Rogue soldiers could escape prosecution under British Bill of Rights

Two British troops stand in an armoured landrover during a patrol near Basra November 16, 2005. © Atef Hassan
British troops will likely be shielded from human rights claims over their conduct abroad under the government’s proposed British Bill of Rights, Justice Secretary Michael Gove has said.

The Conservative Party’s election manifesto in 2015 vowed to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA) and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, much to the concern of human rights groups worldwide. The Tories also threatened to potentially withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which Britain helped to draft in the wake of World War II. 

Human rights reforms

The HRA came into force in Britain in 2000, integrating most rights contained in the ECHR into British law. It has been used to safeguard British soldiers, support peaceful campaigning and hold UK authorities accountable for mass surveillance. It has also been deployed to assist survivors of rape, sufferers of domestic violence and people at risk of human trafficking and slavery.

Draft proposals of a new British Bill of Rights have suffered repeated delays in recent weeks. Speaking ahead of a government consultation on the proposed bill, Justice Secretary Gove addressed the House of Lords EU justice sub-committee on Tuesday.

Highlighting areas he thinks need reform, Gove said British soldiers may have more freedom to operate in war zones without being constrained by international treaties or laws.

Noting how France withdrew from certain human rights obligations in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, he said Britain may do the same with respect to British troops who are embroiled in conflict abroad. 

Depleted privacy rights 

The justice secretary did not specify whether the suspension of certain rights would be permanent or temporary under the proposed British Bill of Rights.

However, he said the bill would put more emphasis on free speech and less emphasis on privacy rights. 

On the subject of depleted privacy rights, he conceded the bill might need tweaking to ensure journalists’ sources are protected.

Gove also indicated the government may create a German-style constitutional court capable of overruling European claims that undermine Britain’s constitutional rights. He said the government is not planning to withdraw completely from any of the rights enshrined in the ECHR.

“We at the moment envisage that all the rights contained within the convention will be affirmed in any British Bill of Rights, but where rights are subject to potential qualification then it may be the case that we emphasize the importance of one right over another,” he said.

Gove declined to offer a firm date for the launch of the official consultation on the government’s British Bill of Rights, but confirmed it would be soon.

Campaigners' outrage

Amnesty International UK has vehemently opposed the government’s plans to scrap the Human Rights Act.

Amnesty argues the act offers a vital means of protecting Britain’s most impoverished and vulnerable, safeguarding survivors of domestic violence, protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and defending citizens against intrusive mass surveillance.

Amnesty also argues the HRA empowers British citizens to challenge domestic injustices in UK courts and challenge these judgments at a European level in the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

The human rights group warns if the British state no longer bows to the very court and laws that protect human rights in the UK, attempts to eradicate human rights abuses abroad could be hindered.

Civil rights group Liberty says scrapping the HRA and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights would weaken the rights of all Britons, offering them less protection against “powerful interests.”

The human rights group, which has long campaigned against the introduction of a British Bill of Rights, says the legislative shift would limit human rights to cases that the government considers worth pursuing.