Senate Torture Report: The 21st Century Northern Ireland?


Published 18th January 2015 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

On the 18th January 1978 - exactly 37 years ago today - the European Court of Human Rights found the UK Government guilty of the "torture" of fourteen detainees in 1971 [1]. The Irish Government had taken the UK to court over concerns of colonial interrogation techniques being used by the British Army in Northern Ireland including: wall standing, deprivation of food and sleep, hooding, and exposure to continuous monotonous noise. Senate Torture ReportThe UK soon abandoned these practises however, recognising not simply the immorality of torture as a total subversion of human rights but also its negative impact on the political situation by reinforcing narratives of victimisation.

Sadly this was not the only use of 'enhanced' interrogation techniques in Northern Ireland, as later the courts legally sanctioned certain levels of violence to induce a detainee to confess to a crime he/she may never have committed [2]. Fears over the growing death tolls led the state re-adopt an adapted version of their previous techniques more akin to what has become known as enhanced interrogation. By detaining individuals based upon suspicions of terrorist involvement alone, police would interrogate suspects for up to seven days. Interrogations could involve physical and verbal abuse, designed to induce detainees to give up intelligence. The resulting 2,331 complaints in 1978 alone, made by detainees of abuse from the police during interrogation, highlights some of the repercussions. Whilst many of these complaints may have been false, some were proved true bringing the whole system into further disrupt [3]. These methods again faced serious criticism bringing an already heavily burdened police force into further dispute. Enhanced interrogation undermined the state's legitimacy, led to international criticism, and failed to stop the continuing violence. Yet whilst torture manifestly failed in Northern Ireland, as did its cousin 'enhanced interrogation', we still see its practise continuing across the world; most recently coming to light in the USA.

Enhanced interrogation was adopted by the US government in 2002 through the CIA's detention and interrogation program. It subjected at least 119 detainees to rectal feeding and rehydration, confinement in a box, the use of cold water [4], waterboarding [5], beatings, threats, stress position, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and restricted diets [6] . The recent Senate report investigating the use of enhanced interrogation outlines in detail the application of these techniques to a number a detainees concluding that interrogations were "brutal", the practise was misrepresented to politicians, poorly managed, and ineffective. [7]

Enhanced Interrogation But there are not new revelation, the use of torture as a means of intelligence gathering has already been considerably disqualified; with information induced through torture, victims are likely to tell the interrogator what they 'want to hear', whilst interrogators are estimated to only have a 45-60% range in deducing truth from lies [8]. Furthermore, the practise will de-legitimise the state internationally, increase grievances and ultimately become a fertile source of terrorist recruitment propaganda leading one academic to comment that torture and terrorism "feed off one another" [9]. In fact the CIA actually informed the Senate Committee in 1989 that: "...inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers." [10]

Again and again torture is applied despite its evident failings; states adopt remodelled versions of old techniques due to the overriding fears of national security. When decisions of national security focus on the immediate concerns of potential attacks, long-term issues of state legitimacy are compromised as the rule of law and human rights are considered secondary to terrorist threats. However, the practise of torture and enhanced interrogation must be dropped if the West is to have any legitimacy in campaigning for improved human rights. The rest of the world sees the hypocrisy of Western rhetoric, and so it will remain, until the national interest takes account of international human rights, the rule of law and lasting positive peace.


[1] Ireland v United Kingdom [1971] ECHR

[2] R. v McCormick [1977] N.I. 105

[3] Bennett, H.G (1979) "Report of The Committee of Inquiry into Police Interrogation Procedures In Northern Ireland", Cmnd. 7497. Appendix 2.

[4] Dousing/submerging detainees in cold water or ice water baths

[5] Quoted in the committee report as (p494): "...a 'series of near drownings'....Each iteration of the watering cycle consisted of four broad steps: 1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the waterboard to clear subject's airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information."

[6] Oliver Laughland, "How the CIA tortured its detainees", The Guardian, 9th December 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/09/cia-torture-methods-waterboarding-sleep-deprivation

[7] "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program: Executive Summary", Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, December 13 th 2012.

[8] Alfred W. McCoy, A Question Of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From The Cold War To The War On Terror (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2006), 194.

[9] David Rodin, "Torture and Terrorism" in The Routledge Companion to Ethics, ed. John Skorupski (New York: Routledge, 2010), 820.

[10] Senate report (2012), pg18.