ECtHR, Al-Skeini v. United Kingdom, Grand Chamber, App. No. 55721/07 (2011), excerpt | Samuel Moyn | August 01, 2016


This is the old version of the H2O platform and is now read-only. This means you can view content but cannot create content. You can access the new platform at Thank you.

ECtHR, Al-Skeini v. United Kingdom, Grand Chamber, App. No. 55721/07 (2011), excerpt

[The case involved six Iraqi civilians killed in Basrah during the British military occupation in 2003. Some were allegedly killed by British troops on patrol; one may have died in cross-fire between British troops and insurgents; and one was arrested and died as a result of abuse in custody on a British military base in Basrah. Their relatives challenged the adequacy of the investigations of their deaths by the British military authorities under Article 2 of the European Convention. The House of Lords had held that only the victim who died in custody had been within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom for purposes of the European Convention.]

Al-Skeini v. United Kingdom
App. No. 55721/07 (2011)

General principles relevant to jurisdiction under Article 1 of the Convention

130. Article 1 of the Convention reads as follows:

“The High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of [the] Convention.”

As provided by this Article, the engagement undertaken by a Contracting State is confined to “securing” (“reconnaître” in the French text) the listed rights and freedoms to persons within its own “jurisdiction”. “Jurisdiction” under Article 1 is a threshold criterion. The exercise of jurisdiction is a necessary condition for a Contracting State to be able to be held responsible for acts or omissions imputable to it which give rise to an allegation of the infringement of rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention…

The territorial principle

131. A State's jurisdictional competence under Article 1 is primarily territorial. Jurisdiction is presumed to be exercised normally throughout the State's territory. Conversely, acts of the Contracting States performed, or producing effects, outside their territories can constitute an exercise of jurisdiction within the meaning of Article 1 only in exceptional cases.

132. To date, the Court in its case-law has recognised a number of exceptional circumstances capable of giving rise to the exercise of jurisdiction by a Contracting State outside its own territorial boundaries. In each case, the question whether exceptional circumstances exist which require and justify a finding by the Court that the State was exercising jurisdiction extra-territorially must be determined with reference to the particular facts.

State agent authority and control

133. The Court has recognised in its case-law that, as an exception to the principle of territoriality, a Contracting State's jurisdiction under Article 1 may extend to acts of its authorities which produce effects outside its own territory. The statement of principle, as it appears in . . . cases just cited, is very broad: the Court states merely that the Contracting Party's responsibility “can be involved” in these circumstances. It is necessary to examine the Court's case-law to identify the defining principles.
134. First, it is clear that the acts of diplomatic and consular agents, who are present on foreign territory in accordance with provisions of international law, may amount to an exercise of jurisdiction when these agents exert authority and control over others.
135. Secondly, the Court has recognised the exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction by a Contracting State when, through the consent, invitation or acquiescence of the Government of that territory, it exercises all or some of the public powers normally to be exercised by that Government. Thus where, in accordance with custom, treaty or other agreement, authorities of the Contracting State carry out executive or judicial functions on the territory of another State, the Contracting State may be responsible for breaches of the Convention thereby incurred, as long as the acts in question are attributable to it rather than to the territorial State.
136. In addition, the Court's case-law demonstrates that, in certain circumstances, the use of force by a State's agents operating outside its territory may bring the individual thereby brought under the control of the State's authorities into the State's Article 1 jurisdiction. This principle has been applied where an individual is taken into the custody of State agents abroad [(describing Öcalan v. Turkey and Issa and Others v. Turkey)]. In Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 61498/08, §§ 86-89, 30 June 2009, the Court held that two Iraqi nationals detained in British-controlled military prisons in Iraq fell within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, since the United Kingdom exercised total and exclusive control over the prisons and the individuals detained in them. Finally, in Medvedyev and Others v. France [GC], no. 3394/03, § 67, ECHR 2010-..., the Court held that the applicants were within French jurisdiction by virtue of the exercise by French agents of full and exclusive control over a ship and its crew from the time of its interception in international waters. The Court does not consider that jurisdiction in the above cases arose solely from the control exercised by the Contracting State over the buildings, aircraft or ship in which the individuals were held. What is decisive in such cases is the exercise of physical power and control over the person in question.
137. It is clear that, whenever the State through its agents exercises control and authority over an individual, and thus jurisdiction, the State is under an obligation under Article 1 to secure to that individual the rights and freedoms under Section 1 of the Convention that are relevant to the situation of that individual. In this sense, therefore, the Convention rights can be “divided and tailored” (compare Bankovic, cited above, § 75).

