Absolving the military from human rights laws

Posted: October 5, 2016 in "Human rights", Human Rights Act
Tags: , , , , ,

Conservatives and right wing press exult over plans to remove the services from the Human Rights Act

The plan by the government to enable the armed forces to derogate from the Human Rights Act have been greeted with great glee by newspapers like the Mail and the Telegraph.  The Conservatives at their annual conference in Birmingham have also been delighted by the announcement by the Defence Minister Michael Fallon.

The media has presented it in a lurid fashion.  Lawyers are described as ‘parasitic’ and ‘money grubbing’; the claims are ‘vexatious’ and that there is an ‘industry’ of people pursuing our soldiers.  The overall impression created by various generals, politicians and elements of the media is of service men struggling to do their best in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions only to find a lawyer presenting them with a summons for entirely spurious reasons (that is, to make money for themselves).  Here is former head of the Army General Dannatt for example in the Daily Mail:

It also frees up soldiers from limitations under the act on their ability to hold detainees, so they can get on with their job. [he] said: ‘I very warmly applaud this imaginative and bold move by the present Government.  It will go some way to reassuring our armed forces personnel that they can operate in future without looking out for lawyers over their shoulder.  Daily Mail [accessed 4 October 2016]

Theresa May said at the conference:

And what we’ve seen is human rights legislation being used to generate all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in some difficultly in worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that.

‘So I think it’s absolutely right that the Government should say to our troops: “We are on your side”. (ibid)

The only problem with it is that it is largely untrue.  We have to start by asking why are we at war in the various theatres?  The answer is because we are seeking to put in place civilised values.  We went to Iraq, not just on the spurious grounds that there were weapons of mass destruction, but because Sadam Hussein was a tyrant and abused the rights of many of his subjects.  There were similar reasons in Afghanistan.  Behind our military activities is this belief in a better world and that countries run by despots are not stable or fair on their citizens.  We believe that the democratic process is superior and countries should be run by the rule of law.  The very same people who were cheering in Liverpool are the same folk who talk about ‘British values.’

So if our soldiers are engaged in torture or abusive actions against prisoners, this is contrary to the reason why they are there in the first place and is also contrary to our values.   It is these abusive actions which are the cause of a great deal of the claims made against the MoD.

It is also presented in terms of claims against our service people by foreigners.  In fact, many of the claims are by service people against the MoD.  These claims arise because of poor treatment of soldiers by their commanders on training exercises which can lead to their deaths, for example in the Brecon Beacons.  Or they arise because of inadequate equipment which means service people are needlessly at risk and are injured or lose their lives.  The ill-equipped land rovers in Afghanistan are an example.   These actions are seldom mentioned by the right wing media.

There is something depressing in the glee of the conference goers and sections of the media about the decision.  There seems not an inkling of pride in the fact that we fought a war to defeat tyranny and that afterwards, we were the key players in setting up the Convention of Human Rights in Europe led by a conservative prime minister.  That just seems to have been forgotten.  If there were solid reasons for doing so that would be fine.  But the arguments are selective and ignore the fact that the MoD has paid out something like £20m in compensation, not because the claims were spurious, but because they were genuine.

Will it in fact happen?  The court in Strasbourg may well see things differently as Conor Gearty argues in the Guardian and we may not be successful in the derogation as we hope and as has been promised (The Tories are using the army to take a shot at human rights, 5 Oct 2016).

Also forgotten is the effect this will have overseas.  We are currently watching the horror of Syria with either the Syrians or the Russians deliberately bombing hospitals and civilian targets generally.  If one of the leading architects of the European Convention and one of the members of the Security Council, decides to ignore the actions of some of our soldiers with prisoners, what influence do we have left?

And not a word about our activities in the Yemen where we are supplying weapons to the Saudis to enable them to carry on a terrible war there.

The last word goes to Liberty:

The Convention on Human Rights isn’t just a document whose origins lie in the brutal lessons of 20th century wars.  It is directly relevant today. Our Government has a duty not only to implement it during its own military operations, but to uphold its standards as an example to others – both friends and foes. 

To save the Ministry of Defence from the shame of having to admit that civilians suffered abuse on its watch, ministers are prepared to rob our soldiers of this sensible legal framework that both clarifies their use of force and offers them redress when their own rights are breached.  For a supposedly civilised nation, this is a pernicious and retrograde step that will embolden our enemies and alienate our allies.

 


Conor Gearty’s book On Fantasy Island, published by OUP has just been published

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