by Peter Apps / Reuters –
LONDON (January 20, 2004) — British use of cluster bombs in the Iraq war could count as a war crime and justifies further investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor in the Hague, a group of international lawyers say.
Seven academics from Britain, Ireland, France and Canada interviewed eyewitnesses and examined evidence to see if there was a case for referring British conduct to the court, said the pressure group Peacerights, which organised the review.
“There is a considerable amount of evidence of disproportionate use of force causing civilian casualties,” one of the lawyers, Professor Bill Bowring of London Metropolitan University, told a news conference on Tuesday. “The US cannot be tried before the court because it refuses to sign up to it. The UK did.”
Cluster munitions are small bomblets scattered on a target area by larger bombs, rockets or artillery shells, designed to destroy infantry or soft skinned vehicles. Use of bunker-busting munitions had also killed civilians, Peacerights said.
“This One Goes to the Top””
ICC officials were unavailable to comment, but Bowring said senior politicians, possibly including Prime Minister Tony Blair, could have something to worry about. “Heads of state are not immune in principle,” the law professor said. “This one goes right to the top.”
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said last month more than 1,000 civilians were killed or wounded by some 13,000 U.S. and British cluster bombs in the Iraq war last year. Bowring said British aircraft had dropped 70 cluster bombs and British artillery fired 2,000 cluster shells.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said cluster munitions were lawful weapons that had been used in line with international law during the war to oust Saddam Hussein. British forces had “of course” not been involved in war crimes, he added.
Bowring said the report would be sent to both the British attorney general Lord Goldsmith and the ICC.
Experts were dubious the case would proceed. “Instinctively, it seems probable that political pressure will be bought to bear to prevent this going to the ICC,” barrister Hugo Charlton told Reuters.
The British military was also the subject of complaints to the ICC last July when Greek lawyers sent the court a dossier of human rights allegations in Iraq.
The court has received hundreds of complaints from dozens of countries since it came into force in July 2002, but only one formal investigation has been launched, into reported crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.