Skip to content or view screen version

European Convention on Human Rights Applies to Iraq

Keith Parkins | 16.12.2004 18:56 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Repression

In a landmark case, the High Court has ruled that the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights can be applied to UK troops serving in Iraq.

'Baha Mousa, 26, was working as a hotel receptionist in Basra 14 months ago when British troops surrounded the building and arrested him and six others. They were taken to a British base and were reportedly hooded and beaten. Two days later; Mr Mousa was dead. His family was given $3,000 in compensation and rejected a further $5,000. What they wanted was justice. Yesterday [Tuesday], after more than a year of official stonewalling, his relatives won a 'historic' ruling to force the MoD to hold an independent inquiry. Will the truth now be known?' -- Robert Fisk

'On the nights of September 13 and 14 2003, British troops arrested and detained Baha Mousa and eight of his colleagues from a hotel in Basra. Over the next three days, according to a witness, the soldiers took it in turns to humiliate him, beat him and torture him to death.' -- Phil Shiner

'The more the government is forced to reveal, the more we learn that individuals in US custody ... were tortured and abused.' -- Anthony Romero, American Civil Liberties Union

At the recent conference on Iraq organised by Iraq Occupation Focus, public interest lawyer Phil Shiner spoke of his anger and disgust at the way Iraqi families are treated by the MoD. He felt an apology would be a start. Requests for information have hit a brick wall.

Phil Shiner outlined the cases he was bringing, and felt confident of success. If successful, then the Human Rights Act would apply to the British in Iraq and their behaviour would be covered by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The appellants won on one case, and not on the others. The High Court decided that both the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, applied to Iraqis held by the British. Where the Court ruled these did not apply was to either Iraqis killed on the streets or what happened to Iraqis in their homes. The latter may be appealed to the Court of Appeal.

In the words of one of the senior High Court judges who heard the case, the ECHR extended to 'outposts of the state's authority' in foreign lands, and that included prisons operated by British troops.

The one successful case was where an Iraqi had allegedly been beaten to death by the British. So badly beaten that his own father had difficulty in recognising the body.

Looting by the US military is well documented. Baha Mousa fingered British soldiers for helping themselves to money in the hotel safe where he worked as a receptionist. For this he was according to eye witnesses beaten to death by his captors.

One of those who was detained with Baha Mousa described what he saw:

'We were put in a big room with bags over our heads. But I could see through some holes in my hood. Soldiers would come in, ordinary soldiers, not officers – mostly with their heads shaved, but in uniform – and they would kick us, picking on one after the other. They were kick-boxing us in the chest and between the legs and in the back.'

'We were crying and screaming. They set on Baha especially and he kept crying out that he couldn't breath in the hood. He kept asking them to take the bag off and said he was suffocating.'

'But they laughed at him and kicked him more. One of them said, 'Stop screaming and you will be able to breath more easily'. Baha was so scared. Then they increased the kicking on him and he collapsed on the floor. None of us could stand or sit because it was so painful.'

The ruling means the British are now forced to hold an independent inquiry into what happened, not the usual MoD cover up. Not the outcome war criminals Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon were hoping for. If Saddam Hussein is to be put on trial for war crimes, then so too should Blair and Hoon.

Although the favourable ruling was only in one case, the importance of this ruling cannot be underestimated. Where Iraqis are detained and held by the British, they have to be treated according to the Human Rights Act and the European Convention.

A lawyer acting for the MoD tried to argue the ECHR did not apply outside of Europe, but was put down by one of the judges, who described this as 'an unhappy submission to have to have to make about a country which was one of the cradles of civilisation ... No one knows to whom the baton or batons of the human race will be handed. The convention [ECHR] was not created because of the humanity of Europe, but because of its failures.'

But it is not only the British. Pending a final decision by the European Court, this would also apply to all European countries serving in Iraq.

Phil Shiner:

'The significance of this is obvious. If my clients succeed - as I am convinced they will - it will change the face of future conflicts, peace keeping operations or occupations involving European members of Nato. Once one of those states alone, or with others, can be said to have effective control of another territory - anywhere in the world - the European convention will apply. This will mean that violations of the right to life or prohibition against torture must be the subject of independent investigations by the state responsible.'

If ECHR does not apply, then we can do as the US has done and establish our own extra-territorial Gulags.

Phil Shiner again:

'Alternatively, if the government is correct, the UK could create its own Guantánamo Bay. As long as it was outside Europe the convention would not be in play.'

An independent inquiry will now have to be held to see whether or not an unlawful killing took place.

Articles 2 and 3 of ECHR guarantee the right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

There are currently around forty case against the British alleging abuse and unlawful killing

What happened to Baha Mousa, the abuses in Abu Ghraib, are not isolated examples. When US soldiers 'visit' Iraqis, they kick in the door, beat the men inside, steal gold, jewelry and money, the men are then taken away for questioning. Falluja was sealed off in the latest attack and civilians prevented from leaving, civilians were being killed on the streets.

What we see taking place, is systematic abuse.

According to military documents obtained by American Civil Liberties Union, Marines in Iraq conducted mock executions of juvenile prisoners last year, burned and tortured other detainees with electrical shocks, and warned a Navy corpsman they would kill him if he treated any injured Iraqis.

