Following newly public allegations that British SAS forces executed unarmed Afghan civilians during a 2011 raid of a compound believed to be housing Taliban militants, the historian Andrew Roberts opined in The Sunday Times that UK military forces fighting terrorist groups should not be bound by the Geneva Conventions – which form the core of the Law Of Armed Conflict (LOAC). Roberts argued that terror tactics against civilian populations have been common throughout history and can be “successful”, that democracies enjoy a moral superiority deriving from the causes rather than the methods of warfare, and that the public does not have a right to even be informed of such problematic allegations, since it would undermine the operational effectiveness of British military operations. In other words, the military should be allowed to operate outside the boundaries of the rule of law, and the public should trust the government to do the right thing, even if that means accepting serious abuses.

As the representative of Center for Civilians in Conflict, an organization that witnesses daily the death and destruction that war inflicts upon civilians, and that has seen how failure to mitigate violence against the population relentlessly fuels the cycle of violence, I wholeheartedly reject these ideas.

First, the UK military is bound by LOAC even if the Taliban and many other state and non-state armed groups refuse to abide by it. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 explicitly call upon parties to an armed conflict to respect and ensure respect of LOAC in all situations, rejecting the argument of reciprocity and binding parties to the applicable obligations regardless of their enemies’ behavior. That decision was motivated in part by the massacre of thousands of Soviet war prisoners by the Nazi regime, which argued along the same lines that the USSR was not a party to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners. With the UK being one of the main proponents of the Geneva Conventions and the international order they serve, claiming an exception for British forces could provoke more violence from less scrupulous actors and would tear down the principle that even war is subject to rules.

Roberts then argues that “terror tactics to punish and try to cow a civilian population” have been both common in history and “successful”. He quotes the massacre of German and Japanese prisoners as examples, though he could have referred to more recent examples like the reported massacre of up to 40,000 civilians in Sri Lanka as a final offensive in what became the last month of the war, or the ongoing massacre of civilians by Assad and his Russian allies that has brought him close to winning the civil war in Syria. If “success” is determined by the short-term military defeat of an opponent, then the overwhelming use of violence against civilians – though in levels far superior to the sporadic execution of a few suspected militants – could work. But if those levels of violence are unacceptable, and the ultimate mission of a military force is to bring a modicum of peace and stability to the country, then unchecked violence is only counter-productive. Don’t take it from “human rights lawyers” or “anti-war pressure groups”, as Roberts defines them, but from General Stanley McChrystal, who wrote in a tactical directive to all NATO troops under his command in Afghanistan on civilian casualties:

“We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.”

In other words, if the UK wants to win the peace in Afghanistan, killing civilians – even those the military suspects belong to terrorist groups – outside the laws of war will not serve an advantage.

Roberts then moves to the ethical underpinning of his argument, claiming that we retain a “moral superiority because we are modern liberal democracies and they are totalitarian psychopaths”, and that this superiority “comes from the cause, not the methods of warfare.” This argument is troubling on several fronts. It assumes that democracies only fight “just wars”. The US invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam War, and the French wars in Algeria are but some examples of wars fought by democracies whose legitimacy is, to say the least, widely contested today.

Most importantly, the legitimacy of democracies does not come from the fact that we vote our leaders in and out of office, but from the strength and accountability of our public institutions, who operate on the basis of the rule of law. Claiming an exception for a public institution – and one that has the authority of the use of force on behalf of the state – runs counter to the very principles of democracy. Roberts is saying that because we are a democracy, we should be allowed to operate like an authoritarian repressive state. We can’t have the cake and eat it too.

After claiming that these crimes against civilians can be legitimate and useful, Roberts then makes the point that the public also does not have the right to be informed about such actions, in order to preserve the “operational effectiveness” of UK military operations. Roberts is right that the public does not have a right to know everything concerning their country’s military operations. Sources of intelligence must be protected, troop numbers and movements must often be concealed from the enemy, and military strategy and tactics kept classified. However, the commission of serious abuses – potentially amounting to war crimes – never enhances the operational effectiveness of any operation and thus runs counter the interest of any responsible military commander. Moreover, the public at home, and communities abroad upon whom the UK government depends on for success, are much more likely to place faith in and support a government that is candid about its mistakes and publicly committed to account for them.

Finally, the strongest reason to reject Roberts’ ideas is the one he quickly discards as irrelevant and defines as the “moral hooey”. Everyone deserves the protection of the law, and all episodes of violence against unarmed civilians must be censored. We are rightly appalled when the Taliban murder civilians because they suspect them to be informants or collaborators of “enemy forces”. If we fail to understand that following the same logic moves the conflict in Afghanistan further from resolution, we will continue to fail the thousands of brave Afghans that are struggling to finally bring peace to their country.

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