The UK failed to fulfill its duty to uphold human rights during its occupation in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] ruled in two cases Thursday. In Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom [judgment text] the ECHR held that the UK's assumption of authority for security and maintenance gave it a duty to uphold human rights under Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF] and that the UK's failure to properly investigate the deaths of civilians killed during operations violated that duty. The case was brought on behalf six Iraqi civilians killed by British soldiers during the UK's occupation of Iraq from May 1, 2003, to June 28, 2004. Normally, the Convention only applies to actions within a nation's own borders, but the ECHR said that jurisdiction extended to Iraq since the UK was an occupying power. It further held that the failure to properly investigate the deaths constituted a violation of the right to life under Article 2 of the Convention. In the second case, Al-Jedda v. the United Kingdom [judgment text], the ECHR ruled that the detention of a dual Iraqi-British citizen for three years in Iraq detention facility at Basrah City violated Article 5's right to liberty and security.
The ECHR's ruling to apply UK jurisdiction to Iraq could have far reaching implications for European nations' human rights obligations during operations abroad. Last year, the UK Supreme Court [official website] ruled that the 1998 Human Rights Act, which incorporates the Convention into English law, does not apply to armed forces on foreign soil [JURIST report] and that a soldier's family does not have an automatic right to an investigation into cause of death in the battlefield. The case involved Private Jason Smith, who died of heat stroke in Iraq after making several complaints to his commanding officers. Smith's mother filed suit against the government, claiming that the UK owed her son a duty to respect his right to life, which was protected by Article 2 of the Convention, and that the government must launch an investigation into the alleged breach of that right. The UK Court of Appeal held that Smith had been protected by the Human Rights Act at all times and ordered a new investigation. The Supreme Court overruled the decision, holding that the act does not extend to troop operations abroad. The court held that, since Smith died outside of the UK's Iraqi army base, he was on foreign soil and was not protected by human rights. Justice Lord Alan Rodger noted that the lower court's ruling would require the government to protect soldiers from risks caused by conflict or face potentially costly lawsuits.