No. 25 of #50cases.
They were dark years for the United Kingdom, a period known as ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Between 1971 and 1975, over 3,000 people were arrested, interned and interrogated by British security forces because they were suspected of being involved with the IRA, an Irish Republican terrorist organisation. Among the “deep interrogation” methods used by the British, five caused caused intense physical and psychological pain and suffering – deprivation of sleep, food and drink, stress positions, hooding and subjection to ‘white noise’ (loud static).
14 ‘high value’ detainees were identified as having experienced all of the five interrogation methods. To challenge the UK’s use of these techniques, Ireland went to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of these men, and argued that the five techniques amounted to torture. In 1978, the Court said that the five techniques, although amounting to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, did not amount to torture. The UK had not breached the international ban on torture, an absolute ban which cannot be bypassed.
Ireland v UK was a historic case. It was the first time in the history of the Court that a state has argued directly against another state. It showed conclusively that “deep interrogation” techniques were illegal under human rights law. But it has also influenced the way we define ‘torture’ today, not necessarily for the better. In arguing that torture is different to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ because of the ‘special stigma’ attached to torture, the Court effectively allowed States to define prisoner abuse as being ‘less than torture’.
Meanwhile, the UK didn’t entirely learn its lesson; the five techniques were used again by the British Army in Iraq in 2003 and led to the death of Baha Mousa. The five techniques were also quoted in the Torture Memos by the George W Bush administration to justify abuses the US perpetrated during the ‘War on Terror’. And the story isn’t over. Ireland now wants the Court to revise its 1978 judgment in light of new evidences which allege that the UK had lied during the trial.