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The Human Cost of Using Informers in Conflict and the Ambivalence of International Law

Published on October 17, 2019        Author: 

In early October, the Guardian reported that former members of the IRA and British Army commanders may face criminal charges arising from serious offences connected with the use of informers for the purpose of gathering intelligence during the conflict in Northern Ireland. As part of the police inquiry ‘Operation Kenova’, files have been sent to the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast providing evidence of crimes of “murder, kidnap, torture, malfeasance in a public office and perverting the course of justice” associated with the activities of alleged former head of internal security for the IRA and British army agent Freddie Scappaticci.

Scappaticci is said to be linked directly to some 18 murders of IRA members accused of being informers. The families of a number of those killed have made formal complaints to the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland claiming that his military intelligence handlers failed to prevent those killings. Even more than the trial of “Soldier F” for two murders arising from Bloody Sunday in 1972, such proceedings could shine an uncomfortable light on how the dirty war was waged by state authorities in Northern Ireland. It also prompts the question of how law addresses the practice of using informers during conflict. 

The use of informers within non-state armed groups by British military, police and security forces was a common practice during the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that the IRA executed around 85 individuals accused of being informers during the course of the Troubles. Such practices are not unprecedented, as the recruitment and deployment of informers has been a perennial feature of armed conflicts, not to mention the frequently brutal treatment that has usually been meted out to such collaborators. As has been the case with the Scappaticci affair, authorities have at times gone to great lengths to secure and retain the services of high-level informers, including by tolerating or acquiescing in their involvement in criminal activities.

In terms of the law applicable to the use of informers, very often there has been limited or no national legislation governing the use of so-called covert human intelligence sources. The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland George Hamilton has acknowledged that in the context of the Troubles, “[t]here were no rules. There was no regulatory framework for handling of informants at that time”. Given the regularity of the practice during situations of armed conflict, it is appropriate to consider how applicable international law might be addressed to the deployment of informers, as well as its consequences.

On its face, international law applicable to armed conflict, including both international humanitarian law and international human rights law, has little to say about the use of informers. Read the rest of this entry…