The Committee for Administration of Justice (CAJ) used the United Nations Committee Against Torture to raise local human rights issues to the international level. In order to use international mechanisms such as this effectively, a number of other tactics were used including written submissions to the Committee, lobbying in Geneva and monitoring the impact the recommendations of the various Committee reports have had on Northern Ireland in terms of actually improving the human rights situation on the ground.
There has been a violent political conflict in Northern Ireland since 1969, involving three sets of protagonists: the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other republican groups which want Northern Ireland to unite with the rest of Ireland; loyalist groups which want Northern Ireland to remain within the UK; and the state. Since the beginning of the conflict, the forces of the state have been involved in human rights abuses. A key aspect of the human rights abuses has involved allegations of ill-treatment of those in custody.
In the latter part of the 1980s, the state established a separate legal infrastructure to deal with those suspected of involvement in “terrorism”. There were special arrest powers, special powers and places of detention and special procedures for trial. Allegations of physical ill-treatment which had receded in the mid 1980s began to increase later in the decade and were reaching crisis point by 1990.
CAJ provided a set of recommendations to the government to try and deal with the issue of abuse of detainees. The government response however was to deny that any abuse was taking place. CAJ needed to devise a response to this problem which would be effective in terms of improving the situation of those arrested under the emergency laws but which would also trigger media coverage. It was difficult to get media coverage of the issue because at the height of the conflict much of the media, particularly TV, was reluctant to criticize the state.
The general goal was to improve the situation of those detained by ending the ill-treatment. Specific objectives included getting lawyers immediate access to those arrested; getting lawyers access to interviews; getting the interviews recorded electronically; getting an independent system of monitoring the interviews; limiting the periods of detention before charging or release; closing the detention centers; and having the ordinary criminal law rather than the emergency law apply to those detained.
CAJ consulted lawyers who were members of their own executive committee as well as colleagues in international NGOs to see how they could utilize the Committee Against Torture. They began in 1991 when the UK had to appear before the Committee. Generally, the Committee runs on a three yearly cycle so the UK was also examined in 1995 and 1998.
These examinations would have occurred with or without interventions from CAJ. However, the Committee does rely on NGOs and others to provide it with credible information on which to base its questioning of the country involved. The recommendations from the Committee tend to set the parameters for the next examination so it was important for the Committee to pay attention to the issues which CAJ wanted highlighted. Increasingly (and certainly in 1998) the Committee would start the session by asking for information on what the state had done to meet the concerns highlighted by the Committee on the previous occasion.
The situation in relation to those arrested under the emergency laws in Northern Ireland has improved immeasurably since CAJ began working with the Committee. It was quite clear from the late 1980s until following the first examination that physical ill-treatment was being authorized and orchestrated. Following the Committee’s first report, while there were still allegations of physical ill-treatment, they were not as widespread as earlier; the ill-treatment was not as bad as it had been; and courts began to be more interventionist in terms of excluding admission evidence. It was also the case that actual ill-treatment would occur at the time of arrest and immediately subsequent to that as opposed to being part of the interrogation process. The most remarkable and immediate achievement of the international embarrassment caused to the UK by being criticized by the Committee was the speedy end to co-ordinated physical ill-treatment in the holding centers which ceased between the first and second time the UK was examined before the Committee Against Torture.
For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.
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