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General Principle:

The principle from Ireland v UK that, although Article 3 covers the concepts of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, torture should be regarded as qualitatively different from the latter is uncontroversial. It arose from a desire to preserve the relative stigma of ‘torture’. However, the exact dividing line between the Article 3 concepts that was adopted in the case has come in for heavy criticism.


Ireland v UK (1979-80) 2 EHRR 25


During the late 1970s in Northern Ireland, people suspected of being terrorists were held by British security services. The case included such suspects. Throughout their time in detention, they were put through a systematic treatment programme that was aimed to coerce them into disclosing information that they were thought to have and to make them more obedient in their future interactions with the security forces (ie, become informers). The scheme, which was known as "The Five Techniques," had been meticulously thought out and was given official approval. They included tactics such as wall standing, which consisted of being forced to stand inches from a wall for anything up to twenty hours with limbs extended; not getting enough sleep; being subjected to severe noise; being hooded; and being hungry. The case was first investigated by the non-decisional and non-judicial Committee on Human Rights of the Council of Europe, which reached the conclusion that the combined methods in question constituted torture. This body has since ceased to exist. The government of the United Kingdom acknowledged these results and swiftly condemned the actions. After that, the European Court of Human Rights came to the bizarre conclusion that this was "merely" an instance of cruel or degrading treatment.


The Five Methods were appalling in every way imaginable, but just how awful they were continues to be a contentious issue. The European Court of Human Rights did not believe that they might constitute torture, which suggests that there may be a predisposition against categorising psychological treatments as such. Some members of the minority attempted to solve this issue by claiming that any behaviour that has the intention of weakening the will of a person should be considered torture, regardless of whether it entails genuine pain or just uncomfortable conditions. Regrettably, "the will" is not in reality a notion that can be defined in terms of medicine.

This fundamental difference between "torture" and "inhuman or humiliating treatment or punishment" is reaffirmed by the approach that was adopted in Ireland v. UK (1979-80) 2 EHRR 25, which may be seen here. It was decided by the ECtHR that:

"[I]t was the intention that the Convention with its distinction between torture and inhuman treatment should by the first of these terms attach a special stigma to deliberate inhuman treatment causing very serious and cruel suffering."


Yet this only begs the issue, what constitutes inhumane or humiliating treatment or punishment in the first place? To provide a satisfactory response to this enquiry has proved to be an almost difficult task. It is necessary to consider the surroundings before making a decision.

Ireland v UK

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Ireland v UK

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