War Crimes, Punishment, and the Public

Russian soldiers in Ukraine are accused of war crimes and violations of human rights, including murder and sexual violence.  Western democracies call for accountability.  There is evidence that the American and British public support the use of force against countries whose soldiers commit human rights violations.  If we are willing to punish others for wrongdoing, will we punish our own?

Democracies commit fewer violations than autocracies, yet control of a large organisation, including military organisations, is never perfect. When soldiers commit murder and abuse, will the public be willing to apply the same standards to their own people as they do to others?  Politicians don’t think so. In 2019, discussing the prosecution of soldiers for the killing of thirteen unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, former British Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson said, “Bloody Sunday prosecutions would turn the stomachs of the British people.”  Or, as commentary on the 2004 US presidential campaign suggested: “You cannot speak of a war crime by Americans and get elected in America.”  There may be a ready and easy acceptance of the idea of universal human rights and the rules of conduct described in the Geneva Conventions until one’s own soldiers kill civilians. Then, it is a much harder ask to uphold these standards and support prosecution. 

The United Nations says it is “the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls.”  At the same time, national loyalty may conflict with the ideal of universal accountability, making it difficult for states, even democratic states, to live up to this responsibility.  We investigated public support for prosecuting soldiers who commit violations.  Respondents in surveys in the United Kingdom and the United States were divided into treatment and control groups. We presented respondents in the unknown soldier control group with a scenario describing the murder of a civilian in custody, where the soldier’s national identity was not specified.  In the treatment, we simply added the national identity of the soldier and examined the shift in the willingness of the public to prosecute.  

We also varied the type of wrongdoing to explore our additional conjecture that the perceived motivation of the perpetrator matters.  If the public is swayed by national loyalty, then they will be less protective of soldiers who they perceive to be selfishly motivated rather than acting in defence of the nation.  Where the soldier appears to gain some personal gratification, as with sexual violence, humiliation, and the taking of ‘trophy photographs’ (for example in the Iraq conflict with UK soldiers at Camp Breadbasket or US soldiers at Abu Ghraib), then the public will be more willing to support prosecution.  In the effort to distance what took place at Abu Ghraib from policy, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pointed to the selfishness of the soldiers involved: “This is simply people who were morally bankrupt having fun and I condemn that totally.”  Where a violation could be more easily attributed to the “fun” of the perpetrator, we expected that the public would be more willing to support prosecution, even for arguably less severe crimes.  

We find that the national identity of the perpetrator matters. In both the US and the UK, support for prosecution weakens for a co-national perpetrator. This result helps explain the puzzling reluctance of democratic leaders to hold their own soldiers accountable.  While President Trump was vociferous in his “fidelity to the warfighter,” according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur, who described war crimes prosecutions as “politically radioactive,” earlier US administrations also presided over “chronic and deplorable accountability failures” for unlawful killings by their personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party, in their most recent manifesto, pledged to tackle “vexatious legal claims that undermine our Armed Forces.”  Democratic leaders expect national identity to pull the public away from any moral or legal commitments.  

But also, we found that loyalty to the soldier is not unconditional.  With sexual abuse (that does not involve loss of life), there was a significantly greater willingness to prosecute the co-national. While acknowledging alternative explanations, our inference is that the public more strongly favours prosecution where the individual is clearly seen to extract some private benefit from the wrongdoing. We followed up in a second survey of the US public where we made the selfishness of the perpetrator explicit by describing financial extortion as the substance of the wrongdoing in the scenario. As we had theorised, the public was more willing to prosecute extortion by a US soldier than murder.

Finally, we examined whether the president or prime minister could influence the willingness to prosecute either by reinforcing the perspective that national loyalty meant avoiding prosecuting soldiers or by emphasizing the importance of accountability. We found that the position leaders take on prosecution may modify attitudes, depending on the identity of the leader. In the unlikely event that more populist leaders like former President Trump took a pro-prosecution position, then they could take some of the public with them.

Beyond the importance of accountability to the institutional integrity of civilian-led militaries, the broader practical, reputational, and policy importance of these findings is underlined by the critical research on the futility or utopian nature of human rights. This work picks up on accountability failures and points to the hypocrisy of Western democracies advocating one standard for the rest of the world, but not living up to it themselves. If the goal is strengthening human rights, and in the absence of appropriate messages from leaders, one approach would be to take steps to make decent conduct a defining element of national pride.

This blog piece is based on the forthcoming Journal of Politics article Loyalty or Accountability? Public Attitudes to Holding Soldiers Accountable for the Murder and Abuse of Civilians by Niheer Dasandi and Neil Mitchell

The empirical analysis has been successfully replicated by the JOP and the replication files are available in the JOP Dataverse.

About the Authors

Niheer Dasandi is Associate Professor in Politics and Development in the School of Government, University of Birmingham. His research focuses on sustainable development, human rights, and foreign policy. For more information, visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @NiheerDasandi.

Neil Mitchell is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science, University College London. His current work is on conflict, human rights, issues of accountability and the role of non-state actors.  You can find further information here.