Despite the PM’s objections, holding British military personnel to human rights laws reflects our common humanity, writes LIZ DAVIES
IN HER leader’s speech to the Tory Party conference, Theresa May said: “We will never again — in any future conflict — let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave: the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.”
Cards on the table: I’m a political activist, I’m left-wing, and — like all lawyers who represent people rather than corporations — I deal with human rights in my day job.
While my work is about housing rights, my comrades in the Haldane Society, in my chambers and in similar chambers and firms do the sort of legal work condemned by the Prime Minister.
She’s riding high when she says that two of the solicitors’ firms which represented Iraqis claiming abuses of human rights by British troops are under investigation by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
One of those firms, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), has closed. PIL was run by my friend and fellow Haldane Society activist Phil Shiner.
The investigations into PIL are private and so it is not known what it is accused of.
What is known is that those lawyers, and others, have established, through litigation, the circumstances when human rights should be respected by the British army when it is occupying another country, such as Iraq.
Since 2003, judges have decided that human rights and the rule of law must be respected whenever someone is detained by troops, and when the army is carrying out a policing role.
Those rules do not apply on the battlefield or when troops need to defend themselves.
What the British army cannot do is torture or use inhuman or degrading treatment on people in captivity. Nor can it shoot civilians except in self-defence.
Those are entirely appropriate rules, reflecting common humanity as well as human rights.
The most famous case is Baha Mousa — an Iraqi hotel worker arrested by the British army as a suspected insurgent who died while being detained and interrogated in September 2003.
The subsequent inquiry found that Mousa and other civilian prisoners had been subjected to “an appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” by the army — torture — which led to his death.
The then defence secretary Liam Fox said to the House of Commons that what had happened to Mousa and the other detainees “was deplorable, shocking and shameful.”
Following that inquiry, the government set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which investigates claims by Iraqi civilians of murder or ill-treatment.
Some of those claims — investigated in the associated al Sweady public inquiry — have been found to be false, such as people claiming to be civilians were in fact insurgents. This had led to the disciplinary proceedings against some of the lawyers involved. But other claims have been upheld.
A recent report found that a 15-year-old Iraqi boy had drowned in Basra in 2003 after soldiers forced him and others into a canal and left them floundering.
This was called “wetting,” a practice apparently used by British troops to humiliate and deter suspected looters. It has no relationship to the rule of law.
Sometimes the soldiers acted in self-defence, sometimes not.
In all cases, those who died are casualties of an immoral and (as Chilcot found) unjustified invasion.
It is important to note that the role of lawyers is to bring what appear to be legitimate claims.
It is for judges to decide whether those claims are, in fact, legitimate. Or, indeed, for the government to decide.
The British government has already settled and paid compensation for 326 cases of abuse, paying over £20 million so far. The government would not settle spurious claims.
Soldiers, as well as civilians, are victims. PIL represented families of soldiers killed in Iraq at inquests.
Soldiers put their lives at risk but their families are entitled to assume that they will not be killed by friendly fire.
Activist lawyers tend to be abused while they pursue controversial cases, and then feted as heroes afterwards.
Gareth Peirce represented the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. They were all considered terrorist murderers in the late 1970s and throughout most of the ’80s.
Lawyers, politicians, journalists and other campaigners who argued that they were innocent were accused of being IRA sympathisers, supporters of terrorism.
As we know, all of them were innocent and had been imprisoned for years for crimes that they had not committed.
After the event, campaigning lawyers are held up as heroic or saintly, as the film In the Name of the Father portrays Peirce. Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is often cited by aspiring lawyers as their inspiration for studying law.
In real life, lawyers representing African-American defendants, challenging institutional racism in US courts, usually working for or with the NAACP, were subject to physical attacks and death threats.
Medgar Evans, not a lawyer but a NAACP and civil rights activist, was assassinated.
In Northern Ireland, lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, who brought human rights cases against the British government in the 1980s, were both assassinated by loyalist paramilitaries. In the case of Finucane, the government has admitted the collusion of the British security services.
Lawyers have not killed anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor have they prevented British troops from acting legitimately in conflict.
Human rights abuses of Iraqi civilians — exposed by litigation, acknowledged by judges and by the British government — stand alongside the over 150,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, the displacement of more than a million people and the chaos that continues today as part of the dreadful legacy of Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
- Liz Davies is a barrister and honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.