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Will the arrest of an Australian SAS soldier for human rights abuses pave the way for similar arrests in the UK?

The issue of alleged war crimes committed by elite Western military units in Afghanistan has once been thrust into the spotlight following the recent conviction of a former Australian Special Air Services (SAS) soldier for murder. Footage had emerged showing an Australian soldier shooting an Afghan man in a wheat field in Uruzgan Province in southern Afghanistan in 2012.

Oliver Schulz, 41, is the first Australian serviceman to be charged with a war crime under Australian law, an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life in jail. This arrest follows the publication of the Brereton Report which, when released in 2020, found “credible evidence” that Australian elite soldiers unlawfully killed 39 people during the Afghan war. Both this conviction and parallel findings raises question as to whether similar crimes were committed by the British SAS in Afghanistan, a concern that may find its answer in findings that are due to be announced by a UK judge later this week.

Last year, the BBC and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) revealed evidence that suggested British SAS operatives in Afghanistan repeatedly killed detainees and unarmed men in suspicious circumstances. One unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in one six-month tour, and evidence emerged suggesting the former head of special forces at the time failed to pass on evidence to a murder inquiry.

General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the former head of UK Special Forces, was also allegedly briefed about the alleged unlawful killings but did not pass on the evidence to the Royal Military Police (RMP). This was even after the RMP began a murder investigation into the SAS squadron. General Carleton-Smith, who went on to become head of the Army before stepping down last year, has declined to comment on these accusations.
Following the AOAV/BBC expose, last year the UK government announced an independent statutory inquiry into the allegations. That inquiry, which reveals its verdict this Wednesday – 22 March 2023 – set out to specifically look at special forces raids known as Deliberate Detention Operations (DDOs) that took place between mid-2010 and mid-2013.

The findings of this inquiry will be a key message to the world about the UK’s capacity to regulate and hold to account its elite regiments. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already made it clear that no British military personnel are “above the law”, and the allegations of unlawful killings and other serious crimes by British SAS operatives have indeed been deeply troubling. Reports of detainees and unarmed men being shot dead in suspicious circumstances, the use of “drop weapons” to justify killings, and allegations of high-ranking officers being aware of concerns but failing to report them to military police have all contributed to a sense of unease around the conduct of elite military units.

In addition to the inquiry, there have been calls for greater accountability and oversight of Britain’s elite military units. Last year, Ben Wallace – the Minister of Defence – refused to allow the Defence Select Committee access to Hereford, home to the UK’s SAS.

Some have suggested that the UK should establish an independent body to investigate allegations of war crimes and hold those responsible to account. Others have called for reforms to the military justice system to ensure that it is fair, transparent, and independent.

It is widely agreed that the UK government has a responsibility to ensure that its armed forces operate within the bounds of international law and that those responsible for any violations are held to account. The inquiry into SAS operations in Afghanistan will be a crucial step in this process, and its findings will send a powerful message to the world about the UK’s commitment to justice and accountability.

The allegations of unlawful killings by SAS operatives in Afghanistan are a long time in the making. In 2019, the BBC and the Sunday Times investigated one SAS raid, leading to a UK court case and an order for the UK defence minister to disclose related documents. AOAV and the BBC’s latest investigation found a pattern of similar reports of Afghan men being shot dead after being detained and allegedly pulling weapons from behind furniture. The total death toll during the squadron’s six-month tour reached triple figures, with no injuries reported to SAS operatives.

That 2022 investigation analysed hundreds of pages of SAS operational accounts, including reports of over a dozen “kill or capture” raids carried out by an SAS squadron in Helmand in 2010/11. Several individuals who served with the squadron reported witnessing SAS operatives kill unarmed people during night raids. Internal emails also indicated that high-ranking officers were aware of concerns over possible unlawful killings but failed to report suspicions to military police.

The findings of the inquiry will also have wider implications for the UK’s relationship with international law and human rights. The UK is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and has a responsibility to ensure that its armed forces operate within the bounds of international law.  

Failure to do so could damage the UK’s reputation and undermine its ability to influence international policy on issues such as human rights. If the UK legal system fails to act with the same conviction as witnessed in Australia, the very rationale for going to war in Afghanistan – justice, freedom and the rule of law – will come under question.