LONDON — Britain’s prime minister has announced plans to protect British troops from dubious legal claims made during conflicts.
Theresa May said Tuesday the government is taking steps to end an “industry of vexatious claims” like those made against veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been accused of abusing combatants and prisoners.
The government plans to take advantage of its right to suspend aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights during wartime. May said this would reduce costs to taxpayers since the Ministry of Defense has spent more than 100 million pounds dealing with Iraq-related inquiries since 2004.
She has in the past been critical of European human rights provisions.
May says UK forces will have to adhere to international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions.
Britain and Israel have long been at friction over the exploitation of “universal jurisdiction” laws to enable attempts to prosecute Israeli politicians and military personnel for alleged war crimes. UK lawyers representing pro-Palestinian groups have repeatedly taken advantage of legal loopholes and sought to have Israeli officials visiting the country arrested for alleged breaches of international law under the terms of universal jurisdiction.
In July, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was summoned for police questioning in one such attempt during a visit to London. That request was dropped after an exchange between Israeli and British diplomats that granted Livni diplomatic immunity. A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry said Jerusalem viewed the request by the British Metropolitan Police to question Livni during her visit to the UK “with great concern… We would have expected different behavior from a close ally such as the UK,” the ministry said.
According to the Guardian newspaper, May and Defense Secretary Michael Fallon planned the move ahead of its scheduled unveiling at the party’s annual conference this week in Birmingham.
Fallon also mentioned the plan ahead of his own address to the conference, saying that Britain’s “legal system has been abused to level false charges against our troops on an industrial scale.”
The suspension is known as a “presumption to derogate” from the ECHR in warfare, the Guardian said, adding that the British government has previously taken this step during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The Council of Europe does allow for derogation from the ECHR, although certain central elements of the convention, such as the ban on torture, cannot be suspended.
The move has come under criticism from human rights groups, including Britain’s Liberty organization, which argued that the decision should only be taken in situations that directly threatened the life of the nation.
Liberty director Martha Spurrier also questioned the rationale behind the move, saying the majority of law suits brought against British soldiers were valid and related to sections of the ECHR that could not be derogated, such as the ban on torture.
Spurrier told the Guardian that Britain’s Defense Ministry “has been forced to settle hundreds of cases of abuse, which speaks to mistreatment on the battlefield that we should be trying to eradicate, not permit.” She said that derogating from the convention would “make us hypocrites on the international stage and embolden our enemies to capitalize on our double standards.”
The UK’s Law Society last month accused the British government of “attempting to undermine the rule of law by intimidating solicitors who pursue legitimate cases” against troops, the Guardian reported.
“Lawyers must not be hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties and acting in the best interests of their clients within the law,” the society said in a September press release.
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