British troops are protected by human rights laws even while fighting overseas, according to a landmark judgment Monday centred on a soldier who died of heatstroke in Iraq.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said it was “disappointed” by the Appeal Court ruling into the death of Private Jason Smith in 2003, and voiced concern over its impact on military decision-making in future.
The MoD can appeal against the ruling to the House of Lords, although it will have to pay costs whether it wins or loses, the Court of Appeal ruled.
Smith died in August 2003 after suffering a cardiac arrest, despite having repeatedly told medical staff that he was feeling seriously unwell in temperatures of more than 122 Fahrenheit.
His family took legal action after a 2006 inquest into his death found that it was caused “by a serious failure to recognise and take appropriate steps to address the difficulty that he had in adjusting to the climate”.
The MoD accepted that the 1998 Human Rights Act could extend to troops when they were in a military base abroad — but not to the battlefield itself.
“We are surprised and disappointed by this judgement,” said Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth.
“While it does not affect the position concerning Private Smith, it potentially has very serious implications for the ability of our forces — and those of our allies — to conduct military operations overseas,” he added.
And an MoD spokesman said: “We are very concerned by the attempt to insert lawyers into the chain of command in the middle of a battle, which would only create uncertainty, hesitation and potentially greater risk to our people.”
“In the heat of battle during dynamic and fast-moving military operations on foreign territory, the UK could not secure the rights and freedoms which the Human Rights Act seeks to guarantee,” he added.
But a lawyer for Smith’s family, Jocelyn Cockburn, welcomed the ruling.
“We are absolutely delighted by the outcome which has the logical conclusion that, like all other citizens of the UK, soldiers have the protection set out under the Human Rights Act,” she said.
“The proposition of the Ministry of Defence that these rights should be removed from them when they are deployed abroad on active service doesn’t reflect well on our government.”