European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The European Court of Human Rights found the United Kingdom guilty of the mistreatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland. The precedent of challenging security practices in Northern Ireland through European institutions was set by the 1978 case.

Summary of Event

The situation in Northern Ireland had engendered abuses of human rights since the creation of the province in 1922. When, after a two-year war with the British, the Irish Free State was created, Northern Ireland was not included. With a majority population of Protestants who preferred union with Great Britain, the province was retained within the United Kingdom. This left one-third of the population as Roman Catholic Nationalists, who preferred to be part of the Irish Free State. Tension and violence marked the politics of the province for decades. European Court of Human Rights Prisoner maltreatment Human rights abuses;United Kingdom Northern Ireland;British mistreatment of prisoners [kw]European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners (Jan. 18, 1978) [kw]Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners, European (Jan. 18, 1978) [kw]Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners, European Court of (Jan. 18, 1978) [kw]Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners, European Court of Human (Jan. 18, 1978) [kw]Mistreatment of Prisoners, European Court of Human Rights Rules on (Jan. 18, 1978) [kw]Prisoners, European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of (Jan. 18, 1978) European Court of Human Rights Prisoner maltreatment [g]Europe;Jan. 18, 1978: European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners[03120] [g]France;Jan. 18, 1978: European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners[03120] [c]Human rights;Jan. 18, 1978: European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners[03120] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 18, 1978: European Court of Human Rights Rules on Mistreatment of Prisoners[03120] Lynch, Jack Cosgrave, Liam Heath, Edward

The government of Northern Ireland in 1922 passed the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, Special Powers Act (Northern Ireland, 1922) which indirectly encouraged police harassment and oppression of the Roman Catholic minority since it removed most citizen protections against arrest, detainment without warrant, interrogation, searches, and the like. A British commission reported in 1969 that the Special Powers Act had caused widespread resentment among Catholics. A tradition of police repression grew, especially against Catholics and the Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA), the organization most committed to removing Northern Ireland from British rule. In 1968 and 1969, civil rights marches triggered an outburst by the Royal Ulster Constabulary Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the police of Ulster, which in turn led to mob violence. In August of 1969, the British government sent in troops to keep order. Within eighteen months, British army activities—house searches, arrests, and interrogations—were as offensive to the Catholic minority community as those of the RUC. A renewed IRA engaged in violent attacks against the police and army.

In August of 1971, the Northern Ireland government invoked the internment provision of the Special Powers Act. In cooperation with the British army, approximately 350 suspected IRA members were arrested without warrant and detained without limit. At the end of six months, about twenty-four hundred had been interned and about sixteen hundred had been released after interrogation. Evidence began to accumulate that these prisoners were being subjected to brutal treatment in order to obtain information from them. This was consistent with the army policy of acquiring as much information as possible about the inhabitants of Republican areas.

The principal charges were against five techniques that included the use of hooding. The prisoners, at all times other than interrogation periods, wore over their heads heavy black bags that caused an extreme sense of isolation. Another charge was that of subjecting prisoners to intense noise, such as that of a high-pressure drill or steam escaping, at all times other than interrogation, thus causing psychological disorientation. These conditions were coupled with a deprivation of sleep for two and three days at a time and deprivation of food for the same period, causing intense stress and physical weakness. Finally, prisoners were forced to stand on their toes, leaning against a wall, with their hands above their heads and legs spread apart, for days at a time, despite the periodic collapse of the prisoners. Patrick Shivers, for example, was held for eight days in 1971 and was subjected to beatings, wall-standing, hooding, and sleep deprivation. He feared for his sanity, and his body ended up shaking uncontrollably.

