“Much of the litigation we face comes from the extension of the European Convention on Human Rights to the battlefield. This is damaging our troops, undermining military operations, and costing taxpayers’ millions. So I can announce today that in future conflicts we intend to derogate from the Convention. That would protect our Armed Forces from many of the industrial scale claims we have seen post Iraq and Afghanistan. “
Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, 4 October 2016
This is nonsense.
To understand why, it is necessary to understand why it is now the case that claims can be brought under the Human Rights Act for actions taken by British troops serving abroad. At one time it was thought that the jurisdictional scope of the European Convention was limited to the territorial jurisdiction of signatory states. In the ECtHR’s decision in Al-Skeini this was decisively abandoned and the test became “wherever a state through its agents exercised control and authority over an individual.”
Now, my view is that Al-Skeini was plainly wrongly decided, both according to the text of the Convention and the ECtHR’s earlier jurisprudence. I can, therefore, well understand the government’s frustration at losing. The United Kingdom Supreme Court followed Al-Skeini in determining the scope of the Human Rights Act in Smith v MoD.
Can this result be bypassed by making a derogation from the Convention? Article 15 provides
1. In time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under this Convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.
This provision does not permit a derogation from all the obligations under Convention whenever a signatory state is at war. If it did that would render the result in Al-Skeini redundant. Where the court finds, as it did with respect to the United Kingdom after the September 11th attacks, that there are grounds for making a derogation, this does not provide the state with a blank cheque. Derogating measures must be such as are strictly required by the exigences of the situation. The kinds of claims brought against British troops involve actions that, on no view, are necessary for the conduct of a war.
So, whilst it is possible for the United Kingdom under its own domestic law to restrict the application of the Human Rights Act (but in a way that will place us in breach of the Convention as we will no longer be providing an effective remedy for Convention violations as required by article 13), and certainly possible to extend combat immunity as it applies to claims at common law, we cannot simply create an immunity from suit for our armed forces that is compliant with the Convention.