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Programme highlights Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 14:42 GMT
Military top brass fears international court
British troops in Sierra Leone: Could their role be reappraised?
Senior military commanders have expressed concerns that a proposed new International Criminal Court, supported by the government, could lead to British troops being prosecuted for war crimes.

Military chiefs fear that Nato soldiers could in future be challenged for such actions as the bombing of Iraq or the sinking of the Belgrano.

The Bill to ratify the court was published by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, last August. Admiral Sir James Eberle, a former Nato commander, told the programme that military staff may feel constrained in their actions by the threat of legal action hanging over them.

Downing Street said this morning there was nothing to worry about: the aim of the court was to bring dictators to trial, and the definition of war-crimes was the same as under the Geneva Convention.

UN humiliations: More on the cards?
The principles of the International Court were agreed in Rome three years ago, and the Statute agreed by more than a hundred countries includes a broad definition of what constitutes a war-crime; this includes a reference to any attack carried out in the knowledge that there would be incidental loss of life, or injury, to civilians.

The fear is that if rules of engagement are drawn up that do not seem to co-incide with the princilpes of international law - or if, in the heat of the battle, those rules are liberally interpreted - servicemen and their service and political masters could find themselves before the court.

However, Gerry Simpson, a senior lecturer in international law at the London School of Economics, said that it was "almost inconceivable" that British military personel would be brought before a court concerned with civilian genocide.

The Conservative Defence spokesman Iain Duncan-Smith disagreed.

He argued that the court would be under pressure to prosecute Nato in order to show balance. Calling for the Government to think again, he expressed the fear that the risk of prosecution would force commanders not to take the nexessary risk, which may then lead to a loss of life.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
March 1999
UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook endorses the international war crimes tribunal
LSE international law lecturer Gerry Simpson
Superiors would be held responsible
Former Nato commander Admiral Sir James Eberle
These concerns exist and I share them
Tory Defence spokesman Iain Duncan Smith
Commanders will be worried about implications of their decisions
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