Interrogation, intelligence and ill-treatment: lessons from Northern Ireland, 1971-72

In 2008, Samantha Newbery, then a PhD student, discovered a hitherto confidential document: ‘Confidential: UK Eyes Only. Annex A: Intelligence gained from interrogations in Northern Ireland’ (DEFE 13/958, The National Archives (TNA)). It details the British Army’s notorious interrogations of IRA suspects that led to the eventual banning of the ‘five techniques’ that violated the UK’s international treaty obligation prohibiting the use of torture and ‘inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Having decided that the document – Intelligence gained from should be put in the public domain, she invited me, along with the eminent lawyer, Philippe Sands and Brian Stuart, a former Secretary to the British Joint Intelligence Committee, to contribute commentaries. I concluded that even if the document was accurate in both what it stated and in what it left out, that use of the ‘five techniques’ (tantamount to torture) was unjustified, since the normalisation and institutionalisation of torture is far worse than failing to obtain the information thus gained. Whether or not this joint paper will make a difference to UK policy concerning the use of torture remains an open question; whether or not it should is not. This piece is an example of how my book on torture, deliberately written for a public readership, has made it possible for me to make interventions in practical policy, or at least to attempt to, whether in occasional writing for eg The Chartist and the web-based Open Democracy, or directly for activist groups, eg my ‘Ethical Opinion’ for Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, Report: Holding Health to Ransom: GSS Interrogation and Extortion of Palestinian Patients at Erez Crossing (2008)
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