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Patrick Benham-Crosswell: Politicians are responsible for the legal hounding of our brave soldiers


Ex Army MP Johnny Mercer’s inquiry into the operation of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) will recommend that it be shut down. Right answer, but way too late.

IHAT was set up to establish to investigate allegations of mistreatment of Iraqis by the British Army following the invasion of Iraq.  The MOD, which funds it, claims that it was compelled to set it up as it was independent of the British Army; the concern was that otherwise the UK might find itself as a defendant in the International Criminal Court.  There were concerns that, following the death in British Army custody of Baha Mousa in 2003, the British Army was insufficiently impartial to investigate such matters – although in fact the perpetrator was identified, convicted and imprisoned.

Rather than take the line that, as a professional army, the British Army had a strong interest in identifying and punishing those soldiers that disobeyed any order, including ones relating to the treatment of prisoners, the MOD caved in, set up IHAT and threw money at it.  Much of this money went to Phil Shiner’s firm, Public Interest Lawyers, more went on hiring investigators.  Seven years after it was established it has, at the cost to date of some £35 million, investigated over 3,000 allegations and so far brought no prosecutions.

If one believes that the British Army is actually a noble, disciplined and professional force (which was the world view at the time) then the answer to the threat of prosecution by the ICC is either “Bring it on” or, perhaps more sensibly, to leave the ICC – the USA is not a member (Clinton signed the Rome treaty that established the ICC, but did not put if before the Senate for ratification.  George W Bush stated that he would not join it.  Obama opted to be an observer, but the treaty was still not ratified).  Other non-members include Russia, China, India and all of the ‘Stans.  It’s hardly a global organisation.

So the UK taxpayer has funded the reckless spending of a MOD agency that has done nothing of note, other than to persecute current and ex-UK servicemen (and women) to no benefit other than that of Mr Shiner and some ex-police investigators.  Farce is an understatement.  Who is responsible?  Much as I would love to castigate ‘Very Senior Officers’, this was imposed on them from above (Gordon Brown) and IHAT is outside the military chain of command.  Accountability, therefore, rests with successive Secretaries of State and their senior civil servants.  Their excuse of the indefensible will be that they were “acting on legal advice.”

Sorry, I don’t buy it, politicians make the law and civil servants administer it.  What has happened is, I believe, an encapsulation of much of the problem with the government of the UK – we have too much law, not enough leadership and an opaque, dysfunctional accountability chain.  It’s not just the MOD.

Remember the Mid-Staffordshire Hospital’s abnormally high death rates due to management emphasis on targets rather than outcomes?  The chief executive of the relevant health authority, Sir David Nicholson, became the Chief Executive of the entire NHS.  He issued an apology and remained in post until 2014 (on a salary of over £250,000).  One suspects that had it been a private hospital he would have probably been in the dock, as the director of a company that had committed corporate manslaughter.

If there is one positive to be salvaged from the whole IHAT fiasco, (and yes, IHAT is still in business as I write), it is an expose of the utterly useless management of money, law and people that characterises the government machine.  I hope that in the residue of Brexit we will find a way of fixing it.

(Image: David Holt)

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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