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TitleJudgement of the European Court of Human Rights, Ireland v. the United Kingdom
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Judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, Ireland v. the United Kingdom (18
January 1978)

Caption: First judgment given by the European Court of Human Rights concerning an inter-state case. The Court rules

that there has been violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of torture and

inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment).

Source: European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Case of Ireland v. the United Kingdom. Judgement of 18 January

1978 (N° 91). HUDOC - Human Rights Documentation. [ON-LINE]. [Strasbourg]: [30.05.2003]. Available on

Copyright: (c) European court of human rights



Publication date: 04/09/2012

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Judgement of the European Court of Human Rights of 18 January 1978
Case of Ireland v. the United Kingdom

In the case of Ireland v. the United Kingdom,

The European Court of Human Rights, taking its decision in plenary session in application of Rule 48 of the
Rules of Court and composed of the following judges:


and also Mr. M.-A. EISSEN, Registrar, and Mr. H. PETZOLD, Deputy Registrar,

Having deliberated in private on 10 and 11 February, 22 and 25 to 27 April, 25 to 28 July and 6 to 13
December 1977,

Delivers the following judgment, which was adopted on the last-mentioned date:


1. This case was referred to the Court by the Government of Ireland ("the applicant Government"). It
originated in an application against the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
Ireland ("the respondent Government") lodged by the applicant Government with the European Commission
of Human Rights ("the Commission") on 16 December 1971 under Article 24 (art. 24) of the Convention for
the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms ("the Convention"). The report drawn up by the
Commission concerning the said application (Article 31 of the Convention) (art. 31) was transmitted to the
Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 9 February 1976.

2. The Irish Government's application to the Court was lodged with the registry on 10 March 1976, within
the period of three months laid down by Articles 32 para. 1 and 47 (art. 32-1, art. 47) of the Convention, and
referred to Article 48 (art. 48). Its object is "to ensure the observance in Northern Ireland of the engagements
undertaken by the respondent Government as a High Contracting Party to the Convention and in particular
of the engagements specifically set out by the applicant Government in the pleadings filed and the
submissions made on their behalf and described in the evidence adduced before the Commission in the
hearings before them". "To this end", the Court is invited "to consider the report of the Commission and to
confirm the opinion of the Commission that breaches of the Convention have occurred and also to consider
the claims of the applicant Government with regard to other alleged breaches and to make a finding of
breach of the Convention where the Court is satisfied that a breach has occurred".

The United Kingdom is one of the States which have declared that they recognise the compulsory

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The Court considers in fact that, whilst there exists on the one hand violence which is to be condemned both
on moral grounds and also in most cases under the domestic law of the Contracting States but which does
not fall within Article 3 (art. 3) of the Convention, it appears on the other hand that it was the intention that
the Convention, with its distinction between "torture" and "inhuman or degrading treatment", should by the
first of these terms attach a special stigma to deliberate inhuman treatment causing very serious and cruel

Moreover, this seems to be the thinking lying behind Article 1 in fine of Resolution 3452 (XXX) adopted by
the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1975, which declares: "Torture constitutes an
aggravated and deliberate form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

Although the five techniques, as applied in combination, undoubtedly amounted to inhuman and degrading
treatment, although their object was the extraction of confessions, the naming of others and/or information
and although they were used systematically, they did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and
cruelty implied by the word torture as so understood.

168. The Court concludes that recourse to the five techniques amounted to a practice of inhuman and
degrading treatment, which practice was in breach of Article 3 (art. 3).

(b) Ill-treatment alleged to have accompanied the use of the five techniques

169. The applicant Government claim that the fourteen persons subjected to the five techniques, or some of
those persons including T 6 and T 13, also had to undergo other kinds of treatment contrary to Article 3
(art. 3).

The Commission has found such treatment only in the case of T 6, although it regarded it as probable that
the use of the five techniques was sometimes accompanied by physical violence (see paragraph 105 above).

170. As far as T 6 is concerned, the Court shares the Commission's opinion that the security forces subjected
T 6 to assaults severe enough to constitute inhuman treatment. This opinion, which is not contested by the
respondent Government, is borne out by the evidence before the Court.

171. In the thirteen remaining cases examined in this context, including the contested case of T 13, the Court
has no evidence to support a finding of breaches of Article 3 (art. 3) over and above that resulting from the
application of the five techniques.

172. Accordingly, no other practice contrary to Article 3 (art. 3) is established for the unidentified
interrogation centre or centres; the findings relating to the individual case of T 6 cannot, of themselves,
amount to proof of a practice.

2. Palace Barracks

173. The Commission came to the view that inhuman treatment had occurred at Palace Barracks in
September, October and November 1971 in seven of the nine "illustrative" cases it examined, namely those
of T 2, T 8, T 12, T 15, T 9, T 14 and T 10. It considered that these cases, combined with other indications,
showed that there had been in these Barracks, in the autumn of 1971, a practice in connection with the
interrogation of prisoners by members of the RUC which was inhuman treatment.

The British Government do not contest these conclusions; the Irish Government ask the Court to confirm
them but also to supplement them in various respects.

(a) Autumn 1971

174. Insofar as the Commission has found that a practice of inhuman treatment was followed in the autumn
of 1971, for example in the cases of T 2, T 8, T 12, T 15, T 9, T 14 and T 10, the facts summarised above

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(paragraphs 110-111 and 115-116) bear out its opinion. The evidence before the Court reveals that, at the
time in question, quite a large number of those held in custody at Palace Barracks were subjected to violence
by members of the RUC. This violence, which was repeated violence occurring in the same place and taking
similar forms, did not amount merely to isolated incidents; it definitely constituted a practice. It also led to
intense suffering and to physical injury which on occasion was substantial; it thus fell into the category of
inhuman treatment.

According to the applicant Government, the violence in question should also be classified, in some cases, as

On the basis of the data before it, the Court does not share this view. Admittedly, the acts complained of
often occurred during interrogation and, to this extent, were aimed at extracting confessions, the naming of
others and/or information, but the severity of the suffering that they were capable of causing did not attain
the particular level inherent in the notion of torture as understood by the Court (see paragraph 167 above).

175. In their memorial of 28 July 1976, the applicant Government asked the Court to hold, unlike the
Commission, that T 1 and T 4 had also been victims of violations of Article 3 (art. 3) (see paragraphs 112-
114 above).

The delegates of the Commission argued that it would serve no purpose to add these two cases to the list
since, like the other seven, they date from the autumn of 1971 and there is no longer any dispute between
those appearing before the Court as to the existence during this period of a practice in breach of Article 3
(art. 3).

At the hearings in February 1977, the Irish Government acknowledged the validity of this argument. They
declared that the Court would not need to make a specific finding on the contested cases of T 1 and T 4 if it
confirmed the Commission's non-contested conclusions.

The Court takes note of this declaration. For the reasons given by the delegates, it considers that an
examination of these two individual cases would be superfluous.

(b) From autumn 1971 to June 1972

176. Finally, the Irish Government request the Court to hold that the practice complained of continued until
June 1972 when Palace Barracks were closed down as a holding centre. In their submission, there is no
proof to the contrary and there are indications that the practice did so continue.

The respondent Government state, inter alia, that they do not perceive how, by relying on nothing more than
inferences, the Court could on this issue reach a conclusion different from the Commission's.

177. Concurring with the submission made by the delegates of the Commission, the Court finds that, like the
Commission, it lacks sufficient evidence on which to decide whether or not the practice in question
continued at Palace Barracks beyond the autumn of 1971: the only two cases dating from the first six months
of 1972 (T 30 and T 31) figured amongst the "41 cases" and not the "illustrative" cases (see paragraphs 93,
109 and 116 above). For the reasons explained below (paragraph 184), the Court does not consider that it
has to try to obtain further evidence. It therefore restricts its findings in the same way as the Commission.

