In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights began hearing cases of Russian human rights abuses committed during the military conflict between the Russian government and Chechen rebel groups. The Russian military has since been found responsible for multiple human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial executions and targeting of the civilian population. As just one example, in Musayev and Others v Russia (2007), Russian forces were found guilty for the massacre of over 50 civilians. The European Court adjudged that these human rights abuses were ‘systematic’ and that the Russian government had failed to hold its forces accountable.
Whilst this process has since been criticised as ineffective since the court’s judgement was undermined by the Russian government’s failure to carry out its own investigations following the decisions, the purpose of the ECHR in this instance cannot, however, be criticised. To hold the military to account for possible human rights abuses, or to at least scrutinise modern governments and its monopoly on legitimate violence, whilst offering victims families an outlet of redress, is of vital importance.
Fast forward to 2016 and the British government has announced that its military forces will be exempt from the ECHR during times of conflict. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon claimed that the decision to opt out of the ECHR will help ‘protect troops from vexatious claims’, claims which have supposedly ‘cost the taxpayer millions’. While this decision is not unique, since the French government announced in the immediate aftermath of the November 2015 massacres in Paris, that they too would derogate from the ECHR, the British government’s decision is characteristic of a broader sense of exceptionalism and separatism engrained in UK policy, particularly since the vote to leave the European Union.
Michael Fallon’s explanation tells us that protecting civilians in times of conflict is an inconvenience and an unnecessary financial cost. This rationale epitomises the growing condition of British exceptionalism. Obligations to the world outside the United Kingdom are framed as a cost that should be avoided. The importance of the rights they offer to others, especially in times of war, is simply neglected as burdensome.
The possibility that British military forces might subject others to the abuses Chechen’s endured is rejected. Claims against British military forces are always vexatious, so the argument goes. Those that need protecting are not the civilians subject to military force but British military personnel who might be at risk from such claims: a belief in British exceptionalism in the world breeds such exceptionalist policies. The British government does not abscond from its own laws on military conduct, but we shouldn’t be subject to such external rules. This turn away from the idea of a higher international court determining British conduct is characteristic of a broader rejection of the other and is central to this contemporary turn to British separatism.
This decision on the ECHR is certainly just one instance of a broader turn towards opting out of responsibly that is underpinned by an inward looking, predominantly economic, rationale. Indeed, the UK government’s limited response to the refugee crisis was similarly underpinned by the idea that they had done enough, again supported by economic evidence of aid delivered abroad.
The economic rationality that justifies such exceptionalism ignores the moral reasons for being part of the ECHR in times or war, or displaying care for non-UK citizens. There is an erasure of certain rights that impose obligations since they are inconvenient. Such an orientation on policy rejects the idea that the UK has a responsibly in the world and simply ignores the plight of the other, and the existence of the outside world more generally except for productive trade relations.
Put simply, there is no benefit to the UK, economic or otherwise, in protecting non-British civilians. The economic costs of such obligations become the primary justification for not doing something — whether it be refusing refugees entry from Calais, leaving the EU, or indeed absconding from important human rights obligations — which simultaneously turns us away from the disconcerting moral underpinnings of that decision. We increasingly fetishise over the monetary cost of policy, neglect its human implications outside the UK, and operate under a banner of unabashed nationalism.
Ultimately, the decision to derogate the military’s obligations under the ECHR is just one step towards enclosing the UK and its practices in the world in a Donald Trump-esque cordon sanitaire, sealed off from the outside world and the responsibilities that come with being an active member. That is of course, except for the exchange of economic value, such as freely imported goods or appropriately qualified individuals of working age: the contemporary determinate of what can come in and what must remain outside.
In Theresa May’s Conservative Conference speech last month, the Prime Minister said that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. Some have challenged May’s blunt assertion, arguing that we are all part of a cosmopolitan interrelated world that demands responsibility beyond national borders. However, May’s position is ultimately a true reflection of Britain’s excluded position in the world today. The decision to derogate from the ECHR in times of military conflict is just the beginning of this anti-cosmopolitan movement.