Allegations about the techniques were widespread, and the British government appointed a committee under Sir Edmund Compton Compton, Edmund to investigate the practices. The committee report, issued in November of 1971, indicated that the practices were taught to the RUC by the English Intelligence Center in April of 1971 and that the use of the techniques was authorized “at a high level.” After discounting allegations of even more serious abuses—beatings, dog attacks, and the like—the report concluded that the interrogation techniques were “ill-treatment” but not “physical brutality,” as the committee understood the term. The response to the Compton report was critical skepticism among the British and complete rejection by the Catholic community, which saw the report as a whitewash.

Another committee was appointed that year, and it reported in March of 1972. The majority report held that the treatment of prisoners was justified on moral grounds. The minority report disagreed, but the minority and majority reports concurred that some of the techniques were illegal under domestic British law. When this report was issued, Prime Minister Edward Heath declared that the five techniques would be discontinued as aids to interrogation.

The government of the Republic of Ireland, under Prime Minister Jack Lynch, decided that the results of the Compton report warranted bringing the evidence to the European Commission on Human Rights in December of 1971 and March of 1972. The Irish government was motivated by what it saw as insufficient response to the explosion of violence in Northern Ireland and the treatment of the minority community. The Irish government asserted that the maltreatment of prisoners constituted a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights European Convention on Human Rights (1950) on the part of the United Kingdom. The Irish government sought a finding that torture and inhuman treatment had been used on prisoners. The Irish government also maintained that internment was a violation of Article 5 of the convention, which protects the right to liberty and security of a person, and also Article 6, which protects the right to a fair trial. The manner in which internment was carried out, directed almost exclusively against Catholics, was also held to be a violation of Article 14, which forbids racial or religious discrimination.

In 1976, the European Commission on Human Rights considered evidence based on 228 cases from 1971 to 1974 and heard 118 witnesses. The commission report, issued in 1976, accepted the British position that instituting internment was necessary under the conditions in Northern Ireland at the time and thus was not discriminatory. The commission held, however, that the treatment of prisoners did violate Article 3 and that the treatment of prisoners constituted torture. The British government again disavowed the use of the techniques and paid out more than $320,000 in damages to prisoners. The Irish government, under Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave, then brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights in March of 1976 to seek a confirmation of the commission’s findings and the punishment of those responsible.

On January 18, 1978, the court issued its judgment. On the key matter of the torture of prisoners, it did not go as far as the European Commission’s judgment. The court accepted that the five techniques created fear, humiliation, and debasement and thus constituted inhuman and degrading treatment. The court, however, saw torture as a particularly cruel and “aggravated” form of inhuman treatment. The techniques used by the security forces in Northern Ireland were held by a vote of sixteen to one not to be “torture” under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The British judge, in fact, did not even see the five techniques as cruel and inhuman. Finally, the court concluded it did not have the power to direct the British to bring criminal charges against those responsible.

The court went on to agree with the commission that the British did deprive citizens of their liberty outside of the judicial process but allowed that the larger issue of special powers for the RUC and judiciary were justified by presence of a terrorist threat. The type and character of the laws used to combat terrorism were the responsibility of the British, and the court accepted their necessity. The court also addressed the question of whether RUC and army actions, directed at the IRA and Catholics, constituted a form of discrimination. The judges concluded, along with the commission, that the British government had tried to eliminate a formidable terrorist organization, the IRA, and that such a goal was not discriminatory. The means of achieving it, in addition, were not viewed as disproportionate.

Significance

The revelations of the Irish case before the commission were embarrassing to the British government. When the commission found that the methods used constituted torture, the fact that they had been authorized officially in the first place and then accepted by the Compton Commission was less than flattering to British security policy in Northern Ireland. When the Irish government proceeded to take the findings to the European Court of Human Rights in 1976, as it was entitled to do, the British government reacted with anger, as the five techniques had by then been discontinued. London believed that to continue the case was a deliberate insult to the United Kingdom. In fact, the case was often cited by those critical of British human rights policy in Northern Ireland.

