Global Britain can make its Mark by Fighting for War Crimes Accountability
Ahead of the G7 summit slated for this June in Cornwall, Conservative peer Baroness Helić and Tory MP Anthony Mangnall joined together with 36 Conservative MPs to urge the British government to use its G7 presidency to advocate for a fresh wave of concrete action against sexual violence in conflict. As Helić and Mangnall noted, the UK has been an important global advocate for survivors of these appalling war crimes—yet around the world, victims of wartime sexual violence continue to suffer from stigma and an egregious lack of adequate support, while perpetrators often enjoy impunity and never face serious consequences for their crimes.
Safeguarding the UK’s reputation as a human rights champion
It’s a particularly opportune moment for the British government to follow Helić and Mangnall’s recommendations to work together with allies at the G7 summit to craft a new impartial international body to investigate instances of wartime sexual violence and dole out genuine consequences to perpetrators while providing survivors with support. Not only is “global Britain” finding the footing of its post-Brexit foreign policy, the government needs to clear the air following a spate of controversy over the Overseas Operations Bill, which sparked concerns that the UK’s global leadership on human rights issues might be fragilized by fear of accountability at home.
As initially drafted, the Overseas Operations Bill would have made it far more difficult to charge British soldiers for their involvement in torture, murder, genocide and other war crimes while deployed. The British government argued that the bill was necessary in order to safeguard military personnel from repeated investigations into their conduct abroad and from unfounded, fraudulent allegations against them. The bill was amended, however, following overwhelming opposition in the House of Lords and extensive warnings that it could take a sledgehammer to the UK’s reputation as one of the world’s most ardent voices calling for accountability for war crimes.
Indeed, countless human rights advocates, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, warned against the bill as initially drafted. Amnesty International UK, meanwhile, slammed the bill as an unprecedented attempt to place military members “above the law”. In order to achieve the bill’s ostensible goal of ensuring that British troops don’t face repeat inquiries into their actions, the campaign group suggested, UK authorities should instead bolster investigations into credible reports of war crimes—no matter how long has elapsed since the alleged events. “Torture is still torture if it took place five years ago,” the NGO declared; “war crimes are still war crimes if they took place five years ago.”
Accountability: an essential prerequisite for moving forward
In fact, this sentiment has been the driving force for a number of British lawmakers who have played a key role in advocating for victims of heinous war crimes. Former UK foreign secretaries William Hague and Jack Straw, for example, have fought tirelessly to secure justice for those suffering the consequences of wartime sexual violence, such as the Vietnamese women who were allegedly assaulted by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War and the half-Vietnamese, half-Korean children born from these attacks, known as the Lai Dai Han.
The case of the Lai Dai Han exemplifies the devastating consequences of side-lining survivors of war crimes while failing to mete out justice to perpetrators. In the decades since the Vietnam War, the Lai Dai Han and their mothers have endured unrelenting stigma and exclusion from education, healthcare and social services in Vietnam, a situation which has only perpetuated the violence inflicted during the conflict itself.
The challenges faced by the Lai Dai Han and their mothers are greatly exacerbated by the lack of any apology or acknowledgment from Seoul, which could help the roughly 800 women still alive today find closure and healing after decades of pain. Instead of taking responsibility for any crimes its troops may have committed and behaving compassionately towards the victims of these atrocities, Seoul has limited itself to terse statements, such as its declaration that “since the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1992, the Korean government has made forward-looking efforts to develop relations with Vietnam. [We will now] put the unfortunate past behind and look towards the future.”
This painful chapter, however, will never be closed without appropriate action and acknowledgement from South Korean authorities. As former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, now the International Ambassador for advocacy group Justice for Lai Dai Han, has underlined: “Facing up to unacceptable behaviour by troops is difficult for any country, but uncovering the truth not only gives victims and their families closure but can strengthen a nation and its values.”
Perfect time for UK to lead on justice for war crimes
This is a lesson that the lawmakers which were doggedly pushing to impede prosecutions against UK soldiers accused of war crimes appear not to have heard. Instead of merely licking its wounds after the defeat in the House of Lords, the British government must take a step back and consider how best to hold troops from any nation accountable when they face credible accusations of having committed crimes as appalling as wartime sexual violence.
Baroness Helić and Anthony Mangnall were right—the G7 summit is the perfect time for the UK to light a fire under the world’s leading democracies, spurring them to take concrete action against sexual violence in conflict. South Korea’s attendance as a guest nation will give UK lawmakers an excellent opportunity to highlight the importance of acknowledging painful past wrongs such as the plight of the Lai Dai Han, while the UK has a strong new ally in recently-elected US President Joe Biden, who has a history of fighting against gender-based violence. With horrifying reports attesting to ongoing atrocities in contemporary conflicts like the Tigray region of Ethiopia, there’s no time like the present for the UK to assume the mantle of global leader in pressing for accountability for war crimes such as conflict-related sexual violence and breaking the cycle of stigma and silence.