The UK’s military must be equally subject to the law as any civilian, whether in barracks or on operations. The UK military rightly demands that those who fall short of these standards should pay the full penalty for doing so. However, just as in civilian life, investigations into wrongdoing must be fair and be seen to be fair.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) was set up in 2010 to investigate allegations of abuse by Iraqi civilians against UK armed forces personnel that were said to have occurred between 2003 and 2009. It was expected, to take two years to complete its work. Exploited by two law firms in particular, IHAT’s caseload rose from 165 to over 3,000 over subsequent years. It is now expected to complete its work in 2019 and will cost the taxpayer nearly £60 million.
A large number of those claims were taken up by IHAT despite a lack of credible evidence and the investigations have taken years to complete. As a result, those under investigation have suffered unacceptable stress, have had their lives put on hold and their careers damaged. They have been, and in some cases continue to be, treated in an unacceptable manner as a result of serving the United Kingdom.
The catalogue of serious failings in the conduct of IHAT’s investigations points to a loss of control in its management. Service personnel and veterans have been contacted unannounced—sometimes years after service—despite assurances that this would not happen. Covert surveillance appears to have been used on serving and retired members of the armed forces. IHAT investigators have impersonated police officers in order to gain access to military establishments or threaten arrest. Investigations which had previously been closed down were re-opened on the back of dubious evidence.
Perhaps the most telling failure of IHAT is the absence of a single prosecution against the UK military. It has been an unmitigated failure for both ‘victims’ and military personnel alike. Of the total number of cases investigated by IHAT (more than 3,500), most have or will shortly be, dismissed. The Secretary of State for Defence told us that he hoped that the number would be reduced to 60 by summer 2017. Once the number of cases outstanding reaches that target, it is our view that IHAT must be closed down, with remaining cases passed to the service police, with support from civilian police.
Throughout this process there has been an almost total disregard of the welfare of current and former service personnel and their families. Soldiers have had to fund their own defence and have been left in the dark by a chain of command which has appeared to be unable or unwilling to interfere with the process.
IHAT has operated without any regard to its impact on the UK military which has directly harmed their reputation across the world, and negatively affected the way this country conducts military operations and defends itself.
The MoD must take its share of responsibility for this. Both the MoD and IHAT have focused too much on satisfying the accusers and too little on defending those under investigation. Ministers must take the lead in ensuring that this rectified.
The MoD is now reforming its package of support for servicemen and women. In October 2016, it announced that it would now cover the legal costs for all of those under investigation by IHAT. It has also started work on how the UK can derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights so that claims through the European Court of Human Rights cannot be made for future conflicts.
The manner in which the armed forces are investigated requires fundamental reform. The focus has been on satisfying perceived international obligations and outside bodies, with far too little regard for those who have fought under the UK’s flag. Our report contains a set of principles to which the MoD and any future investigatory body should adhere. The armed forces deserve to be held in the highest esteem and a repeat of IHAT must never be allowed to happen again.
9 February 2017