We are delighted to welcome back Jane Rooney, a PhD candidate at Durham Law School and Deputy Co-Convenor (PGR) of the Centre for Law and Global Justice. On 30th March 2015, Policy Exchange, a UK-based think tank, released its latest report on the impact of human rights on British military effectiveness abroad. This post criticizes the new Report’s recommendation to prevent relatives of military personnel – killed abroad in the course of military operations due to negligence by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – from having access to actions under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and in tort. Instead the Report recommends paying more compensation to relatives of military personnel killed in the course of military operations abroad.
In October 2013 Policy Exchange published a report entitled, ‘The Fog of Law: An introduction to the legal erosion of British fighting power’ co-authored by Thomas Tugendhat and Laura Croft. The report outlined concerns that human rights litigation may have a negative impact on the effectiveness of British military operations abroad. The report was published in reaction to the Smith & Ors v The Ministry of Defence (MoD) case, a case which considered claims against the MoD for negligence and violations of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom by relatives of British soldiers who died whilst serving in Iraq. I have previously argued that the main proposition in the report was that in affording British military personnel the protection of the HRA abroad – legislation which gives effect to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in the UK – Smith threatened to undermine a ‘fundamental rationale’ underlying the armed force: ‘the transfer of physical risk’ from civilians to individuals who had volunteered to fight on behalf of their country. The report explained how the ruling in Smith was made possible by the ‘judicial creep’, in both UK domestic courts and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), of civilian law to British military operations abroad. The report recommended that Parliament legislate on Combat Immunity; that Parliament legislate to exempt the Ministry of Defence from the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act and that the UK derogate from the ECHR during deployed operations so that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) standards would apply instead of the ECHR.
On 30th March 2015, Policy Exchange released another report, ‘Clearing the Fog of Law: Saving our armed forces from defeat by judicial diktat’, co-authored by Richard Ekins, Jonathan Morgan and Tom Tugendhat. This report is different from the 2013 report. It still recommends derogations from the ECHR in future operations abroad and the revival of the Armed Forces’ Crown Immunity from actions in tort. Furthermore, it still advocates the primacy of IHL over human rights law on the battlefield: it recommends that the Government make an ‘authoritative pronouncement of state policy’ that this is case and that the Government support the International Committee of the Red Cross to strengthen the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions. However, it details changes that should be made in relation to military personnel: it recommends that the Government introduce primary legislation prohibiting military personnel from relying on the right to life under the ECHR, and recommends instead that the ‘Government should undertake to pay compensation, on the full tort “restoration” measure, to all military personnel killed or wounded during active operations – without need to prove fault’.
I have previously outlined that derogations are not the answer to problems arising from applying human rights in the battlefield. Furthermore, IHL is no longer considered as a lex specialis body of law in relation to human rights law. This is illustrated by the case law of the International Court of Justice and by the ECtHR decision in Hassan v United Kingdom (summarized here). The 2015 Report welcomed and praised the decision in Hassan v United Kingdom for taking into consideration IHL in determining the substance of the Article 5 right to liberty and security when detaining enemy combats abroad, but expressed fears that this sympathetic approach to military operations was only a temporary development and would not necessarily be continued by the ECtHR. Generally speaking, therefore, nothing would be gained from derogating from the ECHR during conflict abroad or exclusively applying IHL abroad. Furthermore, the ECHR should continue carrying out its function as an accountability mechanism for state activity, at home and abroad.
Here, I will briefly posit thoughts on a much narrower point: the recommendation that the Government should legislate to deny military personnel access to Article 2 right to life under the ECHR and restore Crown immunity for the armed forces in tort. Instead, the Report proposes paying compensation on the full tort “restoration” measure to all military personnel killed or wounded during active operations – without need to prove fault. The Report highlights that its main reason for advocating to prevent actions being brought under the HRA or under the tort of negligence is not because of the cost of those trials, but because of the public scrutiny:
Whether or not the judge upholds the claimant’s allegations, they will have been examined with necessary public criticism of the acts and decisions of soldiers, commanders, planners and others, as the claimant attempts to prove his case. This public examination is what produces a hyper-cautious mindset (at 38).
The inquiry into fault is thus damaging because of the public scrutiny and accountability of those who are at fault. Instead, the Report proposes paying more compensation to injured soldiers and their families (at 39). The government will pay compensation ‘irrespective of fault’ (at 39). The Report states that ‘this would remove the financial incentive to bring claims’ (at 39). However, it concedes that ‘some claimants may be motivated by wider notions of justice’ but offers no answer to this concern (at 39). This scheme would not save money, in fact the Report concedes that it would probably cost more money (at 39).
The scheme appears to propose to ‘pay off’ families of military personnel who want an investigation into the death of their loved ones instead of enabling them to access legal justice. However, much evidence suggests that those relatives of victims of negligence in the Smith case were after more than money. Smith merely established that allegations of negligence could be investigated and given a hearing. No damages have been awarded yet and a hearing on the facts has not yet taken place. However, Susan Smith, an applicant in the case, hailed the decision as a victory. Debi Allbutt, the widow of Cpl Stephen Allbutt, one of the victims concerned in the Smith case, stated that: “We want combat immunity thrown out of the rulebook, so instead of soldiers having to sue the Ministry of Defence, the equipment and the training will be in place to stop things like this happening again.” Under these circumstances it might be presumed that those involved in the Smith case, for example, may have ‘wider notions of justice’ than merely receiving a large some of compensation.
The insistence upon a new scheme which comes at a financial cost to the MoD could be construed as an effort to gain political points in undermining the judiciary and human rights. For example, the concern that public scrutiny ensuing from court hearings would negatively affect the armed forces appears not to be a concern in other places in the Report:
These are political matters for which Ministers should be held to account by Parliament and through Parliament to the electorate. Certainly, many MPs have expressed concerns about the under-equipment of soldiers in Iraq (at 37).
This seems contrary to the Report’s concerns about public scrutiny which were posited in justification for not allowing negligence and human rights cases to go to court. Here the Report advocates that the electorate should be able to hold those at fault to account. This undermines the argument that the judiciary should not be able to hold those at fault to account due to public scrutiny.
This post, above all, aims to hold Policy Exchange to account for what it has proposed. The Report’s main proposition is not to deny that human rights apply abroad, as seems to be the main point picked up by media; its main proposition is for no one to be blamed, and nothing to be improved, in relation to the deaths of military personnel on the battlefield. Instead, it wishes to sweep these claims under the carpet by paying off relatives of victims.