Britain announced plans on Tuesday to opt out of European human rights law during wartime in a move to end “vexatious” legal claims against its troops but campaigners denounced it as a retrograde step. The government wants to sidestep some of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in future conflicts after the law was used in thousands of cases against troops relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come home,” Prime Minister Theresa May said.
“We will repay them with gratitude and put an end to the industry of vexatious claims that has pursued those who served in previous conflicts.”
Signatories of the ECHR are allowed to derogate from some of its provisions in times of war or public emergencies threatening life, and France, Ukraine and Turkey have used the opt-out in the past two years.
There is no derogation from the prohibition of torture or slavery, but there can be an opt-out on “right to life” in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war.
Ms May had previously called for Britain to pull out of the ECHR entirely, but abandoned the plan before becoming Conservative leader, saying it did not have parliamentary support. “Our legal system has been abused to level false charges against our troops on an industrial scale,” said defence secretary Michael Fallon.
“It has caused significant distress to people who risked their lives to protect us, it has cost the taxpayer millions and there is a real risk it will stop our armed forces doing their job.”
The ministry of defence (MoD) has spent more than £100 million ($127 million) since 2004 on investigations, inquiries and compensation linked to Britain’s 2003-2009 role in the Iraq conflict. This includes £20 million paid out after settling 326 cases. The government stressed that British soldiers would continue to abide by international law, including the Geneva Conventions, and any opt-out would be subject to an assessment of the circumstances at the time.
Hilary Meredith, a lawyer who has represented troops against prosecution, said it was “a step in the right direction”. But human rights group Liberty condemned it as a “pernicious and retrograde step” that could end up harming soldiers.