We are encouraging war crimes if we exempt our soldiers from the ECHR

By George Pegler

Cicero once said, “laws are silent in times of war.” It was true then and it is increasingly so today as Theresa May announced that UK soldiers are to be exempt from the European Convention on Human Rights in future conflicts.

Let’s remind ourselves of the previous countries to adopt this policy: France, post-terror attacks; Turkey, post-attempted coup; and Ukraine, post-annexation of Crimea by Russia. Rightly or wrongly, these countries acted in response to an emergent crisis, an issue that the UK does not currently have.

In her maiden speech as Prime Minister to the Conservative Party Conference, Mrs. May lambasted “activist, left-wing human rights lawyers [who] harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of our armed forces.” The notion it’s contemptible for lawyers to hold soldiers to account for suspected and actual war crimes is simply beyond parody.

Whilst Mrs. May recognised that “there are credible allegations of criminal behaviour”, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, dubiously claimed an “industry of vexatious claims” against UK soldiers. To date, the Ministry of Defence has paid around £20m in compensation across 326 settled cases – hardly indicative of an ‘industry’ of vexatious claims. Whilst false allegations do occur, the quantity of genuine cases highlight the necessity of the ECHR.

Essentially, Geoffrey Robertson QC accuses Mrs. May of wanting “to cover up [war crimes] when they are committed – and it is a matter of record that they are occasionally committed by British forces.”

However, the government claim that the Geneva Conventions (laws on the conduct of war) are more than sufficient. Actually, no. They’re hopelessly inadequate at providing reparation to victims as they are only actionable by states, not individuals. In fact, victims cannot enforce International Humanitarian Law at all. Period.

This policy will also negatively affect soldiers. Under Article 2 of the ECHR, the MoD must take reasonable steps to protect troops from known risks to life. Removing this will give the government carte blanche to place their ‘bravest of the brave’ in grave danger by stripping soldiers of their human rights.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this policy won’t protect soldiers, it’ll insure against negligent governments facing liability in future operations. Mrs. May’s diversionary tactics to realign the debate against lawyers is at best rash, but at worse is extremely dishonourable.

So, in essence, this policy will be bad for law-abiding soldiers and genuine victims seeking reparation, and will only benefit soldiers who have committed war crimes and help successive governments to cover up egregious failings to provide troops with adequate support in future operations.

It is increasingly clear that this insidious policy from this increasingly farcical government must not be implemented, and with the Joint Committee on Human Rights voicing their concerns over its potential implications, hopefully it’s not too long before the government come to their senses.

Photograph by Hiten Patel

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