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Published on November 10th, 2012 | by Madeline Schiesser

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UK Supreme Court to Consider a Solder’s Right to Life

By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

LONDON, U.K. – Does a soldier on the battlefield have a human right to life?  The United Kingdom’s highest court plans to answer this question for the families of three soldiers killed in Iraq.

The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court will hear the Human Rights cases of three soldiers killed in Iraq in Snatch Land Rover incidents in February. (Photo Courtesy of the Telegraph)

Each case involves the much-criticized Snatch Land Rover vehicle.  The snatch had relatively light armor, and, according to The Independent, was “a vehicle so vulnerable to bombs that it would earn the nickname the mobile coffin.”  It was eventually removed from combat service.

Pte Philip Hewett, 21, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, died in July 2005, after the Snatch in which he was riding was blown up.   Pte Lee Ellis, 23, of Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, was killed in an attack on his Snatch in February 2006. L/Cpl Kirk Redpath, 22, of Romford, East London, also died in a Snatch explosion in August 2007.

The families of the deceased, including Hewett’s mother, Sue Smith, persistently filed a series of suits to make the Ministry of Defense (MoD) admit the danger of the Snatch and the need to offer British soldiers the same protects as any other British citizen.

Last year, Redpath’s father, Colin Redpath, said “All we wanted was for the government to admit Snatch Land Rovers were not fit for purpose. Generals and MPs have already said this.  We just wanted it to be recognized. People are still dying in Snatch Land Rovers in Afghanistan when armored vehicles should be used against improvised explosive devices.”

Smith added that her son “was at all times a British citizen and subject to the orders of his superiors, which is why he was in a Snatch Land Rover in the first place. If Phillip had known the MoD was going to wash its hands of responsibility for his safety the moment he was sent to war, I don’t think he would have gone.”

In October, a Court of Appeal granted damages to the three families (and to the family of a soldier killed by “friendly fire”) on claims of negligence.  According to BBC News, the Court of Appeal focused on two issues: whether the MoD owes a duty of care to soldiers who are killed or injured on the battlefield, and whether soldiers serving in operations abroad fall under Human Rights laws.

While the MoD argued that decisions about battlefield equipment were for politicians and commanders, the court found that an employer-employee duty did exist.  However, as to this issue of human rights, the court rejected the claims, but gave the families leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Currently, men and women serving in foreign wars are covered by European human rights laws while on base, but not off.  Ironically, the European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that the citizens of a country under occupation by a country bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) are also protected, leading to a paradox in which under European law soldiers may at times have less human rights than the people of a country in which they are stationed.

Smith’s attorney, Jocelyn Cockburn further explained “It is anomalous that, as the law currently stands, that soldiers are capable of bringing others within UK jurisdiction but they are not within it themselves. We afford Iraqi citizens rights of protection which we can’t even give to our own soldiers.”  Cockburn hopes that the Supreme Court will take the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling into consideration.

However, according to the Independent, the Supreme Court has previously ruled in 2010 against protecting soldiers in the battlefield under the Human Rights Act.  Then Defense Secretary, Liam Fox, considered it a victory for common sense, and stated: “It is right that orders given in the heat of battle should not be questioned by lawyers at a later date. It would have been absurd to try to apply the same legal considerations on the battlefield that exist in non-combat situations.”

The U.K.’s seven-justice Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the cases during a three day session beginning February 18, 2013.  The appeal is being brought under Article 2 of the ECHR, which according to John Wadham, General Counsel for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, places a responsibility on the state to protect life in the context of the situation.  According to BBC News, a reversal of the Court of Appeal’s rejection is anticipated.

For Smith, getting this far gives her hope: “It actually gives me a little bit of faith back. Sometimes I feel the government is in control of everything that I am fighting a system that everybody works for. It is nice to know that I might have a chance.

For further information, please see:

BBC News – Supreme Court Judges to Consider Iraq Damages Ruling – 10 November 2012

The Independent – Exclusive: Supreme Court to Rule on a Soldier’s Right to Life – 10 November 2012

The Independent – A Mother’s Story on a Soldier’s Right to Life: ‘Initially, I just Got Blanked and Treated Like a Fool by Everybody I Met’ – 10 November 2012

The Telegraph – Court to Consider Whether Soldiers Have Right to Life’ – 10 November 2012

BBC News – Soldiers’ Families Get Green Light to Sue MoD over Iraq Deaths – 19 October 2012

The Telegraph – Families of Dead Soldiers Can Sue MoD for Negligence, Senior Judges Rule – 19 October 2012

BBC News – Relatives of Iraq Death Soldiers Make Compensation Bid – 25 June 2012

BBC News – Iraq Compensation Bid is Blocked – 30 June 2011


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