Australia’s ‘de facto’ SAS war crimes trial has lessons for the UK

Australian soldiers - SAS war crimes UK
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A famous SAS soldier has lost a multi-million defamation trial in Australia. Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith was found not to have been defamed over media claims of murder in Afghanistan. The case has been referred to as a ‘proxy’ war crimes trial.

Australian cases of this kind tell a story about the wars. And, for that matter, about the responses of the occupying nations. Australia has had major inquiries and cases have reached the courts. Meanwhile, the UK chose to legislate to protect past and future war criminals.

Hero soldier?

For decades, Western soldiers have been lionised by governments and the press to stave off criticism of wars like Afghanistan. This is nowhere truer than the Special Forces. Political expediency meant that elite troops were overused in Afghanistan and Iraq. Partly because their deaths were not as politically loaded as regular forces.

Australian SAS soldier Roberts-Smith is an example of this. The Australian SAS, like its British and American counterparts went rogue. In each case, they started to act like unaccountable gangs.

When accused of involvement in war crimes, this hero of the Australian right-wing sued for defamation. He just lost his case on most of the allegations made. Over a year long case, the court heard how the SAS was a factional, rogue force, riven by internal rivalry. This allegedly included ‘blooding’. This is a practice where new recruits were made to extrajudicially kill captives to prove themselves.

One of the allegations included an incident in 2012 when Roberts-Smith was said to have kicked a prisoner off a cliff before another SAS soldier shot the prisoner. Another allegation was that he killed an old man found hiding in a compound. The man’s prosthetic leg was then turned into a macabre drinking vessel at the regimental bar.

While the former corporal can’t be jailed for the findings in a civil defamation case, they are very damaging. He may well have to pay out millions in damages to the newspapers in question. The Guardian reported:

Read on...

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The onus of proof in the defamation case rested with the newspapers, who were required to prove to the civil standard of “balance of probabilities” that the allegations they had published were true.

The newspapers appear to have won this time.

UK parallels

British SAS troops are also accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. An inquiry into these is finally underway. Yet the UK government has gone to great lengths to make sure UK war crimes cases never come to court. It has even tried to rewrite the law to protect itself from accountability.

The Overseas Operations Act, as the Canary has argued, makes war crimes much harder to bring to court. It is at once an establishment stitch-up, and a betrayal of the UK troops it claims to protect.

Not satisfied with this, the Tories are now pursuing a separate bill for the north of Ireland. Again, this would prevent victims of British and paramilitary violence from getting justice. This includes the families of British soldiers.

Ultimately, the cult of the elite warrior which developed during the so-called ‘war on terror’ has collapsed. Far from being superhuman heroes, special forces units have shown themselves to be entirely fallible.

And, as anyone with half a brain would expect of military units with a death cult ethos, they are perfectly capable of descending into complete savagery.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/OR-6 Chris Moore, cropped to 1910 x 1000.

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  • Show Comments
    1. All very true, but please don’t refer to secret armed forces as ‘elite’. They are unaccountable and out of the control of the people of the UK as in the USA, Israel, Australia and any other country that employs such people to carry out murderous attacks that governments want to be kept quiet. As for ‘going rogue’, when were they ever not? The attacks by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988 against suspected members of the Irish Republican Army show how long this has been happening. Despite the admiration of many – mainly male – members of the public, goaded by films, TV series and press propaganda, there is nothing whatsoever to admire in the actions and philosophy of these forces. They represent imperialism’s inherent violence.

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