Al-Skeini and Others v the United Kingdom

Forum: European Court of Human Rights
INTERIGHTS' role: Third party interveners
Keywords: Extra-territorial applicability of human rights law, life, effective remedy, cruel and inhuman treatment, torture

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. To read our press release, click here.

In April 2009 INTERIGHTS, jointly with six other organisations, submitted a third party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Al-Skeini and Others v the United Kingdom. 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 shot dead by members of UK armed forces in the course of patrol operations. The sixth, Baha Mousa, was arrested and died at the hands of British troops in a military base. The case concerns the refusal of the UK authorities to conduct independent and thorough investigation into the circumstances of the death of five of the applicants. The UK government argued that the deaths occurred outside the territory, and therefore the ‘jurisdiction’, of the United Kingdom, and consequently the European Convention for Human Rights, which imposes an obligation for independent and thorough investigation, does not apply.

INTERIGHTS submitted the third party intervention jointly with 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. The intervention focused on the issue of extraterritorial application of human rights law, and in particular of the European Convention for Human Rights.

The interveners argued that an unduly narrow interpretation of ‘jurisdiction’ would lead to the creation of unconscionable double standards governing the conduct of states, depending on whether their agents act within or outside that state’s territory. Such interpretation of ‘jurisdiction’ would be in conflict with core values such as the universality of human rights, the rule of law, and the fundamental nature of the right to life, and would be out of step with the practice of other human rights bodies, such as the International Court of Justice, the UN Human Rights Committee, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights. Under international human rights law, if the agents of a state have control or authority over an individual outside its territory, then the state exercises ‘jurisdiction’ over that individual for the purposes of application of human rights law. In such situations, the state’s obligation to respect human rights continues, and the national authorities should examine if there has been a violation of the relevant human rights law such as the European Convention.

Arising in the context of military occupation of foreign territories, Al-Skeini and Others v the United Kingdom raises the critical issue regarding the requirement of the occupying forces to comply with the right to life. The interveners argued that military occupations create the strong presumption that individuals in the occupied territories are under the control, authority or power of the occupying state, and that their right to life must be respected.

Click here to read the third party intervention.

Vesselina Vandova spoke at Durham University on the implications of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in Al Skeini on February 22nd 2012.

For further information, please contact Vesselina Vandova, Senior Lawyer, Security and the Rule of Law, at vvandova@interights.org, or at +44 20 7278 3230


INTERIGHTS was also involved in a joint intervention in the case when it was before the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, R (on the application of Al Skeini and Others) v the Secretary of State for Defence.

Forum: House of Lords, United Kingdom
INTERIGHTS' role: Amicus curiae
Keywords: Liberty and security, life, effective remedy, cruel and inhuman treatment, torture, extra-territorial applicability


On 13 June 2007, the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, the country’s supreme judicial body, delivered an important ruling on the application of the European Convention for Human Rights to the actions of British troops in Iraq in the case of Al-Skeini and Others v the Secretary of State for Defence. The case concerned the deaths of six Iraqi civilians in Basra in 2003. 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 shot dead by British military patrols. The sixth, Baha Mousa, was arrested and died at the hands of British troops in a military base. The families of the six victims had requested the UK courts to overturn the Defence Secretary’s refusal to order an independent inquiry into the killings.

The House of Lords ruled that under the European Convention for Human Rights and the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998
(which effectively incorporates the rights contained in the Convention into British law), the British government is obliged to
conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the circumstances of the death of Baha Mousa. This ruling represents a reaffirmation of the principle that human rights law such as the European Convention can bind states parties even when they act outside their territory. Pursuant to the judgment, British forces can be held accountable for violations of the rights of people detained by them abroad.

However, the Law Lords rejected the proposition that the European Convention similarly applies to the killings of the other five victims. The Law Lords found that there was no sufficient link between the Iraqi victims and the UK because British troops did not have effective control over the area where the killings occurred. In so finding, the Law Lords followed the restrictive and controversial European Court of Human Rights’ decision in the Bankovic case, although they acknowledged that the European Court’s jurisprudence on this issue “does not speak with one voice” thus perhaps foreshadowing a likely complaint to the European Court and further clarification of the law.

INTERIGHTS intervened before the House of Lords together with ten other organizations: the Aire Centre, Amnesty International, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, the Bar Human Rights Committee, British Irish Rights Watch, Justice, Kurdish Human Rights Project, the Law Society of England and Wales, Liberty, and the Redress Trust.


INTERIGHTS Contact: Vesselina Vandova, Senior Lawyer, Security and Rule of Law Programme


Related links

 BBC News: [27 March 2008] MoD to admit breach on Mousa case

Case update: [15 June 2007] Landmark ruling by UK House of Lords on extra-territorial applicability of human rights law

Judgment of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords (full text)

INTERIGHTS amicus curiae brief

Public Interest Lawyers, Birmingham (counsel for appellants)

BBC News: Rights law applies to Mousa case

The Guardian: Human rights law applies in Iraq killing, Lords rule