Human rights law is not a scam

In armed conflict, human rights law is the best protection, for civilians and soldiers alike.

A British soldier provides security from a rooftop in Basra, Iraq [Getty]
A British soldier provides security from a rooftop in Basra, Iraq [Getty]

Last week, Britain’s prime minister announced plans to take the UK military out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Speaking at her Conservative Party’s annual conference, Theresa May explained that this opting out would be to protect British troops against “an industry of vexatious claims” against them.

This is the term the Conservative Party has used to describe claims of abuse brought against British service personnel relating to UK attacks and subsequent occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The ground for this announcement, over exempting UK troops from the ECHR, has been prepared for some time, as sections of the British press have carried articles about how British troops, having served their country in the Middle East, are now being relentlessly harangued by unscrupulous, greedy lawyers.

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The suggestion is that this process is costly, spurious and taking too long – thereby subjecting soldiers to years of damaging scrutiny. It looks like one omission – a significant one – in one case of alleged abuse is being used to suggest that all cases are similarly tainted.

Last month, an editorial in the right-leaning Daily Telegraph described prosecutions related to the Iraq conflict as “an insult to the bravery of our soldiers“.

Allegations of torture 

The Daily Mail, which has been rallying against the ECHR in general, as well as its application in the context of British troops more specifically, hailed the government’s announcement as a “victory” – and wondered why it took so long.

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To put this all in context, many of the cases against British troops have come up as a consequence of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, set up by a Labour government in 2010.

The current British government, citing the waste of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, and in any case cynical about European courts, seems now to be suggesting that its soldiers shouldn't be held to high standards.


It was initiated following a number of allegations of torture, abuse and killings of civilians by British troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, and is currently investigating some 1,500 claims.

A separate inquiry is looking into some 500 cases of abuse in Afghanistan, dating back to 2005. In its acknowledgment that such claims must be heard, and also that no military can properly investigate itself – not something that all countries grasp – the Iraq Historic Allegations Team should be viewed as an important step.

But the current British government, citing the waste of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and in any case cynical about European courts, seems now to be suggesting that its soldiers shouldn’t be held to high standards. Which seems a bit insulting to British soldiers, as well as the Iraqis and their families whose claims are being examined.

If you wanted to argue that the process is taking too long, thereby causing distress to possibly innocent soldiers, then say that – but to then use this concern to justify bowing out of human rights law is some stretch.

Meanwhile, campaigners such as the human rights group Liberty have pointed out that such a move would also remove protections for British forces serving overseas.

As well as requiring soldiers to respect the human rights of others, the ECHR is also a safeguard against soldiers themselves facing abuse – from the army, or the defence ministry.



But all of this is circling the key issue here, which is accountability. Because there were terrible abuses in Iraq during the US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation of that country. There was the case of Baha Mousa, the 26-year-old hotel receptionist who was beaten and tortured to death in 2003 at a British detention centre.

Or Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali, the 15-year-old Iraqi boy who was forced into a canal by British troops and drowned.

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This isn’t about soldiers having to make terrible choices in the heat of the battlefield – which is the narrative suggested by those seeking an ECHR exemption. The Iraq war and its bloody aftermath was a devastating and avoidable venture – as the Chilcot inquiry, which concluded in July, made clear – and with that, inevitably, are questions surrounding the conduct of the British military.

The claims being examined concern allegations of war crimes, including torture: they can’t be dismissed as “vexatious” and they certainly cannot be ignored without further investigation. 

That should stand alone as a self-evident statement. But what inevitably follows from that is a consideration of the message the UK is sending out to the world if it tries to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights. How can a country that opts out of bits of human rights law it doesn’t like then claim to champion those same rights around the world? It would be a classic case of do as we say, not as we do.

This isn’t something that any self-respecting British government, one that seeks to uphold universal human rights and the rule of law, should want for itself, or for its military.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.