Amid allegations of abuse by British soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, a top barrister has warned against stripping troops of their human rights on the basis of “lazy and dangerous myths.”
The intervention comes as it emerged the unit investigating allegations relating to the Afghanistan War has received up to 600 complaints of abuse by UK troops.
Until Wednesday the row had mostly focused on the Iraq occupation, with incidents being investigated by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT).
Writing in the Guardian, barrister and Liberty director Martha Spurrier singled out claims by former soldier-turned-Tory MP Tom Tugendhat that human rights law should stop at Britain’s borders and certainly not extend to the battlefield.
“In wars fought to uphold human rights and the rule of law, they would leave us without the means to bring wrongdoers to justice,” Spurrier argued.
“And they would leave our own troops without human rights protection.”
Tugendhat’s views on the pursuit of charges against UK troops were echoed on Wednesday by Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced her opposition to the pursuit of “vexatious allegations” against service personnel.
“Tugendhat wrote, quite rightly, that battlefields are not town centres. But his suggestion that they are being treated as such is a lazy and dangerous myth,” Spurrier said.
“Of course soldiers at war need a set of legal principles that they can operate within. But this is what the laws of war, including human rights, provide,” she said, adding that the lawyers who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), “many of them British Conservatives,” had “made clear that it applies during wartime, tailoring its requirements to the necessities of conflict.”
Citing several cases where human rights laws had been used to support soldiers and their families, she said, “British soldiers deserve all the protections we can give them.”
Her comments come as another former British Army officer, Colonel Tim Collins, blasted what he called “parasitic” lawyers trying to make a “fast buck” by giving credence to jihadist narratives of the UK military as western crusaders.
“In the face of such libels, the Armed Forces need to set modesty aside and start promoting their role in defending Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Syria, from the most brutal manifestations of evil since the demise of the Nazis,” Collins argued in the Telegraph.
However, former top lawyer for the military Nicholas Mercer said the suggestion that there’s a plague of spurious allegations does not stand up to scrutiny.
“I hear the words vexatious and spurious bandied about but, to date, there have been 326 settled cases and the Government has paid out £20 million [US$26.1 million],” he told the BBC on Thursday.
“If the government paid out, these are not vexatious and not spurious. They are proven and the MoD [Ministry of Defence] have admitted liability,” he added.