London: British troops could be prevented from carrying out vital missions after an explosive human rights ruling, the Defence Secretary has warned.
Philip Hammond said the judgement means military chiefs will be “living in fear” of being sued.
He fears our forces risk being reduced to Continental-style peacekeeping roles — which see some countries refuse to let their personnel go out after dark — after judges decreed that the European Convention on Human Rights applies on the battlefield.
Hammond is understood to be so furious at the Supreme Court ruling that he is considering demanding a revocation and believes it strengthens the case for Britain quitting the ECHR.
The Defence Secretary said: “There are real concerns that British troops could be prevented from carrying out their missions for fear of falling foul of human rights legislation. We can’t have troop commanders living in fear of how lawyers back in London might interpret their battlefield decisions that are vital to protecting our national security.
“There could be serious implications for our ability to work with international partners who are not bound by the ECHR.”
Following the Supreme Court ruling that the ECHR does apply even in combat situations, Hammond has ordered a review of the implications for military commanders and troops.
The prospect of “health and safety” type laws applying to the battlefield could seriously impact on Britain’s military capability, he said.
A source added: “If the ECHR applies to personnel on operations it is feared that commanders may be reluctant to make decisions in the field that will then be second-guessed by lawyers in a London.
“We don’t want to be tied up by health and safety rules that prevent troops patrolling at night or only with certain equipment.”
Ministers have also asked officials to reassure worried international counterparts that the UK will continue to be a committed and effective partner on combined missions.
Earlier this week, families of some British soldiers killed or injured fighting in Iraq were given the go-ahead to bring compensation claims against the Government. The Supreme Court ruled that cases of troops killed while driving Land Rovers could be brought under the “right to life” enshrined in article two of the ECHR, potentially outlawing the future deployment of troops with outdated equipment.
It also ruled that families of soldiers killed by “friendly fire” from Challenger tanks could sue for negligence because the traditional doctrine of combat immunity should not cover decisions “far removed from active operations against the enemy”.
Sue Smith, mother of Private Phillip Hewett, 21, of Tamworth, Staffordshire, who died in July 2005 after a Snatch Land Rover was blown up, said it meant soldiers could no longer be treated as “sub-human with no rights”.
But defence officials now fear they could face a huge bill from a flood of litigation.
Conservative MP Dominic Raab, a lawyer who has campaigned for reform of human rights law, said: “This week’s novel ruling by the Supreme Court — stretching the Human Rights Act to allow soldiers to sue the Government over decisions on equipment, training and operations — will endanger our forces and undermine democratic accountability.
“The Government should be held accountable if it puts soldiers at unnecessary risk.”
But he added: “A surge of litigation risks diverting the very money that should be spent on training, equipment and care. What happens if troops are caught off-guard or stretched thin?”
Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of British forces in Afghanistan, said: “We cannot allow a constricting health and safety culture to creep in and prevent the vital job our soldiers do.”