Al Skeini Press Release

Area Date
Programme Keywords
Security and the Rule of Law
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment

(London, 7 July 2011) – A European Court of Human Rights ruling on 7 July 2011, in a case involving the killings of Iraqi civilians by UK soldiers, is a landmark judgment in the universal application of human rights. In Al-Skeini and Others v the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found that the UK’s human rights obligations apply to its acts in Iraq, and that the UK had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to investigate the circumstances of the killings.

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 families of the victims complained to the Strasbourg Court that the UK 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 UK government that, as the deaths occurred outside UK territory, the obligations under the Convention did not apply. In the Court’s words “[w]hat is decisive in such cases is the exercise of physical power and control over the person in question.” The Court ruled that “the United Kingdom, through its soldiers engaged in security operations in Basrah…, exercised authority and control over individuals killed in the course of such security operations…”

The Court went on to find that the UK failed to carry out an independent and effective investigation into the deaths. The Court recognised the difficulties states may face with conducting an investigation even in difficult security conditions, but this did not erase the obligation to take “all reasonable ensure that an effective, independent investigation is conducted into alleged breaches of the right to life.”

The judgment clarifies that the UK and other states have to meet their human rights obligations wherever the state exercises its authority, whether on UK soil, in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. It rejects the notion that the Convention only applies within the “European legal space,” or where the state has “control of an area,” thus dispelling misunderstandings on the scope of Convention rights that had arisen from an earlier case (the Bankovic case). Instead the Court reasserted principles long established in its own case law, and that of other international courts and bodies, that human rights are not dependent on the whereabouts of the person but on whether he or she is in fact under the power, authority and control of the state. The judgment provides an important incentive for states to respect human rights, and the prospect of redress for victims on the national level and, where that fails, before Strasbourg.

A group of international and UK human rights organisations and professional bodies, including INTERIGHTS, the Bar Human Rights Committee, the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Law Society and Liberty, provided written comments to the Court on international standards of other international courts and human rights bodies such as the International Court of Justice, the UN Human Rights Committee and others. The Court’s approach today reflects these standards and its own earlier position on the extra-territorial application of human rights.

Helen Duffy, Litigation Director at INTERIGHTS, said: “This judgment provides long-awaited clarity from the Court on the application of Convention rights wherever the state exercises its power or control, whether on UK soil, in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. The Court has rejected double standards depending on whether the state acts at home or abroad. ”

“The judgment represents a major reassertion of core values such as the universality of human rights, the rule of law and the right to life,” said Vesselina Vandova, Senior Lawyer for Security and the Rule of Law, INTERIGHTS.

For further information, please contact:

Helen Duffy, Litigation Director, + 31624283283

Sarah Harrington, Head of Fundraising and Communications, +44 20 7843 0472