EU human rights laws ‘disastrous’ for UK armed forces - ex-defense chiefs

British troops keep watch at a checkpoint, where a man shot and killed three British soldiers, in Helmand province July 2, 2012. (Reuters/Abdul Malik)
Seven former chiefs of defense staff have called for the British armed forces to be exempt from the European Convention on Human Rights, saying their inclusion in the legal framework is putting their effectiveness at risk.

In a joint letter to The Times, the former chiefs said servicemen and women represent “much that is best about Britain,” but added that their operational capabilities are at risk of being compromised under current European human rights legislation.

The creeping legal expansion on to the battlefield is putting that ethos at risk with potentially disastrous consequences. Recent legislation and judicial findings have extended the domestic law of negligence to the combat zone, where civilian norms of duty of care cannot apply,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by the last seven chiefs of defense: Field Marshal the Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, Chief of the Defense Staff 1997-2001; Admiral of the Fleet The Lord Boyce of Pimlico, Chief of the Defense Staff 2001-03; Field Marshal The Lord Walker of Aldringham, Chief of the Defense Staff 2003-06; Marshal of the Royal Air Force The Lord Stirrup of Marylebone, Chief of the Defense Staff 2006-10; and General The Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, Chief of the Defense Staff 2010-13.

As well as affecting the armed forces’ work, the defense chiefs claim the threat of prosecution also damages military culture.

READ MORE: 6 veterans per day seeking post-traumatic stress help – military charity

“The increased risk of prosecution constrains the ability of commanders to respond to fast-moving situations on the battlefield. This could lead to a generation of risk-averse military leaders, which undermines the world-class status of our armed forces.”

“The military is neither above nor exempt from the law, but war demands different norms and laws than the rest of human activity.”

Their suggestions are backed up by research from Policy Exchange, a leading think tank. Their latest report shows the total cost for defending legal claims hit the Ministry of Defense (MoD) with a £130 million bill in 2012/13 – double the amount five years previously.

The report says: “The British military is now thoroughly entangled in the net of human rights law – often to the benefit of our country’s adversaries. The British armed forces remain the most accomplished in Europe; but they suffer courtroom defeat after courtroom defeat in London and Strasbourg.”

The Supreme Court found last year that European human rights legislation is applicable to British soldiers, even when they were fighting in foreign territory. But Policy Exchange argues British forces are already under a specific set of laws when they enter a conflict zone.

The Conservative Party said in October it plans to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights if it secures a majority in May’s general election.

The letter from the generals comes only days before the Conservative manifesto is released. There has been speculation as to whether the manifesto will include a pledge to scrap UK adherence to EU human rights laws.