The British government had not contested, in the case before the European Court, the European Commission’s report that the five techniques constituted torture. In 1972 and again in 1977, the British government vowed that the techniques would not be used in interrogation. The practice of internment was stopped in 1975. The Irish government’s case would seem to have been effective in curbing the abuses. In fact, however, subsequent reports indicated that the abuse of prisoners continued. In 1977, thirty defense lawyers in the juryless court system wrote the secretary of state for Northern Ireland that ill-treatment of prisoners was a common practice used to extract confessions.

In 1978, Amnesty International Amnesty International issued a report indicating continued regular maltreatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland and calling for an investigation. Citing the arrest, interrogation, and conviction of a retarded man who could not have formulated the confession he supposedly gave, Amnesty also called for a review of the special police powers. The media attention given to the Amnesty report and the European Court’s decision in 1978 prompted the British government to appoint the Bennett Commission Bennett Commission to study the issue. Its report called for restrictions on ill-treatment of prisoners and new rules for interrogation. The evidence of maltreatment, however, continued to accumulate. Two RUC doctors resigned because they believed that the injuries they were treating were caused by police abuse during interrogation.

The pattern of arrest on suspicion without a warrant continued, followed by brutal interrogation to obtain a confession, and then use of the confession to obtain a conviction. A vast majority of convictions (85 percent) for terrorist crimes came from confessions. The fact that the five specific techniques cited in the European Court’s decision were no longer used does not ameliorate the fact that RUC abuses to obtain confessions from Catholics were not halted by the European Court in 1978.

The precedent of challenging security practices in Northern Ireland through European institutions was set by the 1978 case. Four Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison brought their case to the European Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the conditions of their imprisonment constituted inhuman and degrading treatment. The commission in 1980 rejected their claim and said that they were not entitled to be treated as political prisoners. Other cases concerning Northern Ireland have been brought to the commission since 1971. The protection of human rights decided in the 1978 case apparently encouraged the use of both the court and the commission. European Court of Human Rights Prisoner maltreatment Human rights abuses;United Kingdom Northern Ireland;British mistreatment of prisoners

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Bruce. Jack Lynch: A Hero in Crisis. Dublin: Merlin, 2001. Examines the career of the prime minister of Ireland during a troubled time. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, Tim Pat. On the Blanket: The Inside Story of the IRA Prisoners’ “Dirty” Protest. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Examines the mistreatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland that began before August, 1971, and continued after the period examined by the European Court (1971-1975). Covers the genesis of the human rights issue in Northern Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGuffin, J. Internment. Tralee, Ireland: Anvil Books, 1973. Written at the time the internment policy was in practice; McGuffin compiled stories and evidence from those interned. This emotionally charged work reveals the practices on which the European Court decision of 1978 was based.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Malley, Padraig. The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today. 3d ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Updated version of a 1983 work by an Irish-born scholar provides a comprehensive analysis of the principal parties and ideologies involved in the Irish conflict. Presents discussion of the mistreatment of Irish prisoners. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, Dermot. The Use and Abuse of Emergency Legislation in Northern Ireland. London: Cobden Trust, 1983. Detailed treatment of the emergency legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland. Includes discussion of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts promulgated in both London and Belfast as well as the older Special Powers Act and the Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act of 1973. Also covers the European Court’s decision and argues that the decision did not change the practice of mistreatment of prisoners; rather, it only eliminated certain techniques.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weston, Burns H., Richard A. Falk, and Anthony A. D’Amato, eds. International Law and World Order. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 1980. Includes key excerpts from the European Court of Human Rights decision of January 18, 1978. The decision is quite involved, as the court considered matters concerning the justification of the United Kingdom for the Emergency Provisions Act of 1973, the degree to which the British cooperated with the investigation, and the discriminatory character of the actions of the RUC under the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. This valuable summary focuses on the key judgments and the reasons for them.

“Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act

IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament

IRA Prisoner Dies After Hunger Strike

Sands Begins Hunger Strike

Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

Good Friday Agreement

Europe Celebrates the Restructuring of the European Court of Human Rights

Categories: History