In it, the RMP noted that, between 2004 and 2014, it had investigated 288 cases of murder, 245 cases of attempted murder, 27 cases of manslaughter, 680 cases of sudden death and death during armed conflict, 965 allegations of rape and 1,893 special investigations.

Of note, there were nine investigations into war crimes noted – two in Afghanistan, four in Iraq and three in ‘other locations’. The ‘other locations’ are of special interest, given it is unclear where the UK has been operationally ‘at war’ since 2004, and where war crimes might have allegedly taken place.

At the time of writing, the MOD has acknowledged holding information pertinent to the request. However, it has invoked Section 30 of the Freedom of Information Act (related to investigations), a qualified exemption. This exemption necessitates a public interest test to determine whether the need for confidentiality outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

Under the Act, the MOD is typically required to respond to requests promptly, with a maximum timeframe of 20 working days. However, the public interest test involved in this case permits an extension of this period. The MOD estimates an additional 20 working days to decide on the balance of public interest, projecting a response by 1 February 2024.

This deliberation by the MOD raises a significant debate. On one hand, there’s a strong call for transparency and accountability, particularly given the serious nature of war crimes allegations. On the other, there are concerns about national security, the protection of sensitive information, and the potential impact on ongoing or future operations and investigations.

Dr Iain Overton of AOAV said of the delay: “In light of the MOD’s hesitation to release crucial details about UK military war crimes, it is imperative that we examine the deeper implications of such a delay. The transparency and accountability of our armed forces are not just internal matters; they hold significant weight in the eyes of the international community and the public. These are not just numbers – they are potential instances of profound breaches of international law and human ethics. It is essential that the ‘public interest’ include a robust understanding of the impact of these actions on global perceptions of justice and integrity. The undisclosed ‘other locations’ of alleged war crimes particularly raise questions about the transparency and scope of UK military operations abroad. As we await the MOD’s decision, we must consider the broader narrative we are crafting about our nation’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. This isn’t just about balancing the scales of public interest and operational confidentiality; it’s about affirming our nation’s stance on the fundamental principles of humanity.”

The outcome of this decision, expected by 1 February 2024, may have implications for public trust in the military and the government’s approach to transparency and accountability in matters of national and international significance.