At the Conservative party conference, the government heralded the 'landmark measure' to protect armed forces from 'persistent legal claims in future overseas operations' by introducing a presumption to derogate (opt out) from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Yet, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announcement failed to mention that the proposals will also mean removing human rights protections from soldiers themselves. Instead their accompanying press release used spin and misinformation to imply the proposals will protect our troops.
The missing analysis was how these plans to opt-out from Article 2 of the ECHR would impact on hard won human rights protections for soldiers, i.e. the right to adequate equipment and training while on deployment.
Soldiers are intentionally put in high risk situations and knowingly take risks to safeguard the lives of others. Human rights do not change this, however, Article 2 requires that when putting troops in danger the MoD must take reasonable steps to protect them from known risks to life. This duty to protect is something the MoD have fought very hard to deny but was enshrined in law following a Supreme Court case in 2013 brought by the families of soldiers killed by roadside bombs whilst travelling in poorly armoured Snatch Land Rovers.
It can be brutally difficult to get the truth from the MoD and this latest move appears to be part of a concerted campaign aimed at restricting the ability of soldiers and their families to hold the government to account for equipment and other failures.
It is only three months since Chilcot's Iraq Inquiry reported on the 'wholly inadequate' preparation for Iraq both before and after the invasion, criticising failures by the military to address equipment shortages and specifically referencing the need to replace Snatch Land Rovers with more heavily armoured vehicles.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accepted the Chilcot findings, acknowledging in the House of Commons that '[the MoD] failed to adapt to the changing situation on the ground and there were significant equipment shortfalls for our troops'. The MoD are keen to stress that they are learning lessons and in a recent blog said they will 'create a culture that does not stifle debate and challenge.'
It is difficult to see how the decision to remove human rights protections from our troops at times of overseas interventions fits with the MoD's supposed willingness to learn lessons. Its actions do not reflect this.
It is easy for the government to throw mud at 'ambulance chasing lawyers' and 'human rights gone mad' and too often this obscures the real issues. Of course the MoD would find it easier to operate without legal scrutiny but this is not in the national interest and it is certainly not in the interests of our soldiers. Without the ability to hold the government to account for their safety record there is a serious risk that standards will not improve and soldiers' lives will be lost unnecessarily.
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