Today the UK Supreme Court decided R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Defence  UKSC 29 (press summary), yet another fascinating addition to the unfolding saga on the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties.
The plaintiff was the mother of a UK soldier stationed in Iraq who died there from a severe heatstroke. She demanded an inquiry into her son’s death that would be compliant with Article 2 ECHR, that would be able to expose what in her view were systemic faults in the UK’s provision of equipment and facilities to its soldiers in Iraq which ultimately led to her son’s death. In other words, the case is a mirror-image of Al-Skeini, which also dealt with Art. 2 procedural obligations in Iraq, but that time with respect to inquiries into the deaths of Iraqi nationals at the hands of UK troops. As the readers are aware, the Grand Chamber of the European Court held hearings in Al-Skeini just a few weeks ago (see my old post for more background).
With regard to extraterritoriality, the issue before the Supreme Court in Smith was this: does a UK soldier in Iraq enjoy the protection of the ECHR while stationed in an area not under the UK’s effective control? Incidentally, on the facts of the case, Private Smith actually died on a UK military base. Per the UK government’s concession in Al-Skeini, the House of Lords’ quite dubious analogy between a military prison or base and an embassy, and the European Court’s recent admissibility decision in Al-Saadoon, that fact alone would have brought Private Smith within the UK’s jurisdiction. Readers will recall that in Al-Saadoon the European Court brought the spatial model of Art. 1 jurisdiction as state effective overall control of a geographical area to its extreme, but saying that a military prison or base qualified as an ‘area’ susceptible to such jurisdiction and control.
In other words, under the spatial model Private Smith would have been within the UK’s jurisdiction, and therefore entitled to protection under Art. 2 ECHR. However, issue was raised in the lower courts as to whether he would have been within the UK’s jurisdiction even if he did NOT die on the base, but in essentially the same circumstances. Like the lower courts, therefore, the Supreme Court was now faced with a set of questions in a quasi-advisory posture – something that several judges openly lamented. The Court nonetheless decided to rule on the matter, because it is one of great practical relevance of UK military operations abroad; Private Smith is obviously not the only UK soldier to have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many soldiers lost their lives outside areas under UK effective control.
The lower courts applied to Private Smith a variant of the personal model of Art. 1 jurisdiction, as state authority and control over individuals, finding that he indeed fell within the scope of Art. 1. In their view, simply by virtue of being a part of the UK military, Private Smith was within the UK’s authority and control, and accordingly within its jurisdiction.
Today the Supreme Court disagreed. By a majority of 6 to 3 (Lady Hale and Lords Mance and Kerr dissenting), the justices found that mere membership in the armed forces was insufficient to establish a jurisdictional link for the purposes of Art. 1 ECHR.