ECHR confirms the application of the European Convention on Human Rights outside of the UK territory, in Iraq

In a landmark decision issued yesterday, Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that the UK’s human rights obligations apply to its acts outside of its borders, in Iraq, and that the UK had violated the European Convention on Human Rights (articles 1 and 2) by failing to investigate the circumstances of killings of the applicants.

“Today’s ruling in a case involving the killings of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers is a landmark judgment in the universal application of human rights. The judgment firmly reassert core values such as the universality of human rights, the rule of law and the right to life in time of war and occupation”, said Patrick Baudouin, Honorary President of FIDH and coordinator of the Legal Action Group of FIDH.
FIDH together with the Bar Human Rights Committee, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Human Rights Watch, INTERIGHTS, the Law Society and Liberty had intervened as joint parties in these proceedings.

The case concerned the deaths of six Iraqi civilians in Basra in 2003, where the UK was an occupying power. Five of them, Hazim Jum’aa Gatteh Al-Skeini, Muhammad Abdul Ridha Salim, Hannan Mahaibas Sadde Shmailawi, Waleed Sayay Muzban and Raid Hadi Sabir Al-Musawi were killed during military operations involving British soldiers. The sixth, Baha Mousa, was arrested and died at the hands of British troops in a military base. The victims’families of 5 of them had received a low compensation from the British government as a form of compensation. However, the families of the victims complained to the Strasbourg Court that the British authorities had refused to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the circumstances of the killings.

The Court rejected the arguments put forward by the British government, who argued, as the deaths occurred outside British territory, the requirement under the European Convention for Human Rights to conduct an independent and thorough investigation did not apply.

The Court considered that given that the United Kingdom exercised public powers normally to be exercised by a sovereign government in Iraq including Al-Basrah, there was a jurisdictional link between the UK and the individuals killed.

The Court also reaffirmed the UK’s obligation to lead independent and effective investigation into killings. “Nonetheless, the fact that the United Kingdom was in occupation also entailed that, if any investigation into acts allegedly committed by British soldiers was to be effective, it was particularly important that the investigating authority was, and was seen to be, operationally independent of the military chain of command”, the Court said.

The ruling is of paramount importance as this reasoning may also apply to other States acting abroad in similar situations.

Read more