Independent Inquiry relating to AfghanistanAOAV: all our reportsMilitarism examined

Opinion: Conservative minister Johnny Mercer’s refusal to disclose identities of critical witnesses in SAS war crimes inquiry undermines the rule of law

The controversy surrounding Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer’s refusal to disclose the identities of individuals who reported alleged war crimes by British special forces in Afghanistan strikes at the heart of a fundamental democratic principle: the rule of law must always take precedence over individual or partisan loyalties.

Mercer’s stance, while arguably motivated by a sense of loyalty to those who confided in him, undermines the integrity of the democratic process and the principles of justice and transparency that underpin it.

Firstly, the rule of law is a cornerstone of democratic societies, ensuring that justice is administered fairly, transparently, and without bias. By refusing to comply with an order from an independent inquiry—a body established to investigate serious allegations of war crimes—Mercer is challenging this foundational principle. The inquiry’s mandate is not only to uncover the truth but also to ensure accountability for actions that, if proven, would constitute grave violations of both international and domestic law. In this context, Mercer’s refusal to provide the requested information obstructs the pursuit of justice. How a Conservative front-bencher can take this stance and remain in post is a question that goes to the heart of democratic accountability.

Furthermore, the principle of transparency is crucial in maintaining public trust in democratic institutions, including the armed forces and the government itself. When allegations as serious as extrajudicial killings by Special Forces arise, it is imperative that they are investigated thoroughly and openly. The independent inquiry’s request for information, including the names of those who came forward with allegations, is a critical part of this process. Assurances have been given that such information would be treated with the utmost confidentiality, minimising the risk to individuals involved. Mercer’s refusal to cooperate, therefore, not only hampers the investigation but also erodes public confidence in the accountability mechanisms that safeguard democratic norms.

Moreover, Mercer’s position as a Minister of the Crown and a member of the Privy Council carries with it a responsibility to uphold the highest standards of conduct and compliance with the law. This includes respecting the procedures and requirements of legally constituted inquiries. By challenging the order to provide information, Mercer places personal or perceived obligations above his duties as a public official, setting a concerning precedent for the prioritisation of personal loyalty over legal and democratic responsibilities.

While concerns for the safety and privacy of whistleblowers are legitimate, the broader implications of Mercer’s refusal must be considered. The integrity of the armed forces and the government’s commitment to justice are at stake. Veterans and serving personnel, many of whom uphold the highest ethical standards in their service, deserve a system that investigates allegations of wrongdoing with rigour and impartiality. They, like the public, have a right to expect that those in positions of power will act in accordance with the law and in the best interests of justice and accountability.

In conclusion, while loyalty and the protection of sources are important considerations, they must not obstruct the principles of justice, transparency, and the rule of law. Mercer’s refusal to comply with the inquiry’s request undermines these principles and poses a challenge to the very foundations of democratic governance.

It is incumbent upon those who serve in public office, particularly in roles of significant responsibility, to model respect for the legal and ethical standards that underpin the democratic process. Mercer has failed in his primary duty.

Iain Overton is the Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence

The letter to Johnny Mercer MP from the Independent Inquiry Relating To Afghanistan: