Skip to main content

Northern Ireland--Royal Ulster Constabulary Policing Methods Raises Concern

Police conduct throughout the long conflict in Northern Ireland has given rise to serious allegations of human rights abuses. In To Serve Without Favor: Policing, Human Rights and Accountability, released today at a Belfast press conference, Human Rights Watch highlights four areas of policing that raise urgent human rights concern: the draconian police powers enjoyed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) under Northern Ireland's emergency regime, the policing of the summer 1996 marching season, the dramatic rise in paramilitary punishment assaults and expulsions, and the persistent allegations of collusion between members of the security forces and loyalist paramilitary groups.

Human Rights Watch charges that the emergency legislation itself gives rise to substantial violations of human rights and urges its repeal. The government of the United Kingdom must recognize that emergency laws such as those in force in Northern Ireland often serve to sustain political violence by creating an environment in which individual human rights are routinely violated.

To Serve Without Favor provides a detailed analysis of the human rights abuses committed during the marching season of 1996 in the hope that the poor policing that contributed to the violence will not be replicated in the approaching 1997 season. During the events of July 1996, policing failures and the lack of accountability for RUC misconduct contributed to a serious breakdown in the rule of law. Despite RUC claims of being caught in the middle of disputes between nationalists and unionists over the "right to march," a series of police actions -- sanctioned by the government -- exacerbated the conflict. These actions resulted in the effective submission of state authorities to the threat of unionist violence and included excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, the indiscriminate use of plastic bullets against both unionist and nationalist protesters, and a general failure to halt illegal activities such as the blockade of the airport and the establishment of illegal roadblocks.

The police have long concentrated their efforts on the suppression of political violence, and the anti-terrorist campaign has been waged to the exclusion of traditional police functions in some areas. Paramilitary organizations on both sides have assumed a quasi-policing role and Human Rights Watch has confirmed that in many communities in Northern Ireland normal policing functions have been abandoned. As a result, the brutality of paramilitary punishment beatings and assaults are a plague for both the nationalist and unionist communities on a daily basis. Paramilitary volunteers mete out "punishments" on members of their own communities for perceived or actual offenses, such as drug trafficking, burglary, assault, wife abuse, glue sniffing, public intoxication, joyriding and other "anti-social" activities. Paramilitary punishments take a variety of forms, including murders, crippling shootings, brutal beatings and "expulsion orders" that force an alleged perpetrator to leave a particular city or all of Northern Ireland for a designated period. In the absence of normal policing, paramilitary organizations act as investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, and they carry out their own sentences.

Finally, Human Rights Watch addresses the persistent allegations of collusion between members of the security forces in Northern Ireland and loyalist paramilitary groups. Security forces allegedly engage in such collusion by conspiring directly with loyalist paramilitaries to carry out acts of violence or by facilitating the commission of violent loyalist paramilitary activities. Those who allege collusion charge that members of the security forces assist loyalist paramilitaries to target suspected republican "terrorists" for harassment and assassination. In addition to allegations of direct involvement in the planning and execution of assassinations, security forces have been accused of failing to provide adequate protection to those threatened by the paramilitaries, and failing to rigorously investigate loyalist paramilitary killings by overlooking critical and easily accessible forensic evidence.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned with allegations of collusion against the police force in Northern Ireland. Collusion, by definition, is difficult to prove, and Human Rights Watch reaches no conclusions regarding the evidence of collusion by the RUC in any of the cases mentioned in this report. We do, however, call for a variety of immediate official responses to determine whether collusion has occurred.

The recent change of government in the United Kingdom may open a new chapter in Northern Ireland's troubled history. The new government has promised a number of new initiatives to build confidence throughout Northern Ireland, including the expansion of individual rights and the reform of policing. In response to that pledge, Human Rights Watch offers a detailed set of recommendations to the government of the United Kingdom:

The Emergency Regime

The emergency regime in Northern Ireland should be dismantled, beginning immediately, with the repeal of provisions of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions Act) 1996 (EPA) and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (PTA) that unduly infringe civil liberties and are used by the police to harass and intimidate people. A "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity should be required for the police to exercise the powers to stop, question and search people. The U.K. government should take immediate steps to end random street stops and searches and to ensure that all searches are conducted without degrading or harassing measures.
The EPA's search and entry powers should be repealed. A judicial warrant should be required for house searches and for examining or seizing documents.

The U.K. government should withdraw its derogation to article 5(3) of the European Convention on Human Rights which allows the police to detain persons arrested under the emergency legislation for up to seven days without charge.

Detainees should be brought before a court within at least forty-eight hours of arrest.

Castlereagh Holding Centre should be closed immediately in compliance with the recommendations of the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the U.N. Committee Against Torture. These U.N. bodies and the U.K.-appointed Independent Commissioner for the Holding Centres have found the conditions of detention in Castlereagh "unacceptable" due to tiny cells with no natural light, the absence of exercise areas, lengthy and frequent interrogations, and persistent allegations of intimidation and harassment during interrogations.
The U.K. should immediately take the following steps to comply with the 1996 decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Murray v. United Kingdom which held that the abrogation of the right to silence in combination with restrictions on access to counsel amount to a violation of the fair trial provisions of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR):

1) The Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, which permits a court to draw adverse inferences from a suspect's refusal to answer questions asked by police during interrogations and at trial, should be rescinded as an unjustified infringement of the privilege against self-incrimination.

2) Detainees should have prompt and regular access to counsel of their choice and detainees should be allowed to have their lawyers present during interrogations.

The Independent Commissioner for the Holding Centres' (ICHC) proposal for the establishment of a legal advice unit at holding centers, which would modify the present legal aid system in Northern Ireland by granting legal aid only to those detainees arrested under the emergency legislation who choose a government-appointed solicitor from a unit of lawyers associated with the holding centers, should be rejected. Detainees should have prompt access to a lawyer of their choice.

Detainees should be able to notify family members or friends immediately following arrest.

The RUC should take immediate effective measures to prevent the physical and psychological ill-treatment of detainees. Officers who carry out such abuses should be disciplined and criminally prosecuted. All interrogations should be audio and video taped. Detainees' attorneys should have access to all audio and video tapes of interrogations.

The permissive EPA standard for admitting at trial confession evidence procured by psychological pressure, deprivation, or other non-violent forms of coercion should be abolished. The standard for admitting confession evidence should conform to the ordinary criminal law, the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (PACE), which excludes confession evidence that was obtained by oppression or "in consequence of anything said or done which was likely, in the circumstances existing at the time, to render unreliable any confession which might be made. . . in consequence thereof."

The juryless Diplock courts, established to try political violence cases, have caused a loss of confidence in the justice system and should be abolished. The common law right to trial by jury should be restored in Northern Ireland involving, if necessary, measures to protect jurors.

Police Accountability

The current tripartite structure responsible for policing in Northern Ireland involving the inter-relationship of the U.K. government, the RUC, and the civilian oversight Police Authority for Northern Ireland should be reformed to provide for greater public accountability for the RUC. The Police Authority, in practice excluded from participation in the determination of policies related to security policing and the operational aspects of policing in Northern Ireland, should be consulted on security and operational matters and its recommendations taken into consideration.

The U.K. government should establish an independent unit to investigate complaints against police officers as recommended by Dr. Maurice Hayes, independent reviewer of the police-complaints system appointed by the U.K. government.

All RUC officers should be required to take instruction in basic human rights guarantees which the force is obliged to respect in compliance with the U.K.'s international obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and international codes of conduct for law enforcement officials and the use of firearms.

Composition of the RUC

Progressive measures should commence immediately to rectify the religious imbalance in the RUC. RUC management should develop a strategy for attracting and securing positions on the force for qualified Catholic applicants. The Police Authority for Northern Ireland should be consulted in this process and its recommendations taken into consideration.

Policing Parades and Marches

An independent body should make determinations concerning conditions on marches and parades.

Decisions taken by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland to ban marches should be judicially reviewable.

The police should take measures to ensure that the right to peaceful assembly is protected to the greatest possible extent. Assemblies that pose a threat of violence should be restricted only to the extent necessary in a democratic society in the interest of public safety.

The police should take measures to ensure that the rights to freedom of movement and privacy in the communities through which marches pass are protected. If restrictions on movement are required, they should be proportionate to the interest advanced by state authorities.

The use of plastic bullets should be banned because they have killed fourteen people in Northern Ireland, including seven children, and severely injured hundreds of others. Alternative methods of crowd control should be developed and employed.

Lethal force should be used in Northern Ireland only when necessary to meet an imminent threat to life and only in proportion to the actual danger presented in conformity with international standards.

Police should be adequately trained to defuse tense situations non-violently.
Policing of marches and parades should be conducted impartially and professionally. Officers should not use sectarian language in the course of any police operation. Disciplinary measures should be taken against those who violate these principles.

The death of Dermot McShane, who was killed after a British army armored personnel carrier ran over him under suspicious circumstances during the summer of 1996 disturbances, should be investigated in conformity with the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. Punishment Shootings, Assaults, and Expulsions

The IRA and loyalist paramilitary organizations should immediately halt punishment shootings, beatings, and expulsions.

The RUC should perform normal policing functions in all areas of Northern Ireland. The U.K. government should provide adequate training, resources and protection for police officers carrying out such duties.

Political parties in Northern Ireland should not support the creation of alternative "justice" systems in communities. Allegations of Collusion
The police force should be vetted thoroughly to identify and exclude recruits, officers, and reservists with illicit connections to paramilitary groups.

Procedures for the handling of security information should be reassessed with a view to eliminating security breaches such as the leaking of photo montages.

Measures should be taken by the U.K. government to afford persons under threat from paramilitary organizations the greatest possible protection, including the approval of home security grants.

In areas where paramilitary killings have occurred or killings have been threatened, security measures should be implemented on routes into and out of those communities to ensure that they receive adequate protection from incursions by paramilitaries.

The RUC should rigorously investigate paramilitary killings, including by using good forensic practices.

Allegations that detectives conducting interrogations threaten to pass a detainee's security information to paramilitary organizations should be investigated rigorously. Officers found guilty of such an abuse should be punished.

Special efforts should be made to protect lawyers who represent suspects charged under the emergency legislation from interference, harassment, intimidation, or death threats from RUC detectives. Allegations of intimidation of defense lawyers should be investigated, and offending officers should be punished.

An independent, public inquiry into the killing of Catholic criminal defense lawyer Patrick Finucane, with powers to administer oaths and to subpoena witnesses, should be convened.

The U.K. government should permit the discovery of information relevant to the murder of Patrick Finucane for use in Geraldine Finucane's civil action and application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The RUC should investigate the murder of Patrick Shanaghan, who suffered years of official harassment and threats before being killed by loyalist paramilitaries, in compliance with the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions.

The complaints of Patrick Shanaghan's mother, Mary Shanaghan, to the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC) should be investigated rigorously and appropriate action should be taken against any officers found to have acted in violation of RUC policy or of British law.
The Coroners' Law and Rules for Northern Ireland should, at a minimum, be brought in line with the law and rules for England and Wales: Coroner's juries should have the power to reach a full verdict, such as "unlawful killing by unnamed person(s)." Persons suspected of causing the death at issue should be compelled to testify in person, but should not be required to answer questions that might incriminate them. Families of victims and their attorneys should have access to all the evidence to be introduced at an inquest and adequate time to prepare for their interventions.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country