3. Other places

178. According to the applicant Government, a practice or practices in breach of Article 3 (art. 3) existed in
Northern Ireland from 1971 to 1974, for example at Girdwood Park and at Ballykinler; this allegation is
denied by the respondent Government.

The Commission was of the opinion that T 16 and T 7 had been victims of treatment that was both inhuman
and degrading and T 11 of treatment that was inhuman: T 16 on 13 August 1971 at Girdwood Park, T 7 on

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it must also be remembered that, on this particular point, the respondent Government were very
unforthcoming during the enquiry (pp. 107 et seq. and 153 et seq. of the Commission's report), so that an
unfettered assessment of the evidence does not operate in their favour. Examination of the material before
the Court would seem to me rather to permit the conclusion that, besides the bias on the part of the
authorities which characterises the general situation in Northern Ireland not only in the course of history but
also at the time in question, there was hesitation over talking equally energetic action against the Loyalist
terrorists and over using emergency powers against them because of fear of the political repercussions of
such a step. In my view, this is not a justification based on objective and reasonable motives. For want of
such justification, the different treatment, which has been proved objectively, constitutes discrimination
within the meaning of Article 14 (art. 14) of the Convention.

There is also another point of view to be taken into account. If the authorities deemed it necessary in order to
combat terrorism to take emergency measures which weighed heavily on the population concerned, and if
these measures were applied to only one section of the population whereas, in order to combat a comparable
terrorist campaign originating from the other side – insofar as it was seriously combated -, they thought that
they could confine themselves to the ordinary means of prevention and punishment, the question also arises
whether the emergency measures were really indispensable within the meaning of Article 15 (art. 15) of the

(*) Note by the Registry: All page references to the Commission's report are to the stencilled version.
( 1) The techniques are listed and described in paragraph 96 of the Judgment; but see paragraph 19 below.
( 2) A convenient American locution for describing "an issue which during the course of a trial or pending an appeal has ceased to
have practical importance" – (Radin's Law Dictionary, Oceana Publications, New York, 2nd Edn. 1970, p. 211); and see
correspondingly the definition given in n. 1 on p. 86 of my separate opinion in the Northern Cameroons case before the International
Court of Justice (I.C.J. Reports 1963, at p. 97).
( 3) See my separate (partly dissenting) opinion in the Golder case before the Court, paragraphs 38-45 and the conclusion drawn in
paragraph 46 (Series A no. 18, 1975).
( 4) "To ensure the observance of the engagements undertaken by the High Contracting Parties in the present Convention [my italics],
there shall be set up: – A European Commission of Human Rights, hereinafter referred to as 'the Commission'; – A European Court
of Human Rights, hereinafter referred to as 'theCourt'."
( 5) This is an over-simplified statement of what can in fact be a complicated matter, and needs qualification in various respects.
However, this is not the place for any exposition of the law on the subject.
( 6) This was the report of the Committee set up in August 1971 by the United Kingdom Home Secretary, under the chairmanship of
Sir Edmund Compton, G.C.B., K.B.E., to consider allegations of ill-treatment of detainees – see Judgment, paragraph 99.
( 6a) For reasons of convenience the quotations which I give are those provided by the Commission. There is some obscurity as to the
exact source from which the Commission is itself quoting – but there seems to be no doubt that as given on p. 247 they do reproduce
the Compton formulation.
( 7) To give examples of figurative use within most people's experience: – One hears it said "I call that inhuman", the reference being
to the fact that there is no dining-car on the train. "It's degrading for the poor man", one hears with reference to an employee who is
being given all the unpleasant jobs. "It's absolute torture to me", – and what the speaker means is having to sit through a boring
lecture or sermon. There is a lesson to be learnt here on the potential dangers of hyperbole. ( 8) It is fairly clear that all five
techniques could not have been employed simultaneously on the same person, though two or three of them might have been
combined in that sense. What the Judgment is actually referring to is the fact that each of the individuals concerned was subjected in
one way or another and at one time or another, to all five techniques and not only to one or two.
( 9) Of course they might do so in practice, in particular cases – e.g. if used on the old or infirm – but the question has to be
considered on the basis of the average case.
( 10) The evidence on this point is unsatisfactory. I deduce that – (though not always) – the periods were long in the aggregate, but
cannot have been continuous – see ante paragraph 19 (i) and (vii).
( 11) There has been no suggestion that this impeded normal breathing. ( 12) Equally, to characterize the instances I have given, and
other similar ones that could be thought of, as cases of "torture" is to misapply the latter term which is an expression having its own
proper sphere. It would also be to abolish the distinction between torture and inhuman treatment which Article 3 (art. 3) of the
Convention specifically makes. Of course all torture is "inhuman" but not all inhuman treatment involves or amounts to torture.
( 13) From Man was made to Mourn: the couplet runs "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn."
( 14) Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2, line 43.
( 15) The principal dictionaries I have consulted are the Shorter Oxford ("shorter" only than the full Oxford in several volumes, and
itself running to 2,500 pages); the superlative American Random House Dictionary of the English Language – probably the best one-
volume English Dictionary extant; Webster's Third International; and, in the popular category, Professor Garmonsway's excellent
Penguin English Dictionary.
( 16) Speaking of persons, not actions, the dictionaries use such descriptions as "callous", "unfeeling", "destitute of natural kindness
or pity", "lacking in the normal human qualities of sympathy, pity, warmth, compassion or the like". But the absence of such
feelings, natural enough in the circumstances of the present case, does not suffice of itself to make the acts or treatments involved

