Death On The Rock

No. 15 of #50cases.

Sometime before 4 March 1988, UK authorities became aware of a plan by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) to carry out a terrorist attack on Gibraltar. They expected the attack to take the form of a bomb hidden in a car. Soldiers were sent to Gibraltar to help the police arrest the suspected IRA members. They were told that the suspects were dangerous and likely to be armed. The soldiers were instructed not to use more force than was necessary to protect life.

When the suspects crossed the border from Spain to Gibraltar, they could have been arrested. But they weren’t. They were allowed to enter Gibraltar and go to the area where it was suspected that the bombing would take place. There, the three suspects – Daniel McCann, Mairead Farrell and Sean Savage – were shot and killed by the soldiers. It was later discovered that they were unarmed and carried no device which could set off a bomb, although eventually a car containing explosives was found in Spain.

The European Court of Human Rights cast no judgment on the soldiers who carried out the shootings and said that the use of force can be justified if there is an honest, but mistaken, belief of danger. But the Court also said that allowing the suspects to enter Gibraltar was a serious miscalculation by those in control, which made a fatal shooting likely. Coupled with their automatic resort to deadly force, the authorities had failed to adequately take into consideration the right to life of the three suspects. It was a use of force which was more than was absolutely necessary to defend others.

This case was controversial. The judges were split 10 against 9. When we’re talking about the state taking life, the only justification can be necessity. There has to be no other way. If there is another way, taking life is disproportionate.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

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