Effective control over an area

138. Another exception to the principle that jurisdiction under Article 1 is limited to a State's own territory occurs when, as a consequence of lawful or unlawful military action, a Contracting State exercises effective control of an area outside that national territory. The obligation to secure, in such an area, the rights and freedoms set out in the Convention, derives from the fact of such control, whether it be exercised directly, through the Contracting State's own armed forces, or through a subordinate local administration. Where the fact of such domination over the territory is established, it is not necessary to determine whether the Contracting State exercises detailed control over the policies and actions of the subordinate local administration. The fact that the local administration survives as a result of the Contracting State's military and other support entails that State's responsibility for its policies and actions. The controlling State has the responsibility under Article 1 to secure, within the area under its control, the entire range of substantive rights set out in the Convention and those additional Protocols which it has ratified. It will be liable for any violations of those rights.
139. It is a question of fact whether a Contracting State exercises effective control over an area outside its own territory. In determining whether effective control exists, the Court will primarily have reference to the strength of the State's military presence in the area. Other indicators may also be relevant, such as the extent to which its military, economic and political support for the local subordinate administration provides it with influence and control over the region.
140. [The Court distinguished the application of this “effective control” principle of jurisdiction from the system under Article 56 of the Convention (formerly Article 63) by which States could exclude the application of the Convention from overseas territories for whose international relations they were responsible (e.g., colonies); the historical reasons that explained this provision were independent from the reasons justifying the Court’s general interpretation of Article 1.]

The Convention legal space (“espace juridique”)

