The United Kingdom made substantial progress in reducing the incidence of torture over the 30 years of this study. In the 1970s and 1980s, the security forces in Northern Ireland were often responsible for serious ill-treatment and torture, culminating in a celebrated finding against the UK in the European Court of Human Rights. In England, police ill-treatment had led to serious miscarriages of justice based upon false confessions, some, but not all, of which were related to the Irish conflict.
In the early to mid-1980s, a number of preventive measures were introduced: the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which greatly improved the protections for criminal suspects after arrest, a new independent prosecution authority, and an independent prisons inspectorate. The procedural improvements in the PACE showed immediate benefits in England and Wales.
Application of the PACE in Northern Ireland also contributed to a reduction in ill-treatment, but it was the conclusion of a lasting peace to the civil conflict under the 1998 Belfast Agreement that saw a decisive end to torture and ill-treatment. Police reform was integral to the political settlement, with the old Royal Ulster Constabulary replaced by a new police service acceptable to the entire community. A new oversight body, the Police Ombudsman, also proved an effective means of investigating allegations of ill-treatment.
When torture persisted, it was in situations that fell outside the purview of any of these preventive mechanisms, as for example during the British occupation of southern Iraq in the mid-2000s.
United Kingdom. Photo: Joshua Hayes