UK cannot opt out of human rights obligations in Iraq

07 July 2011

Today two landmark rulings focusing on the controversial and ill-fated war in Iraq confirmed that the UK’s human rights obligations do extend beyond its borders to overseas conflicts.

In Al-Skeini and others v the UK, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Government’s requirements on human rights did apply to the conduct of its Armed Forces in Iraq. In Al Jedda v the UK, the Court ruled Britain could not hide behind a UN Security Council resolution to excuse its indefinite detention without charge of a British-Iraqi citizen in Basra. The verdict in Al-Skeini also found that, by failing to investigate the circumstances under which Iraqi civilians were killed by British soldiers, the UK had violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Al-Skeini case involved the death of six Iraqis in Basra in 2003, when UK Armed Forces were the occupying power. Five of them, including Hazim Jum’aa Gatteh Al-Skeini, died during military operations involving British soldiers. The sixth, Baha Mousa, was arrested and died in brutal circumstances while detained at a UK army base.

The Court dismissed UK government arguments that it was not subject to human rights obligations because the deaths occurred outside UK borders. Four years ago the House of Lords ruled that the remit of the Convention extended to the treatment of Baha Mousa but not to the other civilians.

One Court judge said he was unimpressed by UK pleadings that extending the Convention would amount to ‘human rights imperialism’ – given that the UK had imposed its military imperialism over Iraq without any authorisation from the international community. “It is like wearing with conceit your badge of international law banditry, but then recoiling in shock at being suspected of human rights promotion,” Judge Bonello said.

Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer for Liberty, who intervened in the cases, said:

“Today’s groundbreaking rulings make it perfectly clear that the United Kingdom cannot ‘opt out’ of its obligations on human rights simply because its Armed Forces are operating overseas.

“The Government cannot hide behind jurisdiction technicalities and UN Security Council resolutions when it comes to fundamental rights and freedoms and the killing and wrongful detention of civilians in foreign conflicts.”

The judgments from Strasbourg effectively extend the remit of the Convention to the actions of British service personnel when on overseas operations similar to the Iraq war, in which the UK had occupied and assumed responsibility for the South East of the country.

The verdicts may also give hope of legal redress to the families of British service personnel killed in Iraq who have brought claims over the inadequacies of military equipment.

Contact: Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128

Notes to editors:

1. To read the full European Court of Human Rights judgment in Al Skeini and others v the United Kingdom, visit: http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/tkp197/view.asp?action=open&documentId=887951&portal=hbkm&source=externalbydocnumber&table=F69A27FD8FB86142BF01C1166DEA398649

2. To read the full European Court of Human Rights judgment in Al Jedda v the United Kingdom, visit: http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/tkp197/view.asp?action=open&documentId=887958&portal=hbkm&source=externalbydocnumber&table=F69A27FD8FB86142BF01C1166DEA398649

3. To read the full High Court judgment in Smith and others v the Ministry of Defence, the latest case concerning claims over the inadequacies of military equipment for British service personnel, visit: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2011/1676.html