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The Guardian view on prosecuting war crimes: no one is above the law | Editorial

The new defence secretary ought to understand that the rule of law can only be upheld by observing it

The limelight was always going to be on Penny Mordaunt as defence secretary. A Brexiter accused by the last prime minister of lying to win, she is now touted as Theresa May’s emotionally intelligent successor. She did nothing to dispel such speculation with a speech on Wednesday, promising to protect soldiers from “lawfare” – a pejorative term coined to describe the use of a country’s legal system to undermine its defences. Ms Mordaunt said she would seek a presumption against prosecution for offences committed in conflict more than a decade ago – covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and seek a future opt-out of the European convention on human rights.

This is part of a familiar narrative about the hounding of British soldiers by what is claimed are money-grabbing lawyers launching ill-founded cases into alleged wartime abuse. It is true that one lawyer who acted for torture victims was found guilty of misconduct and struck off as a solicitor. But the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team also saw the Ministry of Defence paying out millions of pounds in compensation to victims of abuse in hundreds of cases. Modern armies have to comply with international humanitarian law and are rightly held to account if they don’t. This ought not impede conflict and post-conflict operations. It should ensure they are legal. Ending violations would end the litigation. There are about 150 cases outstanding; alleged victims and perpetrators ought to see justice.

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