These documents are the latest in a series of reports, e-mails and other records that the ACLU has obtained to further its contention that the abuse of prisoners goes far beyond the handful of soldiers charged with abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

When he spoke at a recent conference on Iraq, Christian Parent said we should not focus on isolated examples of abuse at Abu Ghraib, but instead see these as examples of widespread and systematic abuse.

The longer US/UK remain in Iraq, the deeper the quagmire into which they sink. Every act against Iraqi citizens, adds more recruits to the resistance.

This may explain the advice UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith gave to the British government, "the imposition of major structural economic reforms would not be authorised by international law," and that "the longer the occupation of Iraq continues, and the more the tasks undertaken by an interim administration depart from the main objective [of disarming Saddam], the more difficult it will be to justify the lawfulness of the occupation."

It is not just squaddies who are looting in Iraq. One of the first acts of US Iraqi viceroy Paul Bremer was to grant US corporations the authority to rape and pillage Iraq with executive order 39

an order that was a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907.

On 22 May 2003, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1483, abolishing sanctions against Iraq and recognising the United States and United Kingdom as the country's occupying powers. As occupying powers, US/UK have obligations. The resolution called upon the US-UK authority to "comply fully with their obligations under international law, including in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907."

When Windrush Communications held a conference in London, Iraq Procurement 2004, to divide the corporate spoils of Iraq, the conference was disrupted by two female protesters. They were charged with 'aggravated trespass'. Subsequently the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. The CPS did so because they did not want war crimes discussed in open court.

To quote Ewa who disrupted the conference:

'War crimes are being committed in Iraq on a daily basis - we have little power to stop them from here in the UK. The government, as chief broker of these crimes, is difficult to target and has always been seen and protected as an impenetrable bastion of decision-making, deal-brokering and future determining, although four activists who managed to get into the Cabinet Room proved otherwise, as have batmen and fox-hunters. But, the fact is, conferences like Iraq Procurement, these physical events which bring together politicians and business leaders to sign contracts carry just as much decision-making weight in terms of creating the conditions for crimes against humanity to be committed, as governments do, but they are easier to confront, easier to disrupt.'

'The decisions which set the living standards and possibilities for generations to come; The decisions which determine who will starve and who will survive, who will live and who will die, are not made on the battlefield by people in uniform, they are made by people in suits behind closed doors, in soft-carpeted hotels and function rooms. They are made in private and demand absolute silence. They are made by the powerful and remorseless. They are made by those who legitimise theft, excuse massacre, and seal the fate of an entire country’s future with a pen’s stroke. They are made in events like Iraq Procurement 2004.'

More recently, 'pirates' picketed Windrush Communications.

Slowly, slowly – with a trickle of eye witness accounts out of Iraq, with soldiers speaking out and refusing to serve, with expose by Pennie and Ewa of the corporate looting of Iraq, with the extension of the ECHR to Iraq – the Iraq adventure is falling apart at the seams.


Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, Hamish Hamilton, 2003

Robert Fisk, Who killed Baha Mousa?, The Independent, 15 December 2004

Peggy Faw Gish, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace, Herald Press, 2004

Seymour M Hersh, Chain of Command: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2004

John Innes, "US and UK Action in post-war Iraq May be Illegal," The Scotsman, 22 May 2003

Iraqis win death probe test case, BBC News on-line, 14 December 2004

Naomi Klein, Iraq is not America's to sell, The Guardian, 7 November 2003

Naomi Klein, Bush's Iraq: An Appointocracy, Globe & Mail, 22 January 2004

Aaron Mate, Pillage is forbidden, The Guardian, 7 November 2003

Richard Norton-Taylor, Troops could face trial after human rights ruling, The Guardian, 15 December 2004

Christian Parenti, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, The New Press, 2004

Keith Parkins, The rape and pillage of Iraq, Indymedia Chicago, 5 December 2003

Keith Parkins, Eyewitness Iraq, Indymedia UK, 26 November 2004

Keith Parkins, Making a Killing: The Corporate Invasion of Iraq, Indymedia UK, 29 November 2004

Keith Parkins, Occupation and Resistance in Iraq, Indymedia UK, 7 December 2004

Keith Parkins, Rumsfeld attacked by US troops, Indymedia UK, 9 December 2004

Keith Parkins, Bringing Democracy to the Middle East, Indymedia UK, 13 December 2004

Milan Rai, Regime Unchanged: Why the War on Iraq Changed Nothing, Pluto Press, 2004

Richard A Serrano, Details of Marines Mistreating Prisoners in Iraq Are Revealed, Los Angeles Times, 15 December 2004

Phil Shiner, We can hold our military to account, The Guardian, 15 December 2004

Jon Silverman, Army to feel impact of Mousa judgment, BBC New on-line, 14 December 2004

US forces 'hid Iraq prison abuse', BBC News on-line, 8 December 2004

Robert Verkaik and Nigel Morris, Judges back inquiry Blair did not want, The Independent, 15 December 2004

Keith Parkins


Display the following 3 comments

  1. Excellent — Well does it ?
  2. Oh shut up you moron — Yawwwwwwnnnnnnn
  3. At last — Well done