1978 – The European Court of Human Rights made its ruling on the case of alleged ill-treatment of internees in the north of Ireland during 1971.

In 1971 the Hillside Singers, in a song designed to inspire worldwide unity, sang of how they’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony; apparently the inspiration for the song came from the writers’ experiences while delayed at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.

Documents unearthed by the Irish human rights NGO The Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) and publicised in the Irish television documentary The Torture Files show that, also in 1971 and in a grotesque parody of the song, the British government had a different understanding of teaching the world to sing in harmony.

A 1977 memo to the then Prime Minister James Callaghan from his Home Secretary Merlyn Rees regarding the then ongoing Ireland v UK case in the European Court of Human Rights stated,

It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72 was taken by Ministers, in particular Lord Carrington, then Secretary of State for Defence.

And, just like the song, the British government wanted to teach the rest of the world, exporting its torture techniques worldwide. There was also perfect harmony, albeit within two distinct groups – the torturers and the tortured. The Brazilian Truth Commission heard Colonel Paulo Malhaes, a torturer under the Brazilian military dictatorship, express his admiration for the ‘English system’ of torture. Meanwhile, General Ivan de Souza Mendes, head of the dictatorship’s intelligence service, told how Britain ran torture courses for the dictatorship. By 1976 the adoption of the ‘English system’ was regarded as facilitating a move from more physical forms of torture towards more ‘acceptable standards of interrogation (e.g., of the kind permitted in Northern Ireland)’ which would be less likely to draw condemnation upon the regime.

These more ‘acceptable standards’ were more psychological than physical and came to light in the wake of ‘Operation Demetrius’, the August 1971 British military operation to arrest and intern hundreds of Irish nationalists without trial. Allegations of ill-treatment rapidly came to light and it became apparent that a number of those being held had been selected for ‘deep interrogation’, fourteen of whom came to be known as the ‘Hooded Men’ and became the focus of the Ireland v UK case, the first inter-state case brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

‘Deep interrogation’ included what are now known as the ‘Five Techniques’: (1) Hooding detainees at all times except during interrogation, (2) periods of wall-standing/stress positions, (3) submission to continuous and monotonous noise, (4) sleep deprivation, and (5) a minimal bread and water diet. The techniques were applied in combination for long time periods and, in the case of the Irish detainees, were often supplemented by beatings, being thrown from low-flying helicopters while hooded, being forced to urinate and defecate in their own clothing, running gauntlets of dogs, electric shocks, and genital abuse.

In December 1971, the Irish government brought its complaint to Europe, arguing that the UK had breached the Hooded Men’s Article 3 Rights, that is the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Initially the now defunct European Commission of Human Rights held that the combined use of the five techniques constituted a practice of torture and inhuman treatment. The Irish government then pursued the case in the ECtHR.

In a very public slap in the face, The European Court of Human Rights finds the British Government guilty of inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland, but not torture.

Source: Paddy McDaid

Full details can be read in IRELAND vs THE UNITED KINGDOM


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