141. The Convention is a constitutional instrument of European public order. It does not govern the actions of States not Parties to it, nor does it purport to be a means of requiring the Contracting States to impose Convention standards on other States.
142. The Court has emphasised that, where the territory of one Convention State is occupied by the armed forces of another, the occupying State should in principle be held accountable under the Convention for breaches of human rights within the occupied territory, because to hold otherwise would be to deprive the population of that territory of the rights and freedoms hitherto enjoyed and would result in a “vacuum” of protection within the “Convention legal space” (see Loizidou (merits), §78; Banković, § 80). However, the importance of establishing the occupying State's jurisdiction in such cases does not imply, a contrario, that jurisdiction under Article 1 of the Convention can never exist outside the territory covered by the Council of Europe Member States. The Court has not in its case-law applied any such restriction (see amongst other examples Öcalan, Issa, Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi, Medvedyev, all cited above). . . .
Conclusion as regards jurisdiction
149. . . . [F]ollowing the removal from power of the Ba'ath regime and until the accession of the Interim Government, the United Kingdom (together with the United States) assumed in Iraq the exercise of some of the public powers normally to be exercised by a sovereign government. In particular, the United Kingdom assumed authority and responsibility for the maintenance of security in South East Iraq. In these exceptional circumstances, the Court considers that the United Kingdom, through its soldiers engaged in security operations in Basrah during the period in question, exercised authority and control over individuals killed in the course of such security operations, so as to establish a jurisdictional link between the deceased and the United Kingdom for the purposes of Article 1 of the Convention.
150. Against this background, the Court recalls that the deaths at issue in the present case occurred during the relevant period . . . . It is not disputed that the deaths of the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth applicants' relatives were caused by the acts of British soldiers during the course of or contiguous to security operations carried out by British forces in various parts of Basrah City. It follows that in all these cases there was a jurisdictional link for the purposes of Article 1 of the Convention between the United Kingdom and the deceased. The third applicant's wife was killed during an exchange of fire between a patrol of British soldiers and unidentified gunmen and it is not known which side fired the fatal bullet. The Court considers that, since the death occurred in the course of a United Kingdom security operation, when British soldiers carried out a patrol in the vicinity of the applicant's home and joined in the fatal exchange of fire, there was a jurisdictional link between the United Kingdom and this deceased also.
Alleged breach of the investigative duty under Article 2
151. The applicants did not complain before the Court of any substantive breach of the right to life under Article 2. Instead they complained that the Government had not fulfilled its procedural duty to carry out an effective investigation into the killings. . .
161. The Court is conscious that the deaths in the present case occurred in Basrah City in South East Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, during a period when crime and violence were endemic. Although major combat operations had ceased on 1 May 2003, the Coalition forces in South East Iraq, including British soldiers and military police, were the target of over a thousand violent attacks in the subsequent 13 months. In tandem with the security problems, there were serious breakdowns in the civilian infrastructure, including the law enforcement and criminal justice systems.
162. While remaining fully aware of this context, the Court's approach must be guided by the knowledge that the object and purpose of the Convention as an instrument for the protection of individual human beings requires that its provisions be interpreted and applied so as to make its safeguards practical and effective. Article 2, which protects the right to life and sets out the circumstances when deprivation of life may be justified, ranks as one of the most fundamental provisions in the Convention. No derogation from it is permitted under Article 15, “except in respect of deaths resulting from lawful acts of war”. Article 2 covers both intentional killing and also the situations in which it is permitted to use force which may result, as an unintended outcome, in the deprivation of life. Any use of force must be no more than “absolutely necessary” for the achievement of one or more of the purposes set out in sub-paragraphs (a) to (c).
163. The general legal prohibition of arbitrary killing by agents of the State would be ineffective in practice if there existed no procedure for reviewing the lawfulness of the use of lethal force by State authorities. The obligation to protect the right to life under this provision, read in conjunction with the State's general duty under Article 1 of the Convention to “secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in [the] Convention”, requires by implication that there should be some form of effective official investigation when individuals have been killed as a result of the use of force by, inter alios, agents of the State . . . .
164. The Court has held that the procedural obligation under Article 2 continues to apply in difficult security conditions, including in a context of armed conflict. It is clear that where the death to be investigated under Article 2 occurs in circumstances of generalised violence, armed conflict or insurgency, obstacles may be placed in the way of investigators and, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur has also observed, concrete constraints may compel the use of less effective measures of investigation or may cause an investigation to be delayed. Nonetheless, the obligation under Article 2 to safeguard life entails that, even in difficult security conditions, all reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that an effective, independent investigation is conducted into alleged breaches of the right to life. …
[The Court unanimously concluded that the United Kingdom had failed to undertake a full and independent investigation of the death of the first five victims, but that it had later undertaken a full and independent investigation of the death of the sixth victim, and therefore had violated its procedural obligations under Article 2 only with respect to the first five.
JUDGE ROZAKIS wrote a short concurring opinion, agreeing with most of the majority’s analysis, but arguing that the majority should not have described “effective control over an area” as a distinct category from “State authority and control” more generally
JUDGE BONNELLO wrote a longer concurring opinion, arguing that the Court’s efforts to define “jurisdiction” were inappropriately complex:]
10. States ensure the observance of human rights in five primordial ways: firstly, by not violating (through their agents) human rights; secondly, by having in place systems which prevent breaches of human rights; thirdly, by investigating complaints of human rights abuses; fourthly, by scourging those of their agents who infringe human rights; and, finally, by compensating the victims of breaches of human rights. These constitute the basic minimum functions assumed by every State by virtue of its having contracted into the Convention.
11. A “functional” test would see a State effectively exercising “jurisdiction” whenever it falls within its power to perform, or not to perform, any of these five functions. Very simply put, a State has jurisdiction for the purposes of Article 1 whenever the observance or the breach of any of these functions is within its authority and control. …
31. The foregoing analysis is not at all invalidated by what is termed the “indivisibility of human rights” argument which runs thus: as human rights are indivisible, once a State is considered to have extra-territorial “jurisdiction”, then that State is held to be bound to enforce all the human rights enshrined in the Convention. Conversely, if that State is not in a position to enforce the whole range of Convention human rights, it does not have jurisdiction.
32. Hardly so. Extraterritorially, a Contracting State is obliged to ensure the observance of all those human rights which it is in a position to ensure. It is quite possible to envisage situations in which a Contracting State, in its role as an occupying power, has well within its authority the power not to commit torture or extra-judicial killings, to punish those who commit them and to compensate the victims – but at the same time that Contracting State does not have the extent of authority and control required to ensure to all persons the right to education or the right to free and fair elections: those fundamental rights it can enforce would fall squarely within its jurisdiction, those it cannot, on the wrong side of the bright line. . .

37. I confess to be quite unimpressed by the pleadings of the United Kingdom Government to the effect that exporting the European Convention on Human Rights to Iraq would have amounted to “human rights imperialism”. It ill behoves a State that imposed its military imperialism over another sovereign State without the frailest imprimatur from the international community, to resent the charge of having exported human rights imperialism to the vanquished enemy. It is like wearing with conceit your badge of international law banditry, but then recoiling in shock at being suspected of human rights promotion.

38. Personally, I would have respected better these virginal blushes of some statesmen had they worn them the other way round. Being bountiful with military imperialism but bashful of the stigma of human rights imperialism, sounds to me like not resisting sufficiently the urge to frequent the lower neighbourhoods of political inconstancy. For my part, I believe that those who export war ought to see to the parallel export of guarantees against the atrocities of war. And then, if necessary, bear with some fortitude the opprobrium of being labelled human rights imperialists.

39. I, for one, advertise my diversity. At my age, it may no longer be elegant to have dreams. But that of being branded in perpetuity a “human rights imperialist” sounds to me, I acknowledge, particularly seductive.


Text Information

August 01, 2016

Author Stats

Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School

Leitura Garamond Futura Verdana Proxima Nova Dagny Web
small medium large extra-large