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"inhuman", – and it is the quality of these that must be looked to. Other lines of definition, such as "not of or like the human race"
and "not of the ordinary human type", are question-begging and evocative of a smile – remembering Burns (see end of paragraph 22
( 17) Literally, "degraded" (de-graded) means reduced to a lower grade, rank, position or status; but the relevant meanings in the
present context, as given in the dictionaries (see n. 15 supra) would be to "lower in estimation, character or quality" (Shorter
Oxford); to "lower in dignity or estimation; bring into contempt" (Random House). Other descriptions used are "to debase" (ibid),
"to humiliate" (Penguin). The relevant notions here are clearly those of humiliation, bringing into contempt, loss of esteem, and
debasement, presumably from status as a human being.
( 18) From Outsider in Amsterdam, by Jan van de Wetering, Corgi Edn. 1977, p. 170.
( 19) Prefacing the passage from paragraph 167 of the Judgment quoted first in my paragraph 34, and which sets out the Court's
notion of what is not torture, are some lines qualifying this by an "although" clause, and stating that although the object of the five
techniques was "the extraction of confessions, the naming of others and/or information, and although they were used systematically",
they did not cause the necessary intensity of suffering, etc.
This qualification, in slightly different terms, also precedes the second passage quoted in my same paragraph. It is not clear what the
purpose of the reference to extracting confessions, the naming of others, etc. is. If it is intended to indicate that the existence of such
objectives is a necessary ingredient before the treatment concerned can constitute torture, such an idea must be firmly rejected.
Torture is torture whatever its object may be, or even if it has none, other than to cause pain, provided it is inflicted by force – (of
course the suffering experienced in the dentist's chair, however intense, is not technically torture because the patient submits to it of
his own volition). However, the real question suggested by the references to the objectives of the torture is whether there can ever be
an objective justifying its use. In strict terms of Article 3 (art. 3) of the Convention, the answer must be in the negative: the
prohibition is unqualified and therefore absolute – see paragraph 14 above.
Yet there have been cases in which the extraction of information under torture or extreme ill-treatment has led to the saving of
hundreds, even thousands of lives. On this matter the temperate and carefully balanced separate opinion of Mr. J.E.S. Fawcett,
President of the European Commission, recorded on pp. 495-7 of the Commission's report in the present case, repays careful study.
( 20) "The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground
such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority,
property, birth or other status."

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