NATO war crimes should be held to account
Published: Aug 03, 2022 06:27 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

A BBC Panorama program revealed on July 12 that according to a four-year investigation and newly obtained military reports, British Special Air Service (SAS) operatives in Afghanistan repeatedly killed detainees and unarmed people in suspicious circumstances. As a shocking example, one unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in a six-month tour. Individuals deployed alongside the SAS told the BBC that they had witnessed the soldiers deliberately planting AK-47 assault rifles at a scene to justify the killing of unarmed persons, and that some squadrons were even "competing with each other to get the most kills".

Sadly, for those who have been following the situation in Afghanistan, the outrageous war crimes exposed by the episode are nothing new. 

An earlier series of investigations by British media outlets disclosed that in the first quarter of 2011, an SAS unit brutally executed 33 Afghan civilians in the so-called "search for the Taliban". The British government maintained at the time that the soldiers did so in self defense, but it was disclosed that just hours after the troops returned to base from one of the raids, other British soldiers described what had happened as the "latest massacre" when exchanging emails. In 2012, when UK special forces burst into the Loy Bagh village in Helmand province, a soldier shot dead four young people (aged from 12 to 20) suspected to be "Taliban commanders", leaving the room with "bones and teeth all over the place", who later turned out to be innocent civilians.

The British army is not alone in such callous killings of civilians. Similar examples abound in the record of NATO Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.

In 2010, several US soldiers formed the infamous "Kill Team", hunting down Afghan civilians at random just for fun and even hoarding their victims' body parts as trophies. In 2012, the notorious killer Robert Bales, one of the team's members, slew 16 Afghan civilians in a village near the US military base, most of whom were women and children. In 2020, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court revealed with credible evidence that Afghan prisoners were tortured, abused or raped during the interrogations by US military and intelligence agencies. 

In the same year, a military inquiry report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force found "credible information" of potential war crimes committed by Australian troops, who unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians between 2005 and 2016. In some horrifying scenarios, Australian soldiers were captured slitting innocent children's throats and drinking beer out of the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban soldier. 

These are not isolated cases. The NATO allies' atrocities have been persistent, systematic and prevalent. Over the past two decades, the U.S.-led NATO operations in Afghanistan have left more than 30,000 civilians dead and over 60,000 injured, and displaced 11 million people as refugees. And it is not only in Afghanistan. Iraq, Syria … Similar tragedies have occurred over and over again.

Even worse, many of those responsible are still at large and even comfortably enjoying impunity under the umbrella of their governments. As the BBC reported, when the Royal Military Police (RMP) started a murder investigation into one of the SAS raids in 2013, General Carleton-Smith, then head of UK special forces, concealed all the concerns over unlawful killings, although internal emails showed that officers at the highest levels of special forces were fully aware of such concerns.

Moreover, the Overseas Operations Bill passed by the British Parliament in 2021 stipulates that the "unique context of overseas operations" should be considered when deciding whether to prosecute British soldiers for their alleged crimes. The bill also prevents civil claims from being brought after six years if they relate to overseas operations. The legislative move essentially puts the military above the law. The logic behind the thinking that "war crimes taking place six years ago are no longer punishable" cannot be more absurd.

Military forces are supposed to protect the vulnerable. But NATO, the world's most powerful military alliance, has earned itself a reputation for brutality. In the name of freedom and democracy they came, and in the name of protecting the people they inflicted harm. Those who are most vocal about defending human rights have committed some of the most horrible crimes against humanity. 

Action is long overdue. The innocent people are crying out for justice. It is time to put the perpetrators in the dock and hold them accountable.

The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, etc. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com.