Wartime Opt Out Of Human Rights Convention Will Hurt Soldiers And Civilians, Campaigners Say

Wartime Opt Out Of Human Rights Convention Will Hurt Soldiers And Civilians, Campaigners Say

Campaign groups are warning that the new defence secretary’s pledge to opt out of the Human Rights Convention in future conflicts will hurt soldiers and civilians.

Penny Mordaunt is today (May 15) set to reaffirm a commitment to “derogate” from the Human Rights Convention before the “start of significant military operations” as the government deems appropriate, the Guardian reported.

The news comes as the defence secretary launches a consultation on a proposed amnesty on prosecuting servicemen for offences committed more than 10 years ago ­– except for those which took place in Northern Ireland.

Campaign group Liberty argues that the Human Rights Convention does not inhibit a soldiers’ duty – but rather affords them protections and holds them accountable.

“War is not a legal black hole,” said Sam Grant, the group’s policy and campaigns manager.

“Nothing in the Human Rights Convention prevents soldiers from being soldiers – but it is important to have accountability for gross abuses of human rights on the battle field or off.

“Derogation will not prevent the proper investigation of credible allegations of abuse during wartime: it is simply not possible to derogate from the right to life or the prohibition on torture.

“It will only serve to undermine the fundamental rights and hinder accountability upon which both soldiers and civilians rely.”

What Does ‘Derogating’ From The Convention Mean?

Credit: Pixabay / Daruisz Sankowski

Under Article 15 of the Human Rights Convention, the UK is permitted to depart from parts of the convention in strict circumstances.

The rules of the Council of Europe allow countries to derogate, or opt out, of the Strasbourg-based institution during “times of emergency” – such as during war or public emergency “threatening the life of the nation”.

The UK can only derogate to the extent strictly required in order to deal with the immediate threats presented within the situation.

This means any measure taken must be proportionate to the threats faced.

The Right To Justice


Credit: Flickr / James Cridland 

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s campaigns manager for Northern Ireland argues that the defence secretary’s move undermines victims’ “fundamental right’s to justice”.

“All victims of human rights violations – whether they were committed during Northern Ireland’s conflict or any other – have a right to an independent investigation, with the possibility of prosecutions to follow where the evidence leads,” she said.

“Suggestions from some MPs and Lords that amendments may be added with regards to Northern Ireland undermines confidence in obtaining justice for past human rights violations, and that the UK Government will be an honest broker in establishing mechanisms to deal with the past.”

[The move] is a massive step in the wrong direction for the protection of those in the armed forces as well as civilians.

Military watchdog, ForcesWatch UK

Responding to the news, military watchdog ForcesWatch UK added that the move is a “massive step in the wrong direction for the protection of those in the armed forces as well as civilians”.

Coordinator Emma Sangster said: “Given that the UK is continually involved in military conflicts despite not being seen as officially at war, at what point would this derogation take effect?

“Or would it end up being in place at all times?

“These cases have been brought forward because serious allegations have been made. If they are an embarrassment to the MoD the response should be to make operational changes, not revert to type and bury the truth.”

An ‘Industry Of Vexatious Claims’?

Theresa May originally made the commitment to derogate from the Human Rights Convention as the government sees appropriate at a Conservative party conference in 2016.

This was intended to see off an “industry of vexatious claims” against soldiers that the Ministry of Defence has costed at more than £100m since 2004.

But Human Rights Watch’s senior legal advisor Clive Baldwin countered this notion.

“That’s justice, not ‘vexatious’ litigation.

Human Rights Watch’s senior legal advisor, Clive Baldwin

“There have been plenty of civil law cases by Iraqis alleging abuse, which have been upheld in a British court or the Ministry of Defence has settled and has paid out millions to the Iraqis,” he told RightsInfo.

“That’s justice, not ‘vexatious’ litigation.”

He added: “Instead of ensuring those responsible for war crimes are prosecuted up to the highest level, the British government has chosen to attack lawyers like Leigh Day and even the basic principle of applying human rights law.

“Human rights law applies in conflict, but the basic rules are that detention should be lawful, detainees should be treated properly, and anyone responsible for abuses against detainees should be accountable.

“The British Armed Forces is completely capable of respecting those rules in armed conflicts and occupations.”

The Ministry of Defence has been approached for comment.

Help us increase understanding and support for human rights in the UK.

About the Author

Aaron Walawalkar

News and Digital Editor
Aaron is an NCTJ-accredited multimedia journalist focussing on human rights. His extensive reporting on rough sleeping in east London has been nominated for multiple awards. He has worked for regional and national newspapers and produced illustrations, infographics and videos for humanitarian organisation RedR UK. View all posts by Aaron Walawalkar.
Wartime Opt Out Of Human Rights Convention Will Hurt Soldiers And Civilians, Campaigners Say
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