Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - United Kingdom

Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

The United Kingdom continued to receive little attention from the international human rights community in 1993. However, emergency legislation continued to suspend basic guarantees of due process in Northern Ireland; freedom of expression was still restricted throughout the U.K.; and conditions in many British prisons violated international standards.

As of November 1993, more than 3,000 people had been killed in political violence in Northern Ireland since 1969. A state of emergency significantly restricting human rights had been in effect in the province since 1922, more than seventy years. Emergency laws continued to give security forces – the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, the Northern Ireland police force) and the British army – broad powers to stop people on the street, to question and search them, to search their homes, to detain them for as long as seven days without charges, and to exclude people from Northern Ireland or Great Britain.

The right to a fair trial was restricted in Northern Ireland. Jury trials were denied for offenses connected with political violence, the right to silence had been sharply curtailed, and evidentiary rules permitted the admission of confessions that might have been obtained by abusive treatment in detention. Moreover, lawyers representing political suspects continued to be harassed and intimidated in 1993.

In a positive development, three detectives and a retired senior officer were charged in 1993with perjury and intending to pervert justice in the case of the UDR Four. The UDR Four were members of the Ulster Defense Regiment, a unit of the British army stationed in Northern Ireland; three were released in 1992, after six years in prison, when an appeals court held that police officers had lied at their trial in 1986.

In some troubled areas, the RUC abandoned normal policing. As a result, paramilitaries on both sides created alternative informal criminal justice systems in which suspects of ordinary crimes – both children and adults – could be informally tried and punished without due process. Punishments ranged in 1993 from warnings to brutal beatings, shootings and banishments.

Ill-treatment of detainees during interrogation continued. During 1993, adults and children under eighteen were psychologically abused, tricked and threatened. Following pressure from local and international human rights groups and criticism from the U.N. Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination, physical abuse in detention was markedly reduced.

In December 1992, an independent commissioner was appointed for the holding (detention) centers in Northern Ireland. Whether his appointment would significantly decrease abuses remained to be seen even late in 1993. The government had still not agreed to proposals by Helsinki Watch and other groups that interrogations be video- and audio-taped. Detainees could still be interrogated for up to forty-eight hours without the right to consult a solicitor. Moreover, political suspects could be detained for up to seven days. The U.K. had derogated from the provision of the European Convention on Human Rights that requires that a detainee be brought promptly before a judge. In May 1993, the UK's derogation was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

In a significant development, for the first time since 1969, no cases were reported in 1993 in which security forces killed people in disputed circumstances. Paramilitary groups, however, both Protestant and Catholic, continued to kill alleged opponents. Seventy-two people were killed through October 30 in connection with the troubles, thirty by the IRA (including twelve current or former members of the police or the army) and forty-two by the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) or the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). In addition, two men were killed by paramilitaries as informers – one by loyalists, one by republicans. Killings by paramilitaries violated not only domestic criminal laws but also, in the case of civilians, the principles underlying international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. In addition to the killings, many were injured, police stations were attacked with rockets and mortars, and bombs were set off, causing both injuries and property damage estimated at millions of pounds.

In a positive development, one paratrooper was convicted of murder in the 1990 shooting of teenage joy-rider Karen Reilly and received a life sentence. A second paratrooper was sentenced to seven years in the same case.

Murder charges were also brought in three additional cases. Two Royal Marines were charged with murder for the December 1990 killing of twenty-year-old Fergal Caraher; a trial was set for November 1993. An RUC officer was charged with murder in the killing of nineteen-year-old student Kevin McGovern in Cookstown in September 1991. Finally, two soldiers were charged with murder in the shooting death of Peter McBride in September 1992.

Questions continued to be raised about the investigation of killings by security forces, and decisions as to whether to prosecute were still shrouded in secrecy. The Independent Commission for Police Complaints remained ineffective; in five years, not one of the hundreds of complaints filed with the ICPC had been substantiated by that organization.

Security forces continued to use plastic bullets for crowd control. A west Belfast man was wounded by a plastic bullet in June, and four others were hit by plastic bullets in July.

Street harassment of children and adults by security forces continued. Children under eighteen and adults were stopped on the street, hit, kicked, insulted, abused and threatened by security forces. In house searches, police continued to harass people and damage their homes; the Northern Ireland Office (the office delegated by the British government to run NorthernIreland) reported that 2.8 million pounds was paid out in 1992 and 1993 in compensation for damage caused by searches or patrols.

In the United Kingdom as a whole, serious curbs on free expression continued, made possible in part by the lack of written protection for individual liberties; the U.K. has no Bill of Rights. A wide range of government activities were screened from public view, primarily by operation of the Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes disclosure of broad categories of foreign policy, defense and military information. Suppression of information under this act was aggravated by the government's failure to adopt freedom of information legislation. During 1993, the British still did not enjoy an affirmative right of peaceful assembly, and the Public Order Act of 1986 afforded police extensive power to restrict or ban public demonstrations, marches and assemblies; in prior years, it had been used to prosecute anti-apartheid demonstrators and organizers of peaceful protests.

Regulatory bodies routinely interfered with the content of radio and television broadcasts, and the government ban on broadcast interviews with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein and proscribed loyalist groups continued in Northern Ireland. The pro-plaintiff nature of British libel law – it requires the defendant to prove the truth of the allegedly defamatory statements – has a great chilling effect on journalists and writers, who, as in previous years, engaged in self-censorship out of the fear of a libel prosecution.

The United Kingdom had one of the highest prisoner-to-population ratios in Europe. Although the government made notable progress in improving prison conditions during 1992 and 1993, prisons remained overcrowded. The installation of in-cell plumbing continued during the year, with observers estimating that most prisoners would have access to in-cell sanitation by the end of 1994. The government also made significant progress in improving "problem" prisons, such as Wandsworth and Brixton.

The Right to Monitor

There was no evidence to indicate that human rights monitors were harassed by government officials in the U.K. Local and international groups monitored human rights openly and regularly.

U.S. Policy

There were no indications that the Clinton administration had tried publicly to persuade the U.K. to improve human rights conditions. U.S. policy toward Britain appeared unchanged from that of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The Clinton administration did not publicly criticize the U.K. for abuse of detainees during interrogations, for the suspension of due process in trials and other inadequacies in the criminal justice system, for in-house investigations of complaints against security personnel (all in Northern Ireland), or for restrictions on free expression and inhumane prison conditions throughout the U.K.

In April 1992, candidate Bill Clinton criticized human rights violations in Northern Ireland (citing the work of Helsinki Watch) and proposed that the U.S. send a "peace envoy" (mission unspecified) to Northern Ireland, but President Bill Clinton not act on this proposal.

The administration's stated policy on Northern Ireland was support of peace and reconciliation between Ireland and Britain; opposition to terrorism from all quarters; careful review of accusations of human rights violations and urging all parties to respect human rights; and support for the International Fund for Ireland, which aimed to promote reconciliation in Ireland and Northern Ireland through economic and social development.

In 1993 the State Department again denied a visa to Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, a legal political party affiliated with the Irish Republican Army.

The U.S. contributed $20 million in fiscal year 1993 to the International Fund for Ireland.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Helsinki Watch continued to monitor human rights developments in the U.K. during 1993. In February, Helsinki Watch and the HRW Prison Project sent a mission to the U.K. to follow-up the prison report issued in June 1992. In March, Helsinki Watch and the Fund for Free Expression issued an update on free expression in the U.K. In May, Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter reporting on human rights developments in Northern Ireland during 1992. Helsinki Watch's work in the U.K. involved the monitoring of human rights abuses, the publicizing of such abuses in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe, and at international fora, and work with other human rights groups toward effecting change.

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