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Selective secrecy: AOAV criticises UK Minister Johnny Mercer’s lack of transparency on military misconduct

In June 2021, during a YouTube interview on Conservative Home, Minister for Veterans Johnny Mercer was asked if the British government had knowledge of any alleged wrongdoings by British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mercer replied: “I have to be really careful here. No, we don’t know what happened. And I formally wrote to the Secretary of State on my position on this subject. He knows that and he makes his own decisions.”

His reply prompted a formal FOI request from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) seeking correspondence between Mr. Mercer and the Secretary of State for Defence regarding potential misconduct.

The Ministry of Defence’s response to AOAV took many months. We first asked in 12 November 2021. We finally heard back in December 2022.

The MOD acknowledged the existence of the correspondence sought, but denied AOAV access to that data under the Freedom of Information Act. They cited Section 35(1)(b)—a provision that protects information vital for the effective formulation of government policy. While the public’s right to know was weighed, it was deemed less significant than the potential risk such disclosure might pose to governmental operations and decision-making.

A year later, however, Mr. Mercer was – on this matter – very much less secretive. He submitted the same evidence to the Independent Inquiry concerning special forces extra judicial killings in Afghanistan, an act of seeming selective transparency that raises questions about the integrity and consistency of governmental disclosure policies. Why to a judge and not to the public?

This approach underscores a discomforting reality where information accessibility appears contingent not on public interest but on the context in which the information is requested and the potential repercussions of its disclosure.

For organisations like AOAV, dedicated to military accountability and the mitigation of violence, such decisions have real life consequences. Selective transparency hinders civil society’s ability to assess and advocate for effective policies that address and rectify issues of military conduct and oversight. The refusal to release critical communications under FOI laws contradicts, we believe, the principle of open government and undermines trust in those very institutions meant to serve and protect us – namely the Ministry of Defence.

We also believe Mr. Mercer’s own actions reveal a politician concerned as much about the political fallout from allegations of misconduct than by national security concerns. Mercer is willing to give previously refused evidence to a judge, but he seems unwilling to share with that judge details of allegations.

As of May 16, it is understood that Mr Mercer continues to contest the judges order to disclose the names of individuals who informed him about alleged war crimes by British special forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Mercer initially had until April 5 to provide a witness statement with the names to an independent inquiry but this was extended to May 10.

Failure to comply could result in a jail sentence or fine, according to the MP for Plymouth Moor View. Mr. Mercer was issued a Section 21 notice under the Inquiries Act 2005, which mandates him to hand over the names, assured to be treated confidentially by the Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan. Mr. Mercer served with a Special Boat Service (SBS) task force in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009.

Such a refusal by a member of the privy council raises red flags. As an organisation committed to transparency and the reduction of armed violence, AOAV is concerned that withholding such information, especially when it pertains to the conduct of military forces, prevents public scrutiny and the potential for necessary reforms.

We believe that a government truly accountable to its people must prioritise transparency, especially when it involves the actions of its armed forces abroad. The selective sharing of information, dependent on the forum, does not foster trust but breeds skepticism and doubt about the motivations of those at the highest levels of power. This applies both with FOI refusals and Ministerial refusals to co-operate with government-commissioned inquiries.

We call for a reevaluation of the criteria used to withhold MOD information under FOIA, advocating for a balance that truly weighs the substantial public interest in disclosure against the need for confidentiality in policy formulation. And we call on Mr Mercer to co-operate with the inquiry, in the manner fitting for a minister of the realm.

Only through such transparency can we hope to address and resolve the significant issues surrounding military conduct and ensure that such operations reflect the ethical standards and values of the society they represent.