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A Positive Take on the Legacy of the 1978 Judgment in Ireland v. United Kingdom

Published on February 7, 2019        Author: 

In September 2018, a request by the Irish Government to refer the Ireland v. United Kingdom revision case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was refused, closing a door that had been reopened after forty years. The fact that the ECtHR arrived at a finding of inhuman and degrading treatment ‘only’ has been maligned. In this post, I’d like to highlight an alternative perspective and suggest that this judgment elevated the gravity of the ‘other’ forms of treatment and set in motion a pioneering approach to the interpretation of Article 3 ECHR.

Subsequent to the Chamber judgment in March 2018, there was much debate (including in this blog) about whether the ECtHR should have revised its 1978 finding of inhuman and degrading treatment in light of the additional evidence. Some have supported the ECtHR’s exercise of restraint in the use of its exceptional revision powers under Rule 80 of the Rules of Court, pointing out the need for legal certainty. Others have critiqued the Court’s approach to the new evidence or have lamented the Court’s failure to follow the European Commission on Human Rights’ finding of torture, opening the door to manipulation of the torture-versus-ill-treatment distinction. All have opined that the facts of the case would give rise to a finding of torture today.

A further commonality across the commentary is that all refer to the finding of inhuman and degrading treatment ‘only’. The 2018 judgment itself describes the applicant Government’s request for the Court to find that the ‘five techniques’ ‘amounted to a practice not merely of inhuman and degrading treatment but of torture within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention’ (para. 8). In the context of these debates, and the revision request itself, the distinction between torture and inhuman and degrading treatment ‘only’ has been amplified. That is, there is a pervasive and implicit sense that inhuman and degrading treatment is in some way not as bad as torture. In 2018, as was observed in 1978, the Court’s failure to arrive at a finding of torture overshadowed the finding of inhuman and degrading treatment. Read the rest of this entry…

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