By Kit Roberts
DONALD Trump has issued a presidential pardon to the four employees of private security firm Blackwater.
The men were convicted of killing more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007 using assault rifles, snipers, and grenade launchers.
In the initial trial the defence argued that the men were responding to a credible threat posed by an insurgent attack on the diplomatic convert they were escorting.
However, this was found by the court to not have been the case, the men had opened fire first. The youngest victim was nine-year-old Ali Kinani.
Three of the contractors were sentenced to prison sentences of thirty years, and one to life. Blackwater’s license to operate in Baghdad was also revoked.
Trump’s decision to grant a presidential pardon to these men destroys a legal decision that gave some level of closure the families of the victims, and signalled that crimes committed by military personnel in the field are still subject to prosecution.
This sets a dangerous precedent for the legal status of military personnel serving abroad, and raises the question of the legal culpability of soldiers for crimes they commit on active duty.
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In the UK this year, The Overseas Operations Bill has been introduced, and is currently on its second reading in the House of Lords. This bill would provide a five year period of presumption against prosecution of UK servicemen and women for acts committed in the field, including torture.
The prosecution of soldiers found guilty of such offences has long been a sore subject for right-wing voices, who call it an assault on the integrity of servicemen and women who risk their lives for their country.
Allowing soldiers in the field legal immunity for the acts they commit is a dangerous step. Aside from allowing existing war-criminals to walk free, it creates a permissive atmosphere which could prove extremely dangerous.
Our soldiers represent Great Britain internationally. How we expect them to behave whilst on active service and how we respond if they fall short of the high standards we expect says a lot about us as a nation.
If we don’t prosecute domestically, there is a chance that UK service personnel accused of particularly serious offences could be charged by the ICC. The image of UK citizens on trial for war crimes is hardly one that portrays us as a force for good on the world stage.
Writing for The Guardian earlier this year, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey argued:
“The bill’s purpose is to make it harder to prosecute British troops for some of the most serious crimes under the Geneva conventions by legislating for a presumption against prosecution after five years.
“Crimes of sexual violence are rightly exempted, but ministers want their presumption to cover torture and other war crimes.
“This risks the international criminal court acting to put British forces personnel on trial in the Hague if the UK justice system won’t, and it compromises the country’s proud reputation for upholding the rules-based international order that Britain has helped to construct since the days of Churchill and Attlee.”
The perpetrators of the Nissour Square Massacre were former US soldiers who had gotten jobs as private security. Trump’s pardoning of them sends a clear message of how he views US citizens in combat zones. It is nothing less than an affront to the families of the victims, to the nation of Iraq, and to any country which seeks to uphold and respect the law.
In the UK as we move into a new period in our history, becoming increasingly isolated or independent depending on who you ask, the strength of our own legal framework is more important than ever. It is deeply concerning that the UK government is echoing Trump’s tone on this subject.
The exceptionalism pushed by the Overseas Operations Bill will further undermine our already tarnished reputation as a country committed to upholding the rule of law.
Boris Johnson’s government should watch Trump, and see that the UK does not follow him in shirking our international responsibilities and commitments.
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