I led an Amnesty International delegation to Belfast in 1971 to investigate allegations we had received of internees subjected to brutal physical interrogation methods combined with measures of ‘sensory deprivation’. Those were evidently troubled times and the UK authorities were clearly not interested in any independent investigation. They had themselves issued whitewash reports and Prime Minister Heath was reported to have dismissed Amnesty International in private meetings as a “disreputable organization”.
We were however determined to find the truth regardless of whether the facts would please the authorities or not. I do still remember that trip in the bleak, tense winter of December 1971. Among those who gave testimonies to there were also a number of ex-internees who one by one described what they had gone through. They had been severely beaten during arrest and transport. Some of them had still bruises on their bodies, one of them was black and blue over his buttock and one thigh which our medical expert found consistent with his complaint about repeated, brutal beatings. Moreover, several of those arrested had gone through a treatment which brought them to a mental breakdown.
The breakdowns had come through the combination of being forced to stand spread-eagled against a wall for many long hours, being hooded and thereby unprepared for the sudden beatings, forced to hear one hissing noise which drowned all other sounds, be deprived of food and water and prevented from sleeping.
It was evident to us that these were very grave human rights violations, indeed amounting to torture. And that is what our report and statements set out. We documented the use of the now infamous ‘five techniques’ which were combined with physical assaults and death threats to the men.
The Irish government took a bold and unprecedented step at the time and complained to the European Commission of Human Rights that the UK’s actions amounted to torture. I was deeply disappointed when the European Court of Human Rights concluded eventually in 1978 that the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland under emergency internment powers did not amount to torture. Similar methods have since then been used against detainees the world over, for instance in the “enhanced interrogation” during the US ‘war on terror’. In other words, the ruling of the European Court had serious consequences.
Imagine my surprise when I learned recently that Irish television RTÉ had broadcast a programme which had uncovered documents strongly suggesting that the UK government had in fact misled the Strasbourg Court. The RTÉ programme — an exemplary piece of public service investigative broadcasting — found documents showing that the British government knew that its core argument, that the effects of techniques used on the “hooded men” were not severe or long-lasting, was untrue.
In fact it suggests that the UK government knew then of the severe, long-term psychological and physical effects of the ‘five techniques’, and in fact considered them as ‘torture’. RTÉ has also unearthed a previously unseen letter which shows that UK cabinet ministers took a ‘political decision’ to permit the use of the ‘five techniques’ in Northern Ireland.
If substantiated, this was a grave, additional injustice to the victims and also promoted impunity then – and for those who have used such methods in other situations in the last four decades.
The UK government, as a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, must ensure that facts be clarified in this critical case and remedial action be taken.
In the years since then, I have served in a number of other posts traveling the length and breadth of Europe to investigate and document human rights violations. When I served as Commissioner of Human Rights for the Council of Europe it became apparent that European states had cooperated with the CIA in its rendition and secret detention programme. I argued then that the entire European system of human rights protection was undermined by allowing the truth about torture to remain in the dark.
That holds certainly true for the case of hooded men. If there is one thing I have learned, time does not heal all wounds if the truth doesn’t come out and justice is denied.