Army must realise it is not above the law

(My Column from this week’s Irish World)

"This trust afforded to us by the Government and the public allows us to operate as an army unlike any other. If we lose this trust – like parts of the medical profession, the political parties, the police and even more recently the Catholic Church – the road back is simply blocked. Heed the warning, the road back if trust is lost will be blocked for the better part of my life if not a generation."

This remarkable warning was delivered recently by a senior British officer, Major General Graeme Lamb, in a speech to his colleagues on the Iraq War.

The Sunday Telegraph, which reported Gen Lamb’s comments, noted that there was “concern among senior officers, including Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff, that the military’s reputation is being eroded by allegations of abuse in Iraq, bullying and sex scandals and the deaths of recruits at Deepcut.”

Gen Jackson is of course himself facing scrutiny from the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, over the ‘shot list’ which he wrote the night after the 1972 Derry massacre, and which claimed that the army had shot gunmen and bombers, rather than the unarmed civilians who actually died.

That particular predicament perhaps disproves claims that the Army’s problems are down to the allegedly lower quality of recruits produced by today’s society. In reality, what has changed is the level of scrutiny the Army is subject to.

In that respect, Gen Lamb’s comparison with the Catholic Church is extremely apposite. Both institutions are closed hierarchical structures, in which unquestioning obedience to authority is expected. Both have a professional ethos that sets them apart from the rest of society, and have traditionally had their own legal systems. This has sometimes led to a certain contempt for mainstream civil society and its authorities.

It was perhaps this attitude more than anything else that has damaged the Catholic Church in recent decades. It was not so much the fact that members of the clergy committed physical and sexual abuse that created the Church’s crisis, but the fact that the Church repeatedly chose to retain and protect the individuals involved, allowing their crimes to continue, rather than face public scrutiny.

There is every indication that the same outlook prevails in the Army today, as was reflected in the conversation which the Sunday Telegraph’s Max Hastings reportedly had with a senior officer recently.
"This is a new environment," the officer said. "It is very hard to continue to do the business we have always done, when human rights lawyers are roaming the battlefield, looking for clients in the Iraqi population amid which we fight."

This was undoubtedly a reference to Phil Shiner, the Birmingham-based lawyer who represents both the families of British servicemen killed in Iraq, and Iraqi victims of coalition human rights abuses.
No doubt many in the Church hierarchy felt equally ambivalent when those over whom they had been accustomed to exercise authority, began seeking to enforce their human rights.

However, the Church found, as the Army will find, that they could not ‘continue to do the business we have always done,’ in the old way. Attempting to do so only compounded the problem.
The demand that the Army deal properly with human rights violations will only grow stronger. One indication of that will come on 5 September, when Phil Shiner will be among the speakers at the launch of the Article Seven – End Impunity Campaign at London’s City Hall.

The Campaign takes its name from Article Seven of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees everyone equal protection before the law. It is inspired by the case of Peter McBride, who was shot dead in 1992, by two Scots Guardsmen, shortly after he had been searched by members of the same unit.

McBride’s killers, Mark Wright and James Fisher, were convicted of murder, but were freed in 1998 following a press and political campaign. Despite their conviction, an Army Board ruled there were ‘exceptional reasons’ justifying their retention in the service. The courts have twice condemned this decision, but the Army authorities have refused to reconsider it.

Instead, Wright and Fisher were seconded to the Irish Guards, with whom they are believed to have served in Iraq.

Four members of the Scots and Irish Guards have since been charged with the manslaughter in May 2003 of Ahmed Kareem, who drowned after he was allegedly punched and kicked and forced into the Shatt-Al-Basra canal.

The British Government can hardly claim to have taken due care to prevent such human rights abuses, when it allowed two convicted murderers to serve with the Irish Guards.

The treatment of Wright and Fisher also begs the question of what will happen to the soldiers accused of killing Ahmed Kareem if they are convicted. Will they be discharged, or will the Army once again invoke ‘exceptional circumstances.’ Soldiers convicted of a manslaughter charge may well raise uncomfortable questions, if they receive tougher treatment than those convicted of murder.

This dilemma once again demonstrates that covering up human rights abuses will only make the crisis General Lamb fears inevitable.

There is, however, clear action that the Government and the Army can take to avoid that crisis. It can pick up the central demand of the Article Seven – End Impunity Campaign, and ensure that soldiers convicted of offences involving serious human rights abuses are discharged without exception. The Armed Forces Bill due this autumn provides a perfect opportunity for such legislation.

An Army which respects the rule of law would not hesitate to take such a step.



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