The lawyer responsible for securing human rights protections for UK soldiers fighting in conflicts abroad has hit out at the government for misleading the public about proposals to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in future combat.
Jocelyn Cockburn, civil liberties partner at law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, says that last week’s government announcement deliberately failed to mention that the proposals will also mean removing human rights protections from soldiers themselves. Instead the briefing uses “…spin and misinformation to trick the public into thinking the proposals will protect our troops.”
Making the announcement at the Conservative party conference last week, the government heralded the ‘landmark measure’ to protect armed forces from ‘persistent legal claims in future overseas operations’ by introducing a presumption to derogate from the ECHR.
The analysis missing was how these plans to derogate from Article 2 of the ECHR would impact on the hard won human rights protections for soldiers.
Over the last ten years, Jocelyn has represented soldiers and their families both in inquests and the civil courts. In the 2013 Supreme Court case Smith & Ors v Ministry of Defence, she secured a landmark victory for the families of soldiers killed by roadside bombs whilst travelling in poorly armoured Snatch Land Rover vehicles, or “mobile coffins” as they were nicknamed by soldiers.
The victory by the Snatch Land Rover families meant that in future conflicts, the MoD owes a legal duty to take reasonable steps to safeguard the lives of troops when deployed abroad to fight. The newly announced plans, however, would remove this protection, something the government failed to mention when they made their announcement last week. Instead, the Prime Minister, Theresa May attacked “activist, left-wing human rights lawyers” for bringing legal claims against British soldiers.
Jocelyn Cockburn says: “Reading the Ministry of Defence (MoD) press release I was struck by the spin and how, by not admitting that their plan also involved removing protections from soldiers, the briefing amounted to misinformation.
“Soldiers are intentionally put in high risk situations and knowingly take risks to safeguard the lives of others. Human rights do not change this, however, Article 2 requires that when putting troops in danger the MoD must take reasonable steps to protect them from known risks to life. This duty to protect is something the MoD have fought very hard to deny.
“It can be brutally difficult to get the truth from the MoD and this latest move appears to be part of a concerted campaign aimed at restricting the ability of soldiers and their families to hold the government to account for equipment and other failures.”
It is only three months since Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry reported on the ‘wholly inadequate’ preparation for Iraq both before and after the invasion, criticising failures by the military to address equipment shortages and specifically referencing the need to replace Snatch Land Rovers with more heavily armoured vehicles.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accepted the Chilcot findings, acknowledging in the House of Commons that ‘[the MoD] failed to adapt to the changing situation on the ground and there were significant equipment shortfalls for our troops’. The MoD are keen to stress that they are learning lessons and in a recent blog said they will ‘create a culture that does not stifle debate and challenge.’
Jocelyn adds: “It is difficult to see how the decision to remove human rights protections from our troops at times of overseas interventions fits with the MoD’s supposed willingness to learn lessons. Its actions do not reflect this and certainly no apology to the Snatch Land Rover families has been forthcoming, despite the findings of Chilcot.
“It is easy for the government to throw mud at ‘ambulance chasing lawyers’ and ‘human rights gone mad’ and too often this obscures the real issues. Of course the MoD would find it easier to operate without legal scrutiny but this is not in the national interest and it is certainly not in the interests of our soldiers. Without the ability to hold the government to account for their safety record there is a serious risk that standards will not improve and soldiers’ lives will be lost unnecessarily.”
Jocelyn Cockburn will be speaking on this issue at the JUSTICE Annual Human Rights Law Conference on Friday 14 October 2016.
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Notes for Editors
Hodge Jones and Allen