The latest outrage episode to seize the culture warriors of the UK’s nationalist right media concerns the war crimes team of the Metropolitan Police, a part of its Counter Terrorism Command which, in the words of the Met’s website, “has national responsibility for carrying out any UK enquiries into war crimes and core international crimes”.
An example of the team’s current work is gathering evidence about alleged war crimes in Ukraine, assisting the investigation of the intergovernmental International Criminal Court (ICC) based in the Netherlands, which began last March.
Today’s furore about the war crimes team began with a Telegraph article about Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor and lately-removed former Prime Minister, claiming that the team also assisting the ICC with its ongoing investigation of alleged war crimes in Palestine looks to him like a “worrying politicisation” of the Met.
This remark by the ex-PM has excited a flurry of “follow-up” coverage, with, inevitably, the Daily Express and, sadly, the Evening Standard making a meal of the same Johnson remark, and the usual herd of Outer Right broadcasters frothing about it.
What is the Met’s war crimes team, why does it exist and what does it do? According to a rather slim Wikipedia entry, it was first set up way back in 1991 to investigate cases relating to the War Crimes Act passed that year by the Conservative government led by John Major. The Act related to people who committed war crimes in Nazi Germany and had subsequently become British citizens.
Wikipedia says it was disbanded in its original form in 1999 and its work transferred to the Met’s organised crime department and to the Counter Terrorism Command from 2015. The team has had an obligation to support any ICC investigation that could involve British subjects since 2002, when the Rome Statute of 1998, which set up the ICC, came into effect. The UK is one of 124 states that are party to it.
The ICC has been investigating alleged war crimes in Palestine for some years. Since the Hamas atrocities in Israel on 7 October last year and Israel’s ensuing military invasion of Gaza, which has seen many civilians die, the Met team, in line with its Rome Statute commitments, has appealed to people returning to Britain from Israel, Gaza or neighbouring countries for any information they may have about war crimes that may have taken place.
The Met says the team “has received more than 40 referrals in recent weeks relating to the conflict in Israel and Palestine” and is assessing them “in line with our usual guidelines”.
It all sounds perfectly routine. So why the rightwing meltdown? The backdrop, of course, is the Met’s policing of pro-Palestine marches in London, which saw Rishi Sunak and, in particular, the now former Home Secretary Suella Braverman publicly put pressure on Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley to request having them banned when, in his independent operational judgement, that was not the best course.
Braverman was sacked by Sunak following a newspaper article in which she claimed there was “a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters”, but that has not stopped the hard right’s criticism of Rowley and the Met. Getting Johnson to join in has provided a new angle for its campaign to portray the service as yet another bastion of the metropolitan “woke” establishment, and so on. On its wilder fringes it’s all reckoned to prove that the Met has been colonised by Muslims.
How credible is Johnson’s opinion of the work of the war crimes team in the first place? Can we be confident that, prior to being contacted by the Telegraph about it, he even knew of its existence, let alone its obligations to the ICC? True, he appointed himself chair of the (now defunct) Metropolitan Police Authority after first being elected Mayor of London in 2008, but he gave up the position in January 2010. Given the “partygate” scandal and its role in his resignation as PM and as an MP, it might be asked if his opinion about anything at all can be relied on.
Another theme of the raging about the war crimes team is that the Met shouldn’t be wasting its time on overseas affairs when there is crime to be dealt with at home. Well, what is the scale of Met resources expended on meeting its Rome Statute duties?
London Assembly Green Party member Caroline Russell, currently chair of the Assembly’s police and crime committee, asked a mayoral question about this last June. She was told that providing too much information could “enable foreign governments and adversaries to assess capacity and capability issues”, but that the team was led by a detective superintendent, was “small” and “comprised of less than 2% of the MPS’s allocated investigation resource”.
An answer to a similar question from Russell’s Green colleague Sian Berry in October 2020 said that just “16 officers and staff” were assigned to the war crimes team. Currently, the Met employs nearly 45,000 officers and staff in all.
It would appear, then, that the war crimes team is absolutely tiny and its disbandment would make next to no difference to the Met’s capacity in other areas. But for those howling about it, that is entirely irrelevant.
The point of the “story” is to attack the Met under Rowley, who is trying to rid it of undesirables, and, in the process, to furnish a wider assault on Sadiq Khan in his crime and policing role as the 2 May mayoral election comes onto the horizon.
It is also to further embroider an overarching depiction of un-British Remainer London as “lost” to lawlessness and liberal elitism. The special bonus with the war crimes unit confection is that it has ushered Johnson forward as a wronged prince across the water – the man who supposedly “drove down crime” when he was Mayor and, of course, as PM, “got Brexit done”.
There’s going to be a lot more of this kind of thing in the weeks ahead.
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