Nerve agents and a new kind of war: developments in the Novichok inquest

The High Court has ordered the coroner investigating the only victim of the 2018 Salisbury attack (Novichok victim inquest ‘must be reconsidered’, 2020), Dawn Sturgess, to expand the scope of the inquest into her death. 

The Context: the Salisbury attack

The March 4 attack saw the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia. The poison, Novichok (Nepovimova and Kuca, 2018), is a military-grade nerve agent thought to have originated in Russia, where Mr Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence agent as were his suspected attackers Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov; both of whom have already been charged with attempted murder.

Ms Sturgess passed away in July 2018 after spraying herself with what she thought was perfume, but was the nerve agent. The circumstances of her death suggest she was not an intended target of the attack and how she sprayed herself with the nerve agent months after the Skripal attack.

The Case: GS, R (On the Application Of) v HM Senior Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon [2020] EWHC 2007 (Admin) (24 July 2020)

Presided over by Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Lewis, the current claim is against the Senior Coroner by the Sturgess family. They challenge the December 2019 ruling on the scope of the inquest of the death of Dawn Sturgess that the inquest will consider the acts of Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov, how the Novichok came to Salisbury and their impact on Ms Sturgess. The original scope does not include other members of the Russian State and the source of the Novichok. 

The 2019 ruling is challenged on two grounds:

  1. The decision of the Senior Coroner was unlawful because their reasoning was inconsistent; material considerations were not taken into account (eg. the responsibilities of the Russian agents), and public interest was not taken into account. 
  2. The Senior Coroner was wrong in arguing that Article 2 of the Convention of Human Rights (the Right to Life) meant that they were not obliged to investigate the responsibility of the Russian State and source of the Novichok.

The outcome of the dispute was an allowance of Ground 1 and dismissal of Ground 2. 

The Consequences: public inquiry, human rights and a whole lot of politics 

This case naturally is an obvious cause for public concern, simply due to the notion that this was a blatant assassination on British soil by way of a deadly chemical, with the potential to inflict widespread harm. Hence, there is a need for this public inquest although if an investigation does lead to “highly sensitive” intelligence (Hill 2020), there may be grounds for “closed” hearings to prevent such information publicly accessed.  

The inquest pointed to the darker human rights implications of the Novichok attack insofar as it is a violation of one’s “Right to Life” as stated by the European Convention o HumanRights. This emphasises the responsibility that one’s government and state have over their subjects. One could claim that the UK Government failed in this respect, allowing foreign parties (supposedly that of the Russian Federation) to attack, attempt murder and put the public at risk as shown in the case of Dawn Sturgess. 

The fear at the prospect of diminished human rights and a lethal nerve agent on British soil naturally ought to have international political implications. This is reflected in a joint statement by the U.S., German, French, Canadian and British Government’s accusing the Russian Federation of irresponsibility. What makes this case particularly morose is the suggestion that the assassination order was “almost certainly approved at a senior [Russian] governmental level” (US, Canada, France and Germany back UK over Novichok poisonings, 2020) pointing towards a new kind of soft war: silent, deadly and cause for deep